For much of this year, and primarily due to the ineptitude of federal Labor, serious action on climate change by Australia has been a lower-order policy priority. While the major parties professed profound ideological differences over the issue, the result was the same — lip service to the notion of the need for action, coupled with policies that could be most generously described as fig leaves.

One of the best outcomes from the hung Parliament was the re-emergence of a serious debate on climate action, driven by the Greens and, secondarily, by some Australian business figures. Now, Julia Gillard has committed to the legislation of a carbon price by this time next year. It is a commitment that Labor will not be able to renege on, not after the debacle of the CPRS.

But a carbon price only gets us so far. That is the mechanism. The goal for which the mechanism is designed must be determined, and it is here that, as John Connor of the Climate Institute suggests today in Crikey, the most profound blindness afflicts Australian politicians and business figures, the conviction that the rest of the world is doing nothing on climate change and that Australia should not “lead” on the issue.

The grim reality is that Australia could not lead if it wanted to. Our first goal should be to start the process of decarbonising our economy in order to reduce the emissions intensity of our economy to that similar to other developed economies — that is, our ambition should be in the first instance to catch up with the rest of the world, not lead it. The longer decarbonisation is delayed, the more expensive it will become to do so, and the more dislocation occasioned by it. Nor is there any basis for seriously maintaining that the rest of the world and the major developing economies are doing nothing to reduce the emissions intensity of their economies. As the Climate Institute’s FOI documents show, there is a strong basis for Australia moving to a significantly higher target than its current 5% reduction by 2020, based on the commitments of other countries. Both the need to reduce our world-leading levels of emissions intensity, and our international obligations, now compel us to adopt a carbon price based on higher emissions reduction targets.

Australia has for over a decade willfully ignored the reality both of climate change and of the economics of weaning ourselves off carbon, using a variety of excuses to justify our inaction. Opponents of climate action and advocates of delay have run out of excuses.