Australia has today announced it will sign up to a lame duck international treaty to tackle climate change. But a lame duck is, after all, better than no duck at all.

The world’s great hope on restraining global warming is the UN’s Kyoto Protocol (KP), which expires in less than two months. It was supposed to be replaced by a tougher, broader treaty, but due to underwhelming interest from most countries, a decision has been made to limp along with a Son of Kyoto.

Officially called a “second commitment period to the KP”, it’s expected to run from 2013 for four to seven years. The idea is that rich, high-emitting countries take on legally-binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet announced Australia would ink the deal in a speech in Melbourne this morning, ahead of the UN’s annual climate AGM,which begins in Doha, Qatar later this month.

“Although the Kyoto Protocol binds only a limited number of developed countries, it is still important in the international arena,” Combet said, warning that Australia signing up was “not a blank cheque”.

The Gillard government is hitching its wagon to a feeble global deal, but there’s a good reason for doing that, as explained below. Domestically, the decision won’t have a huge impact. It won’t change our targets to cut emissions by 2020, although it effectively forces us to meet those targets — and binds the Coalition more firmly to action on climate change should it win the election. Signing on to the KP makes Australia’s carbon price easier and cheaper to run (because it’s easier to trade international carbon permits when we’re in the KP tent).

“It’s a deal to force big emitters to cut emissions, but unfortunately the big emitters have left.”

So why is this a lame duck? Combet didn’t dwell on it this morning, but the protocol is looking hollow. It’s a deal to force big emitters to cut emissions, but unfortunately the big emitters have left.

Son of Kyoto is made up of Europe (whose emissions are sagging due to the best proven technique to reduce emissions: recession), plus Australia, and the power states of New Zealand and Kazakhstan (check out the list of who’s signed up in this UN document).

Here are the top ten emitters in order (sign-ups to KP mark two are in bold):

  1. China
  2. US
  3. India
  4. Russia
  5. Japan
  6. Germany
  7. South Korea
  8. Canada
  9. Indonesia
  10. UK

So why would Australia, 14th on that list, agree to sign up when the big emitters won’t? This is about being a good green citizen and trying to build momentum towards a deal that could actually work. At last year’s UN climate AGM in Durban, countries agreed that if the KP was extended for rich countries, then all countries would work towards a universal, legally-binding climate deal to start by … wait for it … 2020.

Late as it is, this is really the only chance of addressing climate change. Countries are agreeing to the KP as a goodwill gesture while hoping for a separate, better treaty. Combet recognised that: “Finalising a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in Doha helps pave the way for the new agreement to be finalised in 2015,” he said.

Andrew Macintosh, associate director of the ANU Centre for Climate Law and Policy, was agnostic about Combet’s announcement, warning that the UN’s climate process was “well and truly not on track” to address climate change.

Macintosh noted that Australia signing on to the KP would make it easier to link our carbon price with the EU’s. In August, the government announced it would link up the two schemes so firms could use European carbon permits (which are quite cheap, about eight euros), while restricting the use of bargain-basement UN carbon permits (currently fetching a dollar or two apiece). Sticking with the KP makes it easier to use both in the carbon price, which could make the scheme more stable, easier and a little cheaper.

Macintosh is concerned that Australia may squib on meeting its 2020 emissions target by carrying over surplus emissions savings from the past few years. Watch out for this issue at Doha. He also noted the KPs rules on forest emissions could be a problem for us — especially given those rules were written for Russia, which has walked away from the deal.

Erwin Jackson from The Climate Institute welcomed Combet’s decision, telling Crikey that “it will build positive momentum going into Doha”. Jackson, who will attend the Doha summit, played down expectations of fast progress, saying it was more about establishing a process towards reaching the deal. There is unlikely to be an “aha” moment at Doha.

Jackson noted the dynamics of climate politics have shifted. Back at the 2009 Copenhagen summit, participants expected a catch-all treaty to solve the problem. Now the opposite is happening; countries are taking their own action on emissions, while there is slow progress towards a treaty which will come after the real action.

The US will be interesting on this. There’s little chance of a carbon price, but Obama can take administrative action through standards etc. He said in his victory speech: “We want our children to live in an America that … isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

A sleeper issue not really addressed by Combet today is the oft-repeated claim that our target is to reduce emissions by 5% by 2020. Is that correct? According to the bipartisan rules, Australia will cut emissions by between 5 and 25%, depending on what other countries do (Combet stuck with these rules today). Analysis of other countries’ actions by The Climate Institute indicates the target should be a 10-12% reduction. It would be interesting to hear ex-climate adviser Ross Garnaut’s views on this.

With all the domestic hullabaloo over carbon pricing and emissions targets, it’s easy to forget that we are a pretty good international green citizen — relatively speaking. Today’s announcement by Combet continues that. Australia is signing up to brave, doomed, dummy UN protocol because that may help get the world back on track on climate change. We don’t have to sign up; most big emitters aren’t.

Yes, Australia has sky-high per capita emissions, is a major coal exporter, and is running a carbon price where we increase emissions while paying poor countries to cut theirs. But in a world where precious little is being done on climate change multilaterally, signing on to the KP is no mean feat.