With an election looming, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, shown here smiling at US President George W. Bush, appears to have warmed to acting on climate change.

Australia is at a tipping point. Until now, the country has been viewed as resistant to significant policy moves on the issue of climate change. Adding to its failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, Prime Minister John Howard has long seemed disinclined to implement mandatory emissions reductions or to set up a national carbon trading scheme, even when Australian states were going forward with such initiatives of their own. But things have changed in the hot coal-rich country. With an election looming and a brutal multi-year drought keeping the problem at the forefront of the public mind, climate change has become the issue du jour.

On 8 September, Howard announced, on behalf of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders then meeting in Sydney, a consensus statement, calling for the world “to slow, stop and then reverse the growth of global greenhouse-gas emissions”. It offered no binding promises to do so, merely “aspirational goals” to increase “by at least 20 million hectares all types of forests by 2020” and, by 2030, to reduce emissions per dollar of gross domestic product by 25%.

The APEC statement also contained a pledge to support the creation of a global climate change agreement to follow the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012. Tellingly, though, it did not specify that this new agreement would be under the Kyoto framework. In a speech to the Sydney-based think tank The Lowy Institute last August, Howard reiterated his long-held criticism of Kyoto, which he said “divided the world into two groups, and required concerted action from only one of them”, adding that “it's highly prescriptive approach threatened to make that division permanent”.

On a national level, Howard and his government have been attempting to impress with their green credentials in advance of an election expected by December. In September, they launched a AU$25 million television campaign called Climate Clever Australia, which includes advice on reducing emissions around the house and touts Australian efforts — to the tune of some AU$3.4 billion so far — to study, ameliorate and adapt to climate change. And under pressure from state-first initiatives on emissions trading, Howard has also agreed to set up a national scheme by 2012.

With his coalition of parties, Howard will square off against the more liberal Labor party in the expected election. Analysts rate Labor as being greener — but only just. For example, their emissions trading scheme would be up and running by 2010 and, unlike the opposition, they have a long-term target for mandatory CO2 cuts: 60% of 2000 levels by 2050. Their energy plans also differ. The coalition government focuses on 'clean energy', including nuclear and clean coal. Their goal, announced on 23 September, is “30,000 gigawatt hours of low-emissions energy generation by 2020”. Any electricity generator that pumps out less than 200 kilograms of greenhouse gases per megawatt hour would count as 'low-emissions'. According to John Connor, chief executive of the Climate Institute, Labor will instead focus on 'renewable energy' with a target percentage as high as 25%. Labor has also said they will ratify Kyoto and former US vice president Al Gore has been campaigning for their leader, Kevin Rudd.

Yet, says Connor, “the issue of climate change is still up for grabs for undecided voters”. Andrew Macintosh, Deputy Director at The Australia Institute believes “most people agree that climate change has suddenly become a much hotter political issue”. “My gut instinct is that there has been a slight increase in the number of people willing to vote on this,” he says, “but it is still not going to be an election-turning issue”.