New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed the paperwork Monday to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, making good on an election promise to overturn Australia's decade-long opposition to the international global warming pact.
"This is the first official act of the new Australian Government, demonstrating my government's commitment to tackling climate change," Rudd said in a statement issued hours after he was officially sworn in Monday.
The dramatic step just nine days after Rudd was elected looked likely to send Australia's standing soaring at international climate change talks that started Monday in Indonesia, and to intensify pressure on Washington to join the Kyoto framework.
Australia's ratification of Kyoto will leave the United States isolated among wealthy countries in shunning the agreement.
'From a laggard to a leader'
It was welcomed by conservationists, who described Australia's previous opposition as hurting global efforts to fight the problem.
WWF-Australia chief executive Greg Bourne said in a statement that the Rudd government has propelled Australia "from a laggard to a leader."
He said Australia's new stance would send a strong message to Washington on the issue.
Shortly after being sworn in by Governor General Michael Jeffery, Rudd signed the "instrument of ratification" of the protocol, the prime minister said. The signed document would now be sent to the United Nations, and ratification would come into force 90 days after it was received, Rudd said, predicting Australia would become a full member of the Kyoto Protocol before the end of March 2008.
Rudd said Australia wanted to help fix the problem of global warming but warned that striking a new international agreement on the problem was not going to be easy.
"It'll take a lot of time, a lot of horse trading, a lot of negotiation, it's going to be a tough process," he said on Nine Network television.
Rudd, 50, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat, led the left-leaning Labor Party to a sweeping victory at Nov. 24 elections that ended more than 11 years of conservative rule under former Prime Minister John Howard.
Howard had steadfastly refused to ratify Kyoto, arguing that Australia would not agree to a pact setting greenhouse gas emission targets unless big polluters among developing countries such as China and India were also subject to binding targets.
Australia's overall contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions are small, but it is one of the largest polluters per capita and its stance on Kyoto is powerfully symbolic.
The agreement's costs
In a sign of the significance of Australia's policy shift, delegates and scientists at the world's largest climate change conference, being held in Bali, Indonesia, erupted in applause Monday when Australia's delegate, Howard Bamsey, told the plenary that Canberra was coming on board the Kyoto process.
Rudd was the first of 30 ministers to take the oath of office on Monday, formalizing the handover of government.
Among his Cabinet are Australia's first female deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, who will become the first woman to formally take charge of the country when Rudd goes to Indonesia.
Also in the Cabinet are ex-rock star Peter Garrett and Australia's first Asian-born woman in Parliament, Penny Wong, who share responsibilities for environmental issues.
Both ministers will accompany Rudd to Bali.
Rudd conceded Monday that fighting climate change would have its costs, saying Australia looked unlikely to meet its Kyoto commitments and faced penalties as a result that are likely to include greater reduction targets in the next pact.
He also conceded power and food prices were likely to rise because of measures taken to combat climate change.
Rudd's government has goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2050, switching Australia's coal-dominated power generation industry to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, and creating a national emissions trading scheme by 2010.