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Leading article: A mixed result for the environment

On the face of it, the failure of the Labor Party, under the leadership of Julia Gillard, to secure victory in the Australian elections is a setback for those who argue that democratic political systems are capable of meeting the immense challenge of climate change.

Australia is on the front line of global warming. Farmers in the vast Murray-Darwin Basin are suffering from an acute drought, which scientists are increasingly confident is a consequence of incipient climate change. The country's ecosystem is seen as one of the most vulnerable in the world to the consequences of a warmer planet. But Australians are one of the prominent contributors to global warming, as well as one of its likely early victims. Australia emits more greenhouse gases per head of population than any other nation on earth.

The Labor Party stormed to power in 2007 under Ms Gillard's predecessor Kevin Rudd, promising radical action on climate change. Mr Rudd called global warming "the greatest moral challenge of our time" and one of his first acts on taking office was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which his right-wing successor John Howard had rejected. Contrast that with the rhetoric of the opposition Liberal-National Party. They are led by Tony Abbott, who has cast doubt on the science underpinning climate change and who deposed his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, who was an advocate of strong action to cut emissions. Mr Abbott has also vowed to oppose any move to impose a national carbon tax.

Yet Mr Abbott's views have, of late, seemed more in tune with the public mood. Polls show that, since 2007, the number of Australians describing climate change as a "serious and pressing problem" has fallen. And, in contrast to three years ago, global warming was not a prominent feature in the election campaign. It would appear that, in denying Labor an outright victory and giving Mr Abbott a shot at power, the Australian public has also rejected serious action on reducing carbon emissions.

But the situation is more complicated. The slide in Labor support at this election has, in part, been put down to the government's decision to delay the introduction of its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which would have given industries a financial incentive to reduce their carbon dioxide pollution. Mr Rudd talked the talk on climate change, but when faced with opposition to the ETS in parliament, he shelved the project. Mr Rudd was removed earlier this year in a Labor coup. And all that Ms Gillard, has proposed is a "citizens' assembly" to gauge public support for the ETS.

As for Mr Abbott, he has toned down his scepticism about the science underpinning climate change in the election campaign. And he too committed his party to reducing Australia's emissions by the end of the decade, although without offering specifics on how this will be achieved.

Now a Green Party lower house parliamentarian, Adam Bandt, who won the seat of Melbourne from Labor, is among a handful of independent representatives who are going to hold the balance of power as the two largest parties compete to form a viable ruling coalition. The Greens also did well in the elections for the upper house and could end up holding the balance of power there too. Overall, the environmental party's share of the vote increased to a record 11 per cent. And many Labor members were returned with the help of the second preference votes of Green supporters.

The Australian election result can scarcely be called a victory for the environment. But those who understand the importance of democratic efforts to curtail runaway climate change will continue to look with interest at developments Down Under.