The United States stands alone as the last major industrialized country not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, after Australia's announcement Monday that it would now sign the pact.
Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol was the first official act of the new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It was announced by Australia's representative, Howard Bamsey, at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which began Monday in Bali, Indonesia.
"Australia making that announcement was fantastic, and there was very long applause in the room," UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer told ABC News.
"The day as a whole got off to a good start with very enthusiastic introductory statements, people pointing to the scientific evidence that we now have and the need to move forward on that," he said.
Delegates from 187 countries flew to Bali for two weeks of talks on how to tackle global climate change issues.
At a press conference Sunday, de Boer said that "earlier spring, melting glaciers, longer droughts and changing rainfall patterns" are signals that have raised public awareness about climate change.
Some of the 10,000 people registered to attend the conference arrived today on bikes, an eco-friendly gesture encouraged by the Indonesian government. They met in the heavily secured Bali International Convention Center to discuss and debate climate change, its impact and what is to follow of the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
The pact, ratified by more than 170 countries and made during a U.N. conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, went into force in 2005. It was a long-debated agreement and commitment by the developed nations to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Industrialized countries are required to reduce emissions to at least 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.
In a statement, the White House reacted coolly to Australia's announcement that it would sign the pact.
"The challenges of climate change are big, and serious. The next step is to reach agreement in Bali on a negotiating roadmap for a new post-2012 framework. We look forward to continuing to work together constructively with Australia, as we have in APEC, the Asia Pacific Partnership, and the Major Economies process," said Kristen Hellmer with the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
De Boer believes the United States could now be more active in climate change discussions. "Today [the United States] was very encouraging and open about their willingness to engage in formal negotiations," de Boer told ABC.
The Kyoto Protocol was ultimately rejected by the U.S. Congress because developing nations such as China and India were exempted from limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
Developed and underdeveloped countries disagree about who should be responsible for what in terms of preserving the environment. But most at the conference agreed that a breakthrough on a roadmap for climate change within the next two weeks is vital for the global economy, food and water security, and survival.
"This is going to affect future generations very importantly. I think if we do manage to put a process in place here in Bali, and two years later that process results in a really ambitious climate change regime, then our children and grandchildren will look back and say grandma and granddad really did do something to avoid us being confronted with severe impacts of climate change.
"And if we don't manage to launch a process here and we don't manage to conclude negotiations in 2009, I think that your grandchildren will have a very different view of you," de Boer added..
De Boer emphasized that this conference could not solve climate change problems or find agreement on previously raised specifics, such as the proposal to halve emissions, by the middle of the century.
Likening the situation to Neil Armstrong's moon landing statement in reverse, de Boer said, "We've taken a giant leap for man but a very small step for mankind," explaining that enormous strides have been made in measuring the effects of climate change but not on acting on those calculations.
De Boer called Bali a landmark meeting at which politicians are going to have to face the message from scientists and be asked important questions.
"What is your response to what the scientists are telling you? What are you going to do about this?" de Boer said. "I hope there will be a bold answer."