It was a day later than scheduled, but the 13th U.N. climate change conference (COP-13) in Bali at last came to a close. The world is now breathing a sigh of relief; as late as Saturday, negotiations looked like they would run off the tracks. But Bali gave us only a vague sense of the road ahead, and the only certainty is that the road will be difficult.
The most important decision taken at the COP was the agreement on the “Bali Action Plan,” or what’s been called the Bali Roadmap. It creates a process and set of principles for negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The negotiations must conclude by COP-15 in 2009. The action plan calls for a long-term goal for global emissions reductions (without saying how much), and various “mitigation actions” for developed and developing countries (without saying what they actually are). Deforestation, technology transfer, and adaptation—all critical to addressing climate change—are also in the Bali Roadmap, again with few specifics.
There are several points to note about COP-13. First, it is clear that this U.S. Administration has lost political influence in this forum. The European Union, and in particular Germany, are providing the leadership that the U.S. is not, and they have lost patience with U.S. obstructionism. Germany announced a national 40% emissions reduction target by 2020, and threatened to boycott the U.S.-led “major economies” process if the U.S. didn’t back reduction targets in Bali. This level of confrontation has to date been unprecedented in the UNFCCC; it reflects increasing alarm on climate change, and the level of frustration with the U.S. U.S. participation is still vital in a post-Kyoto world, but the world seems more prepared to move ahead with or without its largest economy.
The reality is that on some points, U.S. positions were reasonable. For instance, the targeted 25-40% reduction below 1990 levels proposed by the EU is arguably unattainable within a 12-year timeframe. But the US failure to propose negotiable alternatives, or to act to reduce its own emissions, isolated U.S. negotiators. US influence is a casualty of an environment that has soured over a decade of U.S. resistance to any form of commitment.
Negotiators in Bali also saw the Bush Administration’s position as less relevant to future negotiations, increasingly out of touch with the rest of the United States. Senator John Kerry, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former Vice President Al Gore brought similar messages to Bali; in all likelihood, the U.S. would rejoin the international community by COP-15. States and cities are already out in front in passing climate change legislation. The major corporations that have joined the 35-member U.S. Climate Action Partnership are calling for mandatory emissions caps (WRI is also a US-CAP member).
Developing countries too are more progressive than is often recognized. The Bali Action Plan calls for “measurable… mitigation actions” by developing countries (at the insistence of the U.S. but with developing country acquiescence), opening the door for more active participation in a post-Kyoto agreement. And developing countries are already taking action. China has a renewable energy target, an efficiency target and a strong reforestation program. Mexico has a sophisticated national GHG emissions registry, while India, South Africa, and Brazil have policies to increase energy efficiency and use of cleaner fuels.
Unfortunately, in spite of the mention of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report, the sense of urgency seems to be missing from the Bali roadmap. New scientific findings in 2007 confirm the fact that we have very little time—years not decades—to start drastically reducing emissions if we have any chance at avoiding unacceptable damage to the global climate. A failure in Bali would have been catastrophic. We dodged that bullet, but the road to success at COP-15 looks dauntingly hard. We have several clear tasks ahead: The single most important step we can take is to adopt strong national legislation to make immediate and continuing reductions in US GHG emissions. Then, we must clarify how we will engage China, India and the other large emitting countries. This will entail developing and deploying new technologies, and require creating a set of solutions that can be politically achieved and that will yield environmental change of an unprecedented scale.
The political will that was barely hinted at in Bali will need to be strengthened—and quickly—if we are to succeed on the road from Bali to Copenhagen, when in 2009, we must agree on an aggressive next step, or else truly suffer the consequences of climate change.