Bali’s elusive victory

Many analysts hailed last year’s climate talks as a success, but were they too quick to judge? Jie Yu says age-old questions of equity and development rights are far from being answered.

Victory was declared in the battle of Bali, but the future still remains uncertain. There are grave doubts concerning how the United States, Japan and Canada will approach the next two-year round of talks leading to the major climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009. Phrases in the Bali road map, the text that emerged from December’s UN-led climate change talks in Indonesia, such as “quantifiable emission reductions and limitations” and “consideration of national circumstances” may weaken the undertakings of the US – and give Japan and Canada a possible route out of the Kyoto Protocol.
The contribution of developing countries at the Bali conference, however, represents a leap forward. At a critical moment in the negotiations, China took the lead by proposing that developing nations make “measurable, reportable and verifiable” sustainable development policy undertakings, on the condition that developed countries provide “measurable, reportable and verifiable“ technology transfer and financial assistance. The domestic emissions reduction plans of developing nations can now be brought within an international architecture, accountable to quantified goals, standards and third-party verification.
Despite several days and nights of debate, however, the road map failed to reach a consensus on long-term goals for ensuring climate security.

Two camps 

After the meetings, commentators were divided into two camps. The radical camp believe we lost our last opportunity to protect the global climate, while the more pragmatic observers think it was the best possible result under the circumstances.

Those who witnessed the proceedings firsthand mostly hold the latter view. Although it was not all everyone had hoped for, the agreement was certainly hard-won. But the more radical view cannot be ignored.

The only way to control of global greenhouse-gas emissions is for every nation to adopt emissions reduction targets. The second article of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) makes clear that it aims to achieve: “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.” The Kyoto Protocol, however, has major failings and will be unable to uphold these aims.

Two degrees

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to avoid catastrophic climate change, warming must be limited to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this, greenhouse-gas emissions must peak in the next 10 to 15 years and fall to at least 50% of 1990 levels by 2050. Even if this is achieved, there is still a chance (ranging from 27% to 62%) that the two-degree target will be missed.

The European Union gave a positive reception to the IPCC assessments, but the US and most developing nations have opposed them. Key facts, including these figures, were removed from the core text of the road map – first to the introduction, then to a footnote. Even in the footnote, the numbers were replaced with references to pages in IPCC reports.

It almost goes without saying that there will not be a positive compromise from the US on this issue. But it is hard to reject the reasoning of developing countries: emissions targets for rich countries only run until 2020; there will be inevitable reductions and restrictions for developing nations, but poor countries will be unwilling to accept targets without post-2020 commitments from the developed world.

The Kyoto Protocol was originally established in three phases. We are now nearing the end of the first, with the second starting in 2012 and the third in 2018. At first, analysts believed developing nations would not make substantive commitments until 2018. This now seems quite generous, but it should also remind us not to expect commitments on overall emissions reductions from developing countries just yet. Instead, we may see targets to slow the rate of emissions growth.

Development rights

There was also no progress at Bali on graduation mechanisms. These mechanisms will be crucial in a future climate framework, as developing countries grow their economies to the point where they can join developed nations (known as Annex 1 countries in the Kyoto Protocol), and move towards absolute emissions reductions.

The tension between climate security and the right to development has always presented a problem. And it will still be an issue – albeit a more urgent one – in 2013, when the IPCC publishes its fifth assessment. This 20-year-old sticking point is still unresolved.  

If no further measures are adopted, the IPCC predicts, emissions will grow by between 40% and 110% by 2030. Developing nations will account for two-thirds to three-quarters of this increase. In some of these countries, development is only starting to take off, and major infrastructure is only now being built. Globalisation has also helped shift manufacturing to these nations: from 2002 to 2006, the value of China’s exports grew by 197%, and its energy consumption from export manufacturing grew by 179%.

Major climate frameworks have failed to find widespread acceptance among developing countries. Looking at the historical record, these nations point out that emissions peak while a country is developing. Once infrastructure is in place, per capita emissions will fall. Developing nations should be permitted to grow, therefore, and converge with developed nations in the future.

Experience shows that the development rights of poor countries need to be protected. Otherwise a framework for climate security is unlikely to be found. So far, however, no one can say convincingly how much growth is fair. In the post-Bali era, this question will need to be answered.

Dr. Yu Jie is China Program Advisor for the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Beijing. Yu holds a Ph.D. in public policy from Nanjing University; her work focuses on Chinese climate change and energy conservation policy.

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