Nations Seek "Roadmap" to Post-Kyoto Climate Treaty at Bali

December 5, 2007

Post-Kyoto climate change negotiations began in earnest in Bali, Indonesia, Dec. 3, 2007, as delegates from most nations in the world converged on the steamy island, washed by a rising sea, for talks lasting until Dec. 14.

The United Nations-sponsored session is not meant to produce a new treaty, but to set up a process for arriving at one. Key point: in diplomacy, as in politics, setting the rules can be part of winning the game.

The sense that a new phase has begun in efforts of many nations to address global climate change is palpable in the importance being given to the session. The key scientific debates are mostly settled, the Kyoto Treaty is nearing the end-of-life with limited success, and the positions of many of the Kyoto hold-out and sit-out nations are shifting dramatically.

Most important is the dawning realization in some of the world's poorest and largest developing nations that they may have the most to lose by insisting that they should be exempt from emissions controls.

Cyclone Sidr, which battered low-lying coastal areas of Bangladesh with storm surges and winds above 100 mph Nov. 15, left some 4,000 dead, 500,000 homeless, and many others without their livelihood. Such areas are only likely to become more vulnerable when global warming brings sea level rise.

Poor nations have argued that rich nations, which have been emitting most of the greenhouse gases, bear responsibility for any sacrifice needed to cut them. But this year, China will surpass the U.S. as the world's number one emitter of greenhouse gases, according to an International Energy Agency economist. China has up until now rejected mandatory controls on greenhouse emissions, and has rushed forward with coal-powered economic growth. But the host of environmental ills that has come along with China's economic growth-surge has made it ever harder for the Chinese government to ignore environmental issues.

The current Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997 and took effect in 2005, expires in 2012. The US and Australia did not ratify it, but many developed nations that did ratify have not met their treaty obligations to curb greenhouse gas emissions, while developing nations such as China and India are not required to reduce their emissions.

Years of effort by carbon-emitting industries and the Bush administration to cast doubt on the basic science of global warming have met with scant success. The key science findings now are widely accepted, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former vice president Al Gore earned a Nobel Prize this year for their efforts to educate the public about the issue. During the course of 2007, the IPCC issued four major reports updating the science (the most recent, the "Synthesis Report," released from Valencia, Spain, in November). That human emissions of greenhouse gases are already causing observable global warming is no longer questioned by a significant number of serious scientists. Moreover, the IPCC Synthesis Report warned, people around the world face grave consequences unless something is done to reverse the greenhouse trend.

The politics have evolved along with the science. In the U.S., Democratic and even some GOP candidates for president are touting their proposals for achieving energy independence and fighting climate change. President Bush's effort in September 2007 to replace the established U.N. "Framework Convention" treaty-negotiation process with his own vision of "aspirational goals" went nowhere, according to most diplomatic observers. Bush is losing long-time allies in the "do nothing mandatory" camp; Australia ratified Kyoto hours after its new Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took office.

Another sea change in the past year has come on economics. The Bush administration and the fossil-fuel-dependent industries have long argued that carbon controls would wreck the U.S. and world economies- but others increasingly are staking a claim to the opposing argument. In October 2006, the British Exchequer's office issued a report by economist Nicholas Stern that said the effects of uncontrolled climate change could cause far more expensive damage. And perhaps most importantly, a growing number of industries and entrepreneurs have begun rushing to bet real capital on the proposition that there is money to be made - lots of money - in developing and marketing post-carbon energy technologies.

As the world price of oil approaches $100 per barrel, oil-producing nations are forming a different view of the economic self-interest that kept many of them opposed to Kyoto. Awash in "petrodollars" (or now increasingly "petroeuros"), they need safe investments and have a stake in not wrecking the economies of oil-consuming industrialized nations. On Nov. 18, following an OPEC summit, Arab oil nations announced a $750 million research fund to develop cleaner technologies for burning oil.

But still deeper obstacles remain. While low-lying nations grow increasingly desperate to stem the sea-level rise likely to swamp them, developing nations like China and India remain reluctant to forego the economic growth which would raise their people from poverty. Oil-producing nations in the Mideast also continue to oppose mandatory emission limits.

The Bali meeting is technically known as the 13th Conference of Parties (COP-13) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - the procedural matrix within which the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated.

Delegates will not arrive in Bali to consider a draft text, but rather to try to come up with a new "road map" for negotiations to arrive at a successor agreement. As indicators of success, look for agreement on procedures for future negotiations, and for commitments by key nations to engage in those negotiations.

    • Main UNFCCC Bali Press Site. UNFCCC Press Contacts: John Hay, +49 228 815 1404; Alexander Saier, +49 228 815 1509; Carrie Assheuer, +49 228 815 1005.


Some big issues crying for resolution include:

    • How will developing nations participate? Can they grow economically and still minimize damage to climate?
    • Will the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG) submit to a regime of mandatory limits and timetables? How will it be enforced?
    • Will a formal market in carbon (and other GHG) emissions be established? Will it be fair and honest? Will it be effectively policed? How?
    • How will the world's industrially developed nations reduce emissions? Can the technological change needed for emissions reduction be turned from a cost into an opportunity?
    • What changes in agricultural practices and technology will emerge to feed a growing world population sustainably - while still minimizing or reducing the climate impacts of agriculture? How can a treaty support them?
    • What will be the role of nations and corporations whose economic prosperity seems to depend on extraction of greenhouse-related resources, especially coal and oil (but also gas, peat, timber, tar sands, etc.)? Will they find routes to prosperity other than maximizing and increasing extraction and consumption of oil, coal, etc.?
    • Will the U.S. succeed in efforts to supplant and marginalize the established Framework Convention with its own unilateral diplomatic regime based on "aspirational goals" rather than mandatory emission limits?