Climate Change: Measuring Bali by the Science

The discussion in Bali acknowledged that “deep cuts in global emissions will be required to achieve the ultimate objective” of avoiding dangerous climate change.

by Stephen Leahy

(IPS) – A tiny step was taken in December to meet the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. But it was nearly a step backward as the crucial climate talks in Bali almost collapsed when the United States refused to join the global consensus.

However, after Kevin Conrad representing Papua New Guinea told the US delegation that if they weren’t going to be leaders, to please get out of the way, the US reversed its posi­tion and accepted what is called the “Bali roadmap.”

Before considering this new po­litical roadmap on climate change, what route did the scientific roadmap tell us to take?

In November 2007, the Intergov­ernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, issued urgent warnings that global emissions of greenhouse gases must peak and be­gin to decline within 10 to 15 years. Many of the world’s leading climate scientists have said that failure is not an option because it will irreversibly destabilize the planet’s climate sys­tem.

The millions of people already being affected by climate change will rapidly become hundreds of millions without major reductions. And there is a high risk that unique ecosystems that sustain life, such as coral reefs, will collapse.

Climate science says the first im­portant step on our journey to prevent dangerous climate change is for in­dustrialized countries to reduce their emissions by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Representatives from industrialized countries actu­ally agreed with the scientists at a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting last Au­gust in Vienna.

Throughout the two-week Bali climate change talks, Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, often reiterated this was the route that climate science had clearly laid out.

So where does the Bali roadmap lead us?

There is no mention of the 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Canada, the US, and Japan had stead­fastly opposed any specific reduction targets for industrialized countries. This was bitterly opposed by the Eu­ropean Union and many developing nations.

For the sake of reaching an agree­ment, they eventually compromised, but there are no specific emissions targets in the final agreement. It does acknowledge that “deep cuts in global emissions will be required to achieve the ultimate objective” of avoiding dangerous climate change.

The Bali roadmap is essentially an agreement to start a two-year proc­ess of negotiations designed to agree on a new set of emissions targets to replace those in the Kyoto Protocol. While this may not seem like much progress, there had been serious de­bate about a longer negotiation period that would postpone action well into the future.

Until the last, the US – which alone accounts for about a quarter of the world’s global warming emissions – objected to a specific declaration that “deep cuts in global emissions” were needed, saying the science re­mains uncertain.

Without reduction targets, what was achieved in Bali?

“We’ve created incentives to make it attractive for countries to act on climate change,” said de Boer at the meeting’s final press conference. “We’re creating carrots here, and maybe, if need be, later on we’ll make sticks to encourage people.”

The biggest carrot is to allow rich countries to buy carbon credits from countries that preserve their existing tropical forests. Deforestation is re­sponsible for 20 to 25 percent of glo­bal carbon emissions.

Those carrots left some in the NGO sector fuming.

“It’s all about how to make a profit out of the climate crisis,” said Simone Lovera of the Global Forest Coalition, an NGO based in Paraguay.

Rather than buying credits to pol­lute, rich countries should be reduc­ing their emissions at source, she said. The UNFCCC has made a big mistake by encouraging the business sector to become heavily involved in the proc­ess.

Lovera said there were still hope­ful signs, such as the Dutch agreement to stop subsidising oil palm for use as biodiesel, Norway’s 2.8-billion-dol­lar commitment to help developing countries that preserve their forests, and Germany’s announcement that it would cut its emissions by 40 percent by 2020.

Most NGOs issued statements congratulating delegates on achieving an agreement but said the Bali road­map is vague and lacking ambition. Everyone is waiting for the Bush ad­ministration to leave office, setting up enormous expectations for the coun­try’s new president.

At the moment, Bali’s roadmap leads us just a small step forward.

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[From WS January/February 2008]

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