Why does Bali matter?

Bewildered by Bali? Tan Copsey provides a short background to the politics of global warming, Kyoto and why the world is watching the climate talks now taking place in Indonesia.

Bali, Indonesia, known locally as the “island of the gods”, plays host this week to an event of planetary significance. A United Nations conference is bringing together representatives of nations, businesses, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs to debate and negotiate a new global agreement on climate change to take effect after the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. More extensive reductions in global emissions – and unprecedented international cooperation – are necessary to tackle climate change, but expectations are tempered by the history of UN-backed negotiations, which has been marked by profound disagreement.

How did we get here? 

Concerns about global warming can be traced back to scientific findings in the 1960s, but it was not until 1988 that scientists and policy-makers took the first major step to international cooperation on climate by forming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organisation, was asked to synthesise available, peer-reviewed, scientific data and to form conclusions and recommendations for policy-makers. The first IPCC report, in 1990, led to the establishment of a single negotiating process.

However, initial attempts at negotiation were unsuccessful, and binding targets were not agreed upon. What resulted instead was a limited “framework” text, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in which developed nations pledged to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference” in the climate – that is, man-made warming – and to voluntarily reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. This was signed by 154 states and the European Community at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and entered into force in 1994

Successive international climate conferences saw gradual progress towards binding targets. In 1995, the first conference in Berlin agreed that the voluntary approach was failing. But it was only in 1997, at the third conference in Kyoto, Japan, that binding targets were finally agreed – a diplomatic breakthrough spearheaded largely by the European Union, Japan and a United States delegation led by then vice president Al Gore.

The Kyoto Protocol requires that developed countries try to reduce their emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels in the period from 2008 to 2012. Developed countries and developing countries have “common but differentiated” responsibilities, and historical emissions – the build-up of carbon dioxide since the rich world’s industrialisation in the mid-nineteenth century – are specifically addressed. Under Kyoto, reductions are achieved with a combination of national policies and market-based economic mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism, under which industrialised countries with a greenhouse-gas reduction commitment invest in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries and Joint Implementation, whereby industrialised countries invest in emissions reductions in other developed nations. 

So, what has changed?

A lot has changed in the 10 years since the Kyoto meeting. The IPCC issued its third and fourth reports, the most recent of which warns of “abrupt and irreversible” climate change – and confirms that the problem is man-made. Climate-change impacts have also become ever more visible. On a recent trip to Antarctica, UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon wrote that he “could see this world changing” as he was faced with vast shelves of fast-melting ice. 

It is clear too, that Kyoto’s good intentions were not enough. The UNFCCC will report to the Bali conference that the total greenhouse-gas emissions of 40 industrialised countries rose to a near all-time-high in 2005. Emissions in large developing countries also have risen more rapidly than predicted. China already is overtaking the US as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and economic growth in India has been coupled with a rapid upsurge in emissions.

OK, but what’s Bali all about? 

Bali hosts to the thirteenth UN Climate Change Conference. Yvo de Boer, the UNFCCC executive secretary, has said there are reasons to be optimistic about a more far-reaching agreement being reached at the meeting, stressing that the conference would be a “culmination of a momentous 12 months in the climate debate” . A large increase in public awareness of climate change has upped the political pressure for a more extensive accord, and many nations – including prominent EU countries – will be pushing for increased reduction targets.

However, the negotiations are likely to hinge on the positions taken by the US and China, the world’s two largest emitters, whose positions have been highly interdependent historically. Neither nation has agreed yet to binding targets. China needs the US to take the lead in reducing emissions, but the Bush administration has refused to sign up to targets without the participation of developing countries. The likelihood of this impasse being overcome at Bali remains slim. 

Negotiations at Bali are expected to focus on extending Kyoto’s central approach, which is characterised by “liberal environmental” economic mechanisms such as emissions trading and technology transfer.

However, issues such as mitigation, deforestation, development and resource mobilisation also will be addressed, and increasingly urgent discussions of climate-change adaptation will take place – reflecting the increased acceptance that climate change is not entirely preventable. 

Is that the only approach?

Alternative frameworks are not without support. The idea of population-based, per-capita targets has some prominent adherents, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, who discussed the idea with India. The EU also supports reduction targets for specific sectors of industry. 

While the US maintains that investment in researching new energy sources and carbon-saving technologies is more useful than negotiating binding reductions targets, others will propose additional global targets. Nicholas Stern, the British economist, supports an overall stabilisation target: an upper limit of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, on the basis of which more stringent national targets could be negotiated.

The UN process is, in fact, no longer the “only show in town”, with attempts by the G8 and the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate to produce agreements on climate change. However, neither process has produced any substantive action so far. What is happening in Bali may be our best hope in preventing devastation by climate change. 

Tan Copsey is operations and development manager at chinadialogue