The road ahead from Bali

Is a new direction in climate politics emerging? There is much negotiation to come, writes Gao Feng, but last month's UN-led talks in Indonesia were a global breakthrough.

The UN-led summit in Bali last month was the world’s largest-ever conference on climate change, with around 11,000 participants and seven heads of state in attendance. The historic significance of Bali, however, was in its concrete agreements and its “Bali road map”. To paraphrase Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the South African environment minister and head of the country’s delegation, these were results that would have been unimaginable even a few months ago.

The Bali road map sets out a framework until 2009 for negotiations among the parties to the conference, with the aim of reaching an agreement on a global response to climate change, which will include measures on mitigation, adaptation, finance and technology. It is a diplomatic breakthrough, which should have a profound effect on the way we approach the issue of climate change.

Taking responsibility

The core issue for climate diplomacy is the way in which each country bears responsibility for global warming. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 set quantified targets for emissions reductions by developed nations. Ever since, rich countries have put pressure on developing countries – especially large, fast-growing developing countries – to adopt similar targets. Poor countries have refused, emphasising that their main priority is economic growth and poverty alleviation. Solutions to climate change, they say, must be sought within the framework of sustainable development; developed countries have an obligation to support developing nations in areas of finance, technology and capacity building.

Another major problem is that in 2001, US President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol, saying it would be harmful to the US economy and that developing countries should accept emissions reductions. From that moment on, getting the US – the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – to sign up to emissions cuts became another focus of climate talks. Over the past few years the US position on climate change has adjusted. Its main policies are now:

• The US opposes the rigid short-term emissions control targets specified by the Kyoto Protocol;

• No country’s emissions reduction obligations should be detrimental to its economic development; emissions targets should suit a country’s national conditions;

• There should be an emphasis on technological solutions.

The Bali road map uses broad language to outline the positions of developing nations and the US on climate change, enabling them to participate in future global action on their own terms. For the first time, therefore, tackling climate change will be based on real global participation.

Another key feature of the road map is that it seeks to encourage international cooperation, a basic principle that in the past has not always been put into practice. For over a decade, developed countries have failed to support developing countries with financing, technology transfer and capacity building. Technology transfer has been especially problematic, with virtually no progress being made. The Bali road map reaffirms the principle of cooperation and ties participation from developing nations to the provision of international support.

Who is included?

The core political idea of the road map is that different countries can choose their own routes to climate-change prevention. Developed countries have to meet obligations on emissions targets and on assistance to developing countries, which are subject to measurement and verification processes. Developing countries must act within the framework of sustainable development and their progress is also subject to measurement and verification.

A narrow reading of the road map would suggest that “developed countries” only refers to the US; all other developed countries are already parties to the Kyoto Protocol, whose post-2012 emissions targets will be decided by the Ad Hoc Working Group (AWG), not by the Bali road map. However, since the road map’s language is quite vague, a broader reading is possible, and “developed countries” could be taken to mean all developed countries, opening the door to new rejections of the Kyoto Protocol – and fierce debates ahead.

As far as developing nations are concerned, the “actions” they are be required to take under the road map will be very different from developed countries’ “obligations”. “Actions” are voluntary and economically beneficial, and do not mean emissions reductions.

The road map will also encourage global participation by guaranteeing developed countries start to provide the support to developing countries that was first promised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which entered into force in 1994.

Careful balance

The road map places as much emphasis on climate adaptation as mitigation. Climate change is occurring; its negative effects across the world are becoming ever more obvious. Adaptation is an especially serious issue for developing countries and small island nations. In the past, developed countries placed too much emphasis on mitigation rather than adaptation, and this more balanced approach that emerges from the road map expresses the urgency of developing countries’ concerns better.

In representing shared global interests, the road map establishes a system of common responsibilities and unanimous action. Three requirements, “reporting”, “measuring”, and “verification”, crop up repeatedly in the obligations of developed countries and the actions of developing countries, words that were the subject of fierce political debate at Bali, and in fact represent its careful distillation of political balance and compromise. They embody the sense that we are in this together; that action will be matched with action, yet inaction will be met with inaction.

It is crucial that support from developed countries is tied to actions from developing countries. This means developing countries will do as much as they can on their own; additional achievements are limited only by the support developed countries are prepared to provide. The three requirements ensure developing countries’ actions are quantified and available for comparison. These contributions will be counted by the UN and be part of the global effort to reduce emissions.

Specific regulations on reporting, measurement and verification still need to be discussed, and the negotiations will be a long, hard process. However, the political framework for each country to excel and play to its strengths is already in place. Negotiations over technicalities also have a clear direction.

New era for action

The Bali roadmap symbolises recent changes in global politics and economics. The fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year focused unprecedented levels of attention on climate change. Developing countries announced one after the other that they were willing to contribute to a solution. China has shown extraordinary determination to make the transition to a high-efficiency, clean economic model. China became the first developing country to produce a national climate-change programme in June 2007, and others were quick to follow suit. In the US, regional governments and corporations voluntarily adopted policies designed to protect the environment. Proposals on adopting emissions reduction targets have been debated in Congress. The White House, under pressure from public opinion, has started to adjust its stance on climate change. Under the leadership of a new secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, the UN is striving to reach an international consensus on climate change.

In such conditions, the success of the Bali road map should be assured. The details of the two-year negotiation process are unclear, and there is much that needs to be discussed and confirmed. It is too early to predict the outcome of the negotiations, but the positive start we wanted to see is surely here. From this hopeful beginning, the world can enter a new era of global action on climate change.


Gao Feng is director of the legal department of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat

Homepage photo by tropical living via Flickr