Facing the future in Bali

Negotiations at the UN climate conference in Bali will be critically important. In shaping how the world confronts climate change in the post-Kyoto years, argues Xuedu Lu, the talks will address humanity's very survival.

The United Nations conference in Bali, Indonesia, focusing on the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, will be the most important international negotiations on climate change for the coming years. In a sense, these talks – to be held from December 3 to 14 — are more important than the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations because they deal with issues of humanity's very survival. They will shape how the international community deals with climate change, and also will mould the long-term economic and societal development of all the countries involved.

To tackle climate change, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. (The Bali meeting will be the thirteenth Conference of Parties.) Ten years ago, the Kyoto agreement placed legally binding regulations on developed nations, which agreed to specific targets to limit or reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.

Between 2008 and 2012, the protocol states, 38 countries party to the UNFCCC are to reduce their emissions of the six main greenhouse gases to at least 5% below 1990 levels. The United States should reduce emissions to 7% below 1990 levels, the European Union (formerly the European Community) to 8% below, and Japan and Canada to 6% below. Russia and other East European states were allowed to maintain emissions at 1990 levels.

The Kyoto Protocol formally came into effect in 2005. This was undoubtedly a good thing. However, only a year later – in May 2006 — talks over the implementation of the second commitment period (from 2012 to 2016) slipped into deadlock. Those talks centred on emissions reductions obligations for the developed nations during the second commitment period – a core issue in pushing forward the global movement to address climate change.

However, due to radically different political positions on reductions, and varying levels of social and economic development between countries, the talks have progressed slowly, despite four summit meetings being held up to September 2007. Talks are ongoing about how developed countries will meet their commitments, what their potential for emissions is, and the sacrifices they will have to make to meet their pledges.

The largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, the US, is proving the main obstacle to agreement. Although the Kyoto Protocol has been in place for three years, the US government continues to maintain a rigid stance, and to come up with all kinds of excuses not to sign on to it. Climate change is now a globally recognised phenomenon, but the current US administration shows no signs of changing its attitude on the issue.

The US has made superficial calls for climate protection. Examples include the long-term policies announced in May 2007, the meeting of the 17 largest emitters of greenhouse gases in September 2007, and, also in September 2007, assisting Australia with proposals to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum on climate change. However, none of these moves have changed the fact that the US still does not plan to make any substantive reductions in emissions. This has led many non-governmental organisations to accuse the country of putting on a political show over climate change.

Despite all this, international consensus, along with increasing pressure from domestic public opinion, has led recently to some subtle yet positive shifts in the American government’s policies and standpoints. The US may not have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, or agreed to meet any of its commitments under the agreement, but there are some encouraging signs. Since the Democratic Party won the congressional mid-term elections in 2006 and now controls the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the US Congress has considered a number of bills to protect the global climate.

On the state level, California and New Jersey have passed laws requiring companies to meet emissions-reduction obligations. Several other states and individual cities have implemented policies and taken steps to reduce emissions. Public support for emissions reductions in the US is extremely high, and candidates in the 2008 presidential election will have to either promote environmental policies or risk losing votes. If positive changes occur in US climate-change policy, they will have a huge effect on global efforts.

The EU has been the main driving force behind the Kyoto Protocol and is at the forefront of efforts to reduce emissions. To a large extent, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — which has won respect from international leaders and the global public, as well as the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — reflects the EU view on climate. The scientific views of the panel come mainly from European countries, and it is these countries that generally have done the greatest amount of research into climate change.

In negotiations over the approval of IPCC reports from three working groups, fierce debates emerged, largely between EU countries and other countries. Although this debate resulted in the reports being a little too political (and negatively influencing their scientific neutrality), it nonetheless reflects the importance that the EU nations attach to climate change and their determination to see emissions reduced.

The EU Spring Summit of 2007 put forward specific targets for cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases for the period to 2020. The key issues of the meeting, which took place in Brussels in March, were climate change and energy policy. EU members pledged to reduce emissions to 20% below 1990 levels, and to increase the share of total energy provided by renewable sources to 20% by 2020.

Whatever other countries decide to do, and whether or not the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol succeeds, the EU said, it will implement these policies in order to demonstrate its determination to take positive steps to tackle climate change.

The EU also stated that if other developed nations make similar commitments, it will consider reducing emissions to 30% below 1990 levels. Further along, the EU has plans to reduce emissions to 60 to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Norway – a non-EU member — plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 by taking measures at home and buying up carbon quotas from international markets.

Of course, the EU’s determination to cut emissions is not purely based on concern for the environment. There are also commercial considerations. For EU companies that own advanced low-carbon technologies, commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions have huge economic value.

The attitude of other countries to climate change is complicated. The economic contradictions that have existed for many years between developed and developing nations unavoidably influence each country’s position on climate change.

Under US influence, the non-European developed nations have started to display less positive attitudes to climate change. The Canadian administration that came into power in 2006 has brought itself into line with the US, and introduced new policies that represent a backward step in terms of tackling climate change. Canada has gone from being extremely positive to extremely passive on the issue, and has attracted criticism from former US vice president Al Gore (who shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with the IPCC), as well as from non-governmental organisations, including the Sierra Club of Canada.

Japan – which is no longer as actively involved as in the past — is waiting to see whether the US agrees to a second phase of climate-change commitments, and whether developing countries participate. The developing nations that were exempted from requirements to reduce emissions at Kyoto now are coming under increasing pressure. Calls for them to agree to reductions or limits on emissions are getting louder.

The developed nations want countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa – which have large populations and relatively high and increasing emission levels — to pledge to limit or reduce those emissions. In developed countries, the news media, government and public all are discussing how to persuade developing countries to join in such restrictions; they hope to use the opportunity presented by UNFCCC talks to encourage this participation.

Temporary disagreements that crop up during negotiations are not a big issue, because whatever happens, addressing climate change is the responsibility of the whole of humanity. Although the active participation of developing nations is required, of course, developed countries — and in particular the US — will have to set an example. The great nations have to face up to their moral responsibility, and cast aside political disagreements. Only by forming a consensus can we produce genuine results in emissions reductions, and find a way out of this looming climate crisis.


Lu Xuedu is deputy director-general of the Office of Global Environmental Affairs, a part of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology. Dr. Lu is a member of the UNFCCC Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) executive board and of the Chinese delegation for climate change negotiations.