USA 2, Rest Of The World 0 Bali Climate Conference

USA 2, Rest Of The World 0

Bali Climate Conference

SO, yet another international conference on climate change, this time in the scenic Indonesian island of Bali, has come to an end without anything to show for it except a decision to meet again. This despite greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have gone up by more than 11 percent since the first global meet in Rio in 1991 and despite the Kyoto Treaty having come into effect mandating a 5 percent reduction of emissions by 36 industrialised countries. And despite the stark warning contained in the recently released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), endorsed even by governments the world over, that GHG concentrations in the atmosphere are on the verge of causing irreversible, probably catastrophic, climate change that could endanger all human life on earth.

This Conference of Parties (COP 13) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, attended by 190 countries, was expected to take serious note of these scientific findings and the consequent recommendations for immediate action to stabilise and then reduce emissions, steps that are essential to save the planet and, in the short term, save vast numbers of humankind especially the poor from all manners of deprivations. Bali was important also because its main agenda was to commence negotiations for framing emission reduction targets during the next and decisive phase of the Kyoto Treaty commencing 2012. Given the context of the latest IPCC report, and the miserable compliance of the advanced capitalist countries with the Kyoto targets in the first phase, there had been widespread expectations that the Bali Conference would work out decisive measures.

But nothing of the kind happened. Instead, the Conference was derailed by an intransigent US. Once again, as during the very framing of the Kyoto Treaty, when the US forced concession after concession as a price for staying on board but after securing the maximum dilution possible cynically refused to ratify it, the US ensured that nothing substantive emerged except high-sounding platitudes that it has no intention of honouring. And once again, various dignitaries and heads of delegations, including India’s own minister for science & technology Kapil Sibal, declared that the Conference had been a “breakthrough” because the US had at least come on board. The US has once again played its familiar blackmailing tactics of No Treaty with Me, No Treaty without Me. US 2, Rest of the World Nil.

No targets, no progress

For the record, COP 13 adopted a so-called roadmap, an outline and set of ideas that would ostensibly guide the negotiation process that will ultimately lead to a post-2012 agreement. For all the wrangling over words, phrases and punctuation marks, the Bali roadmap is worded vaguely enough so that any nations can interpret it their own way in the months to come. At least, the Conference at least set a timeframe for reaching agreement by 2009 in COP 15 at Copenhagen.

The Bali roadmap mercifully does takes cognizance of “findings of IPCC that climate change is unequivocal and delay in reducing emissions will damage efforts and increase impact of climate change,” therefore decides to launch a process that would include “a long-term global goal for emission reductions” and also recognises that “deep cuts in emissions will be required”.  But crucially, and perhaps the most cruel outcome of the Bali “success” was the fact that, no targets were set or even broadly outlined for emission reductions. Indeed there was no mention even of binding targets, a concept that the US under the Bush administration plainly abhors. Inaugurating the Conference, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had implored the delegates to choose the right direction, saying “one path leads to a comprehensive climate change agreement, the other to oblivion.” Why the Bali declaration is being hailed by some quarters is a mystery!

While the EU was pushing aggressively for at least mentioning if not mandating an emissions reduction target for developed countries of 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels, a target also contained in a UN Draft in Bali, severe US pressure ensured that no numbers were mentioned. Even a compromise to mention some numbers in footnotes was rejected by the US. Finally, the dubious device was adopted of the Conference Declaration including a footnote simply making reference to certain sections (pages 39 and 90 of the Technical Summary of Working Group III) of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC!

It is worthwhile briefly recalling the relevant conclusions of the IPCC, finalised after many months of discussions and peer review of published material by the world’s scientists and endorsed by all governments.

The IPCC Report asserts that the setting of emission reduction targets is “… an important element of any climate agreement… Goal setting also helps structure commitments and institutions, provides an incentive to stimulate action and helps establish criteria against which to measure the success in implementing measures.”

As to the targets themselves, based on detailed calculations and climate modeling with over 90 per cent accuracy, the Report states that in order to contain temperature rise to within about 2.5 degrees Celsius (a terrible enough prospect estimated to result, among other horrors, in rising sea levels inundating many islands and vast coastal areas, and drop in foodgrain output in India by 30-40 per cent), global emissions “should decline before 2015 and be further reduced to less than 50 per cent of today’s emissions by 2050” (AR4/WG3 p.39-40). Also, “developed countries as a group would need to reduce their emissions significantly by 2020 (10-40 per cent below 1990 levels) and to still lower levels by 2050 (40-95 per cent) for low to medium stabilisation levels.” (AR4/WG3 p.90)

Roadmap Signposts

The Bali roadmap does, however, contain some signage that may indicate the direction in which most national delegations think and mark out the lines along which negotiations are likely to proceed in the months to come.

One of the most challenging issues before the Conference, again foregrounded by the US, was whether developing countries or at least the larger ones should also reduce emissions from present levels. The Conference reiterated the Kyoto principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” wherein all nations should take on responsibility for checking climate change but those with historical responsibility for most of the problem, that is the industrialised countries who have contributed roughly 80 per cent of accumulated GHGs in the atmosphere, should take on most of the burden now. This is reflected in the Bal roadmap which calls for “measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation actions, including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives” (the italicised phrase added upon US insistence to provide it an excuse for going its own way later) by all developed countries, but omits quantified reductions for developing countries “in the context of sustainable development, supported by technology and enabled by financing and capacity-building.”

Much is being made, including by the Indian delegation, of this phraseology which is being projected as a victory for developing countries. Fact is, it is only a reiteration of earlier principles and does not mean that pressure will not continue to be applied on large developing nations such as China and India to take substantive measures.

It should be noted that the declaration does not include any language on the accountability of developed countries for quantified emission reductions and, of course, the issue of penalties for default was never even raised. Significant also, especially for China and India, is the fact that the clause on developing countries does not say “all” as it does in the case of developed countries, leaving the door open for some differentiation later among groups of developing countries.

Deforestation was another major issue at Bali, with the IPCC having recorded that measures to prevent further deforestation in tropical countries could help reduce emissions by as much as 20 per cent. Brazil led a strong rearguard action to ward off what it perceived could be unilateral diktats on it and other similar states to protect forests for the benefit of the world at its own economic and developmental cost. The Bali declaration therefore spoke of the need to adopt “policy approaches and positive incentives” to check deforestation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

Empty promises

There has also been much unjustified hype about the Bali conference having agreed to financially assist developing countries in adapting to the adverse effects of climate change. Adaptation is of course a major concern and, in the tortuous process of international climate negotiations, at one stage threatened to overshadow emission reductions as the major goal, until the full severity of the crisis was acknowledged and it was recognized that prevention should be the prime focus even while remedial action received due attention. The Bali Conference saw the so-called launch of an Adaptation Fund. It is not clear where any money for it will come from, since the US blocked a proposal for “ensuring sufficient, predictable, additional and sustainable financial resources” for adaptation. The Adaptation Fund itself was set up many years ago with a percentage of fund transfers from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) supposed to come into it. Numerous companies and many countries including India have benefited substantially from the CDM but no money has ever been contributed to the Adaptation Fund, exposing the CDM as just another money-spinning scheme for corporates.

The decision in Bali may have the same zero outcome. The Declaration is full of appeals to “Parties who can to contribute” basing the entire system on voluntarism. And although different Working Groups at Bali recommended that fund disbursals be done by the UNFCCC, there is little to suggest that in practice the Adaptation Fund will be administered in an open and transparent manner. Experience with CDM and other funds now administered by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has been that the system is opaque, dominated by the developed North and a plethora of international bureaucrats and consultants. That the Fund is to be administered by the GEF with the World Bank as Trustee, even if only provisionally, is a matter of further concern.

The Indian media has been full of laudatory reportage, no doubt resulting from official releases and spin, about India’s role at Bali especially on protecting developing countries from binding targets and in forcing improved measures for technology transfer from developed countries. While the former was never seriously in doubt, the latter has been over-hyped.

The Indian stance gained some publicity, albeit little in the international press, when the penultimate plenary session was suspended because India pressed for an amendment to strengthen the technology transfer clause. The US delegation led by Under Secretary of State Paula J Dobriansky objected, thus disrupting the consensus governing UNFCCC decisions, and setting off loud booing by the delegates. More than the Indian stance, it was the angry demand of the delegate from tiny Papua New Guinea, beamed on TV worldwide,  that shamed the US into withdrawing its objection: “We seek your leadership, but if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.”

In fact this was just typical US roughneck tactics and the clause adopted is still only words. In an Annex to the Recommendations of the Subsidiary Body on Science & Technology, it is recommended that Parties “avoid trade and intellectual rights policies, or lack thereof, restricting transfer of technology,” putting corporates in developed countries holding monopoly over knowledge on a par with developing nations and the people of the world requiring such planet-saving technology, and running away from the need to remove IPR restrictions from climate-related technologies.

Back to Square One                     

In a sense, global climate negotiations are back where they began more than a decade and a half ago. All the old issues are up for debate once again. How much of a cap should be placed on emissions, who should do what, who will pay for technologies and adaptation, and how? Concerted public campaigns to build greater and more pressure on governments will be required in the months ahead. Some straws in the wind may be heeded.

Nobel Laureate and former US vice-president Al Gore told delegates at Bali not to enter into useless compromises with the US just for the sake of consensus, and to to wait it out till the next US president takes office! But what is the certainty that the next US president will in fact do a U-turn? The newly elected Australian Labour prime minister did just that at Bali because public opinion at home was solidly ranged against the previous government’s US-like stance. In the US itself, public pressure is mounting, with more than 25 states now having adopted Kyoto-like targets threatening to render the federal government irrelevant, forcing even the obdurate George W Bush into at least verbally acknowledging climate change and not wanting to be seen as totally obstructionist.

India, and other emerging economies, need hard introspection. It is no longer enough to argue that “development” (for whom?) gets priority over all else. India too needs to set targets for emissions mitigation, not from today’s levels but from projected growth and rates of growth, as argued earlier in these columns. Indeed, the IPCC Report in the footnoted reference in the Bali Declaration, says as much: “Developing country emissions need to deviate below their projected baseline emissions within the next few decades”. India must do more and so must everybody else.