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Too little, too late

by Hans Dembowski
Humankind needs fast progress to curb global warming. The outcome of the climate conference in Bali makes it conceivable that such progress might be made in time. To make it probable, however, more stringent decisions should have been taken. [ By Hans Dembowski ]

In the end, the US delegation was completely isolated at the UN conference on climate change in Bali. If they hadn’t budged, the USA would have become the single country to let an international agreement supported by 186 other countries fall through. So Washington’s emissaries conceded. The pressure the international community applied on the super power thus prevented a diplomatic disaster. Whether it will suffice to avert climate disaster is a rather different matter.

What was achieved in Bali was only the bare minimum of what was needed. The international community now has a roadmap for detailed negotiations in order to draw up a global emissions agreement by 2009. However, it would have made sense to spell out reduction targets immediately. However, it was only established that the scientific findings of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) should guide joint political action.

As is commonly known, the IPCC says that the greenhouse emissions of industrialised countries must fall by 25 to 40 % below the 1990 level by 2020 to limit the average increase in the world’s temperature to two degrees Celsius; and by 2050, emissions worldwide have to fall by 50 %.

Such targets would be completely unattainable, if the conference in Bali had ended without a negotiation mandate. No global problem can be solved without international cooperation. The timetable for talks that was adopted in Bali, however, only makes the progress needed conceivable, whereas a more stringent negotiating mandate could have made it probable.

Some steps in the right direction were taken. It is now official consensus that not only rich nations must reduce their emissions. Developing and newly industrialising countries also have to take measurable and verifiable action; but it was also agreed that the rich countries must support their endeavours – over and above their own reduction duties.

For good reason, countries like India and China insisted that this must be so. Their greenhouse emissions per capita are much lower than those of rich nations. Moreover, it is the forerunners of industrialisation – not the latecomers – who have caused the climate change humankind is already witnessing. The USA’s demand that all countries be treated the same was absurd from the very outset.

A second important decision was to finance the Adaptation Fund, which is designed to help poor nations to cope with the consequences of climate change, with a two-percent levy on CDM transfers. CDM stands for “clean development mechanism”, a scheme, according to which emission entitlements can be traded internationally, thus allowing for environmental sins in one country to be compensated by emissions reductions elsewhere. It is estimated that the Adapation Fund will be worth $ 80 billion to $ 300 billion by 2012. In this early stage of talks, it does not matter that this figure is still rather vague. The dimension looks adequate.

The third positive message is that the world’s forests will be taken seriously as important carbon sinks in future. Again, the details remain vague. However, it is obvious that international climate diplomacy has avoided this subject for too long. As a result, the host country Indonesia is now one of the largest greenhouse emitters in the world because of deforestation.

Let’s not forget, however, that the Kyoto Protocol is ten years old. It is depressing that human activity has not slowed down global warming in all this time, but rather sped it up. We have no more time to lose – but the urgency is still not apparent to everyone.

It is certainly positive that China, India and Brazil – increasingly assertive powers among the developing countries – did act responsibly, while insisting on legitimate demands. These governments seem fully aware of the immense threat climate change poses to their people. None of them risked failure in Bali on their own account. Sadly, that cannot be said of the USA.