Planet’s future at stake as delegates gather in Bali for climate conference

Planet’s future at stake as delegates gather in Bali for climate conference

2 December 2007
The future of the planet may be at stake. Delegates from 190 countries gather on the resort island of Bali over the next two weeks to try to head off a scientific forecast of catastrophic floods and droughts, melting ice caps, disappearing coastlines and deadly heat waves.

As they begin negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, they will largely tinker with and test phrasings and nuance. Some words – “commitments,” “binding,” “voluntary” – could set off storms of argument before the conference ends Dec. 14.

But that is to be expected when drawing together nations rich and poor with very different political and historical backgrounds, said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environmental Program, adding that the main thing is that dialogue is taking place.

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented and historic challenge,” he said, adding that attendees will “confront a fundamental phenomena of environmental change that has the potential to threaten the global economy. … It is central to the future development of this planet.”

Last month in Spain, a Nobel Prize-winning U.N. network of scientists issued a capstone report after six years of study saying that carbon and other heat-trapping “greenhouse gas” emissions must stabilize by 2015 and then decline. Without action, they said, temperatures will rise, changing the world.

The Arctic ice cap melted this year by the greatest extent on record. Scientists say oceans are losing some ability to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, the chief industrial emission blamed for warming. And the world’s power plants, cars and jetliners are spewing out carbon at an unprecedented rate.

But while everyone risks being affected by rising temperatures, the future lies largely in the hands of a few major carbon emitters.

The United States has long said it would not sign any treaty that calls for mandatory emissions cuts and showed no sign of budging ahead of the meeting, while China and India have said any measures impinging on their booming economies or ability to lift millions out of poverty were unacceptable.

Together the three nations will account for more than half the world’s total carbon emissions by 2015, said Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency.

The Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 annex to the 1992 U.N. climate treaty, requires 36 industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2010.

The United States and Australia were the only major industrial nations to reject the pact, arguing its relatively modest cutbacks would damage their economies and that quotas should have been imposed on poor but fast-developing countries.

But in Bali, the Americans will stand alone. Australian Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd, whose party swept to power in general elections just one week ago, immediately put signing the Kyoto pact at the top of his international agenda, providing new leverage at the upcoming talks.

At best, analysts believe, Bali could lead to a two-year negotiation in which the United States under a new administration, the Europeans and other industrial nations commit to deepening blanket emissions cuts. And they say major developing countries could agree to enshrine some national policies – China’s auto emission standards, for example, or energy-efficiency targets for power plants – as international obligations.

Japan, which has proposed cutting global emissions by 50 percent by 2050 but opposes mandatory caps for individual nations, argued this week that the agreement should be flexible in order to draw as many parties to the table as possible.

The Bali balancing act will be further complicated by other issues: compensating tropical nations for scaling back deforestation; financing ways to help poor nations cope with climate change’s ravages, and clearing obstacles to getting advanced energy technology into the developing world’s hands.

Source: Jakarta Post