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In Bali - radical commitments

David Steven
15 December 2007

With Bali's biggest decision now made, the media pack has rushed off to file stories, source reaction, or get drunk on the beach. But the action here in plenary is not quite done.

In a meeting under the ‘Kyoto track', countries have just signed up to the kind of ambitious goals that were washed out of the main Bali declaration.

This decision affects all countries that have ratified Kyoto (most of the world other than the USA).  This includes Australia. For the first time, it expressed "strong support" for a goal of reducing rich country emissions by 25-40% by 2020, from a 1990 baseline.

It all happened in a plenary meeting of the "Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex 1 Parties Under the Kyoto Protocol" - known for brevity as the AWG.

It's a common misconception that Kyoto expires in 2012, but in fact that just marks the end of the first commitment period. Here in Bali, countries have started to negotiate post-2012 commitments for industrialized countries who have ratified Kyoto.

This process will proceed in parallel to work looking at a post-2012 deal for all countries, although the two tracks could end up being rolled into one in 2009 when/if a new climate compact is agreed.

This may all sound rather technical, but it's important, as we will see below.

But first back to today's agreement, which sets out a work plan for AWG negotiations. As this evening's plenary kicked off, the plan was not controversial. The main area of outstanding disagreement was the ‘shared vision' of the challenge that the negotiations would seek to address.

Two options were on the table.

Option 1 was brief and technical, referring readers to various decisions taken at a previous session. Option 2, however, was both much longer and much stronger in its content.

Based on IPCC science, it agrees that:

  • Emissions need to peak in the next 10-15 years.
  • Be reduced to "very low levels" and well below half of 2000's levels by 2050.
  • Industrialized countries must take the lead by reducing their overall emissions in the 25-40% range.
  • This reduction will make a major contribution to combating climate change, but it will not stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations on its own (e.g. developing countries will need to do their bit at some stage).

These goals have been agreed by all major industrialized countries, bar the USA. Australian agreement was a first for a country that has only just ratified the Kyoto protocol and goes a long way to clearing up ambiguity about depth of Australian commitment to emissions reduction.

But the agreement notes that these cuts may not be enough, especially for low-lying island states and those poor countries that are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

These countries have pointed out that very little scientific work has been done on greenhouse gas stabilization targets below 450ppm. As a result, a commitment is included to review the targets in the light of new evidence as it emerges.

So is the AWG a big deal? The answer is a qualified "yes". Negotiations on future Kyoto commitments will have a packed schedule, a key goal for the European Union here in Bali. The Europeans pushed for that for a reason.

Their strategy is to get rich countries working hard to negotiate radical emission reductions without the US in the room. The aim will be for this group to act as pathfinders for the wider deal, setting a clear benchmark for re-engaging the next US administration.

Now not all countries are fans of this approach. Canada, in particular, expressed reluctance to sign, but backed down because it didn't want to appear obstructive (especially in a week when its prized image as an international citizen has taken a mighty battering).

Japan was also wary of signing up. It does not move too fast without the US, and to a less extent the major developing countries, participating.

But the EU has become a fan of the unilateralist approach. It has already agreed a unilateral 20% target for 2020 and has committed to 30% if others join in. It will now try and get the AWG to show similar leadership.

Set out your stall, runs the logic, and you make it easier for developing countries to sign up to do their bit, while increasing pressure on the world's superpower. It's a concerted attempt to shape the next two years of negotiations. And momentum will be easier to attain now Australia is on board.
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