Leaving Bali for a European destination

David Steven
15 December 2007

The European Union had the last word at Bali and that was probably fitting. They made many concessions and looked at times as if they could be bossed by both the Americans and the large developing countries.

But, all in all, Europe had a good conference. They have become climate change's playmakers, pursuing a strategy that has surprising subtlety. If the Bali roadmap takes us anywhere, it will probably be due to the effectiveness with which the Europeans wield their new-found influence.

Success is not guaranteed - far from it. Bali was a tiny challenge compared to what lies ahead. And if you scroll through my account of this afternoon's extraordinary roller-coaster, you'll see how close we came to not even making it out of the starting gates.

But there'll be more reflection on the downbeat stuff after I get back home. For this, the final post from Bali, let's look at what will happen if everything goes to plan and we manage to come up with a new global deal to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in the years after 2012.

So where is the Bali roadmap pointing?

First of all, it helps to remember that this is now a two-track process. One track involves all countries - and as such got the lion's share of media attention this week. But the other is equally important, and the links between the two need to be explored.

The latter is the fast track and is reserved for countries that have ratified Kyoto. That's almost all of the world, bar the US and a handful of other refuseniks. But the core Kyoto group is the industrialized (or annex 1) countries. They're the one that have taken on targets under the agreement.

On the Kyoto track, and following a decision this afternoon, these countries will start working on a second round of greenhouse gas emission reductions. The negotiating programme will be intensive and, by February 2009, we should have a rough idea of what scale of cuts each country can envisage making by 2020.

The EU has already done much of that work, saying it will cut 20% from its emissions whatever anyone else does (this from a 1990 benchmark) and 30% or more, if others chip in and do their bit.

Australia, too, is likely to adopt new targets next year, after its version of the Stern review reports. That will leave Japan and Canada as the key countries who will have to be convinced.

But they can expect to see the commitments made at Bali waved in their faces. They have signed up now, however reluctantly, to a broad aim to see global emissions peak within a decade. The pressure on them to live up to this is going to be intense.

So imagine it all works out and, early in 2009, the Kyoto club has indicated what it would be prepared to commit to in Copenhagen at the end of the year (this is supposed to be the conference that marks the end of the Bali process).

Then, focus would switch to the other, slower track. This track splits the world into developed and developing countries, and will have probably spent most of the year getting itself up and running, and dealing with less-controversial technical issues.

This is the track on which the US will sit. As the only developed country not to be on the fast track, it will have been left in relative peace by its counterparts. But now it will come under pressure to act for three reasons.

First, there is already a growing realisation within the US of the strength of the science, motivating a patchwork of federal, state, city, and civil society actions.

Second, it will have just elected a new administration, which will be desperate to use its first hundred days to re-engage with the rest of the world.

And third, it will find that its predecessor has signed it up to make "comparable efforts" to other developed countries. Bali's seemingly weak text will thus begin to bite.

The US, meanwhile, will be asking China and India to take on a meaningful commitment to slow the rate at which their emissions rise. That could, if all goes well, begin to bring all of the developing countries into the system.

The aim will be for every country to do its bit, taking on a "fair share" depending on its level of development and current per capita emissions.

Now none of this is going to be simple. Success will not be dictated by governments alone, but by the national will that they can summon to the cause. If the social and political conditions are wrong, then very little of substance will ever be agreed.

But what is interesting is that you can see clearly how the European strategy has been constructed.

  • Take a unilateral commitment first.
  • Next bring on board others prepared to move ahead of the pack.
  • Only then bring the US - the problem player - into the thick of the action, and do so at a time when the country will be desperate to re-engage with the wider world.
  • And finally, persuade developed countries to do their bit, using a blend of three arguments. First, that rich countries have committed to action first. Second, that incentives are on the table, to help the switch from dirty to clean tech. And finally that not to act is unfair on countries that are poorer and more vulnerable (expect India to hear a lot from low-lying Bangladesh, for example).

Now all of this strikes me as quite entrepreneurial international politics. It's not, to be honest, what I expect from the stuffy, bureaucratic and hidebound European Union.

But climate is a risk that crosses all borders, and the EU is itself a boundary-spanning institution, jerry rigged together in response to a continent-wide cataclysm.

The EU learnt the hard way about the benefits of cooperation over conflict. Over the last 50 years it has all too slowly formed an internal European means of working together.

Perhaps we should not be surprised if, in the age of a changing climate, it is beginning to apply that experience globally by forging new political alignments on the international stage.

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