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UN: Bali conference ends, new group to take up unresolved issues

January 2008

Nusa Dua, Bali, 16 Dec (Martin Khor) — The Bali Climate Change Conference concluded dramatically one day late on Saturday (15 December) afternoon after a dramatic day of events. The day (as the night before) was filled with the tension of deal making and deal breaking.

It saw tempers rising to boiling point, an accusation of mismanagement by the Secretariat that led to its top official taking leave temporarily in tears, a direct intervention of the UN Secretary-General and the Indonesian President to appeal to the countries to make a final deal, a seemingly recalcitrant United States holding the entire meeting to ransom, before several dramatic and angry appeals led finally to its announcement that it would “join the consensus.”

In the end, the conference agreed to launch a “comprehensive process” to tackle a long list of issues, including how to mitigate and adapt to climate change, as well as provide the financial resources and technology to developing counties to do so.

The Bali conference marked the fact that all the governments present accepted the scientific findings that global warming is “unequivocal” and that delay in reducing emissions increases the risk of more severe climate change impacts.

At previous meetings of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it was still being debated by a few governments whether climate change is really occurring or how serious it is.

The most significant result at Bali was the creation of an ad hoc working group on long-term cooperative action to discuss a wide range of issues under the four “building blocks” of mitigation, adaptation, finance and investment, and technology transfer.

Despite its low-key name, the group will carry much of the power of the UNFCCC in the next two years, and the talks it will hold (whether they take the form of formal negotiations or informal dialogues or probably a combination of the two) may well shape the structures and content not only of climate politics but also have ramifications for global economic and development issues, besides a range of environmental issues.

What was left out in the final document was as important as what managed to get in, after the many hours of wrangling. At least three controversial issues have been set aside for the time being, because there was no consensus, but are bound to re-appear when the group convenes its first meeting in March or April.

The first is whether issues other than the four building blocks will be included in the agenda of the group. Many developed countries had proposed topics such as the further commitments or contributions of developing countries, a level playing field for economic competitiveness, energy security and stronger cooperation with other international organizations (which some saw as meaning the WTO, among others).

Several of these topics had been looked at with suspicion or opposed by many developing countries as being not in the mandate of the UNFCCC or not “mature” enough for negotiations. An annex in an initial draft had contained sub-headings with the four traditional issues (mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology) as well as a fifth heading “Other Issues”, all to be filled in at Bali.

But in the end, the annex was dropped altogether. Perhaps there was too little time and too much controversy on what to add or leave out in such a list that would determine the agenda of the crucial next years. At the group’s first meeting, which will establish its work programme, these issues will be discussed, and the proponents of the “other issues” (actually “new issues”) are bound to put their proposals again on the table.

The second is whether the new process will lead to a new “comprehensive” agreement (which is what many developed countries expressed they wanted). Or whether the existing treaties governing climate change – the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol – will be retained largely unscathed and the focus will be on strengthening the implementation of decisions already adopted but not implemented (this is favoured by the G77 and China).

The developed countries made it clear that they want to radically change or replace the Kyoto Protocol and even parts of the Convention. The developing countries are deeply suspicious of this intention, as the two treaties are relatively friendly to their interests.

Under these present treaties, the developing countries do commit to take measures to fight climate change but they are not obliged to undertake legally binding emission reduction targets, and their efforts are conditioned by the extent to which the developed countries provide finance and technology.

Throughout the two weeks’ talks in Bali, the United States, Japan, Canada, European Union and Russia continuously pressed the developing countries to take on more obligations. Some called for binding reduction commitments.

In the final outcome, there was no mention that the working group would come up with a new “agreement”, but the pressures to alter some of the basic tenets of the existing treaties will resume at the group.

Many of the developing countries, in contrast, are adamant that the existing commitments of developed countries to their own emission reduction, and to providing finance and technology, be implemented. Thus, the emphasis placed by the G77 and China on a work programme on technology inside the subsidiary body on implementation, and on the monitoring of the finance and technology obligations through “measurable, reportable and verifiable” means.

Thirdly, the Bali document does not set a global target of reduction of Greenhouse Gases, nor a target for developed countries.

Originally, a 50% global cut by 2050 was proposed, and later the phrase “well below half” was used. The Europeans and NGOs were also pushing strongly for mentioning an “indicative range” of 25-40% emission cuts by 2020 (from 1990 levels) for developed countries.

But strong objections from the United States led to the removal of any figures. The battle between the US on one hand and the Europeans (supported by the G77 and China) on the other hand became the most politically charged exercise in the Bali conference’s last two nights and days. In the end, a footnote referring to the related data and targets from the intergovernmental panel on climate change was placed in the text as a compromise.

The main criticism against the US in Bali was the watering down of the text relating to the scientific facts. The next prominent criticism was its unreasonable demands on the developing countries, an attitude that led to the final dramatic exchanges on the plenary floor.

In the last two days in particular, the US became everyone’s (including former Vice President Al Gore’s) favourite target. On 13 December night, on the very eve of the scheduled conference closure, when things were supposed to be tidied up, the US threw in a bombshell of a proposal to amend the paragraphs on mitigation.

It wanted to do away with the present distinction between developed and developing countries, which is a fundamental tenet in the UNFCCC, and it suggested new ways of categorizing countries (for the all-important purpose of allocating mitigation responsibilities) according to emissions, energy use and levels of development. The US also advocated non-binding action, which would overthrow the principle and practice of binding emission reductions of developed countries.

The American proposal was rejected by the Europeans and the developing countries. It also caused intense outrage among the NGOs, which saw it as a ploy to wreck the Bali meeting, and move in its own rival non-binding approach through continued meetings of its “Major Economies” initiative.

This threat was eventually deflected. Perhaps the biggest achievement of Bali was the ability of the rest of the world to contain the US, get it to withdraw its proposal, and on the final day, pull it into accepting a consensus. The last was done by the other governments, supported from the floor by applause and boos from the NGOs.

At the end, the US agreed to take (or at least discuss) its own emission reduction commitment under the UNFCCC umbrella, although it had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol (which is where the legally-binding targets for emission reduction by developed countries are set).

How to engage with the US, in process and substantially, will be a major challenge in the working group. Most delegates (government and NGOs) openly hope that the next US Administration will act differently than the present one, and a kind of one-year “holding position” in which to continue engagement with the US until change happens will be one of the delicate acts of the new working group.

The Bali outcome says that a comprehensive process to enable the full implementation of the Convention through long-term cooperative action up to and beyond 2012 in order to reach an agreed outcome by addressing several issues that are then described.

The first two items, known as para b (I) and para b (ii), drew much of the energy and attention of the delegations in the final two days, and right up to the end.

Para b (I) deals with the mitigation actions of developed countries. The final text is as follows: “Measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives, by all developed country Parties, while ensuring the comparability of efforts among them, taking into account differences in their national circumstances.”

This is weaker than the previous text which in straightforward fashion asked for “Quantified national emission limitation and reduction commitments… by all developed country Parties…” The US had objected to this language and to the reference to the efforts by parties to the Kyoto Protocol in the previous text.

The final compromise was accepted by all as a means to get the US on board. It had to abandon its proposal for a non-binding multilateral system that did not specifically categorise countries as developed or developing.

Para b (ii) deals with the mitigation actions of developing countries. The final text reads: “Nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing country Parties in the context of sustainable development, supported by technology and enabled by financing, in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner.”

A large part of the drama of the final day was led by the G77 and China in their striving to get this language. According to G77 sources, this paragraph had been agreed to in long talks of the previous night in a small contact group of Ministers and officials. At the least it had been understood that the G77 would be given the opportunity to put in an amendment to a previous text which would be bracketed to denote that there was no consensus and therefore that delegates could propose amendments.

But on Saturday morning, to the shock of the members of the G77 and China, an un-bracketed text appeared which had the words “measurable, reportable and verifiable” up front, and which thus implied that only the mitigation actions by developing countries are referred to in this way. The G77 and China wanted both this and the actions by developed countries to provide technology and finance to be “measurable, reportable and verifiable.”

When behind-the-scenes consultations between Ministers and officials from China, India and Pakistan with the Indonesian Foreign Minister were taking place, the President of the Conference of Parties, the Indonesian Environment Minister, opened the plenary and placed this most sensitive document for adoption.

This was objected to on procedural grounds by the G77 and China members. After suspension of the plenary, it was re-convened again with the aim of adopting the draft decision, at which point China angrily asked why this was happening a second time when high-level consultations were still going on, and demanded an apology from the Secretariat.

The UN Secretary General and the Indonesian President made a dramatic entry and pleaded for flexibility and decisive action.

When the plenary finally convened, the G77 and China asked for their amendment to be adopted, i. e. that the words “measurable, reportable and verifiable” be placed at the end and not at the start of the sentence.

The EU said that it could accept the change. But the US said that it could not and wanted further consultations to be held. The hall gave out a loud boo, which is quite unprecedented in a diplomatic setting. Many developing countries spoke out, including an eloquent response by South Africa’s environment minister.

Some developing countries reminded the hall that the paragraph marked an important step forward for developing countries to undertake new mitigation commitments.

Most effective of all was the plea from the heart by Papua New Guinea, which told the US delegation that everyone was looking to it for leadership, and that it should now: “Either take the lead or get out of the way!”

In the end, swamped by criticisms and appeals from all sides, in the glare of the world media, the US gave in, and the Bali conference could then proceed to its end.

No country got from Bali what it really wanted, but no one was forced to take on something it found unacceptable.

But many of the battles that were fought here were not settled and the ball is now in the feet of the new working group. It will meet in March/April 2008 and three other times next year. The work programme can be expected to be even more intense in 2009, when it is mandated to reach a decision.

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