Bali: the mother of all no-deals

The Bali conference on climate change is over. But the fight against climate change has only just begun. The message from Bali is the fight will be downright brutal and selfish. Let us cut through the histrionics of the Bali conference to understand that as far as an agreement is concerned, the world has not moved an inch from where it stood on climate some 17 years ago, when negotiations began. The only difference is that emissions have increased; climate change is at dangerous levels. Only if we drastically cut emissions, will we succeed in avoiding a full-blown catastrophe.

Let’s understand what was agreed (or not) in Bali. The conference ended with an action plan—an agreement to begin talks, since the world recognized the need for deep emission cuts and an end to negotiations in two years. For developed countries, the agreement will include “measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions (my emphasis), including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives (again my emphasis)…ensuring comparability of efforts among them, taking into account their...circumstance”.

Understand now what this un legalese means. Firstly, no targets have been set for developed nations to cut emissions; no timeframe has been set by when emission would have to peak and then fall sharply. Secondly, it accepts that the countries will take on actions, not commitments. Countries will have voluntary targets, which can be quantified or be in the form of reduction objectives. This negates (if not destroys) the previous global consensus (leaving out renegades like the us) that the developed (rich and high carbon debt world) must take on emission-reduction commitments, the targets must be agreed through multilateral processes and these must be legally binding and enforceable.

Now compare this consensus to the first draft of the Bali action plan and tell me if you think we won or lost in Bali. Under the agreement, “The Annex 1 countries (the already industrialized countries) as a group would reduce emissions in the range of 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and that global emissions of greenhouse gases would need to peak in the next 10-15 years and be reduced to very low levels, well below half of the levels in 2000 by 2050.” A no-brainer conclusion, I would think.

But why then make a big deal of Bali? Two reasons: one, because developing countries managed to fight off a sneaky and underhand attempt to include them in the group that would take on commitments. This is part of the age-old battle. We know that the us (and Japan, Canada and New Zealand) leading with many hiding at the back have insisted for 17 years that they will not do anything till emerging big polluters like China, India, Brazil and South Africa are asked to cut emissions.

We also know that to get the us on board, the Europeans time and again try to persuade reluctant parties. This game has been played ad naseum and was played in Bali. The first draft of the agreement said it would include “means to recognize, in a measurable and verifiable manner, national mitigation actions by developing country parties that limit the growth of, or reduce, emissions”. In other words, actions by these countries to either reduce or avoid emissions would be recognized and these would need to be measurable and verifiable. But this text was amended at the last minute. Words were craftily twisted. Now the plan said developing country parties would take “measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation actions”. In other words, take on commitments. Worse, the rephrasing was done behind the backs of G-77 and China and the meeting to pass it was called on the sly. Nasty, despicable actions.

This is when the Indians (and others) got up to demand change. The final agreement calls for “appropriate mitigation actions by developing countries” in a “measurable, reportable and verifiable manner”. This was a mock-battle, because the draft would never have been acceptable to developing countries. But damage has been done. As the European Union and the secretariat of the climate convention were seen to back this re-worded action plan, trust has been eroded. Now developing countries will be even more reluctant to engage. Hardliners will say, “we told you so”.

But there is a more serious reason to take Bali seriously. This is the real battle, the one we all lost. For long the us has been insistent on its way to combat climate change, which is based on voluntary action. This was never accepted because the world was certain that to combat climate change it needs a multilateral agreement, with hard targets and measures for compliance. That is why the world agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, which set small and hesitant targets for rich nations. The us didn’t sign it. Now, even as we understand the urgency and the desperation of climate change, the world powers have reneged on all of us.

We in India have to particularly note this decision. The fact is that we would also prefer the us way. It is convenient because we think that when we have to join the global climate agreement, it will give us the ultimate cop-out. It is possibly for this reason, I am hearing from India’s senior negotiators, a tacit acceptance of this no-deal. To justify this approach, they say that the mandatory approach is not working. Emissions of many target-bound countries are increasing. They say as the world can’t hold the rich nations accountable, it may be best to agree on the mother of all compromises—to let the us decide in the interest of us all on its way to not cut emissions.

This is the real thorn on the road to Copenhagen—where the agreement has to be signed in 2009. How do we pressure the us ? Let’s discuss this again and again to find real answers.

Sunita Narain