The road from Bali

With the Bali climate meeting over, Kevin Rudd must put behind him the applause and back-slapping and put meat on the bare bones of his climate change policies. [18 December 2007 | Peter Boyer]

Bali is quiet again. The tumult and shouting has died, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, and the captains and kings have departed. What are we left with?

This meeting was to set the world’s nations on the path to a new climate agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, and to tackle issues that were left hanging at Kyoto, notably the role of developing countries.

It was to add new rigor to the political discussion by raising the bar for early emissions targets. And it was to start the process of bringing the world champion carbon-emitter, the United States, back into the fold.

It’s a fact of life about international negotiations that after each meeting, each participant can put pretty well whatever spin they like on the results. All governments are talking up the Bali meeting, but behind the scenes is another story altogether.

Governments are used to redefining problems and shifting timetables to suit their own needs. It’s called diplomacy. But global warming isn’t changed by humans talking – only by physical action.

From the outset, the major schism was between most developing countries and the US, which found itself in a spoiler role. In the final plenary session, challenged to “lead, follow or get out of the way”, the US delegation was forced into last-minute concessions.

The meeting had barely closed when George W. Bush expressed “serious concerns”, speaking of the “legitimate” right of every country to economic growth and a need for developing countries to take more responsibility for cutting emissions.

But there was progress. First, 188 nations agreed to continue talking, through a meeting in Poznan, Poland next year leading up to Copenhagen late in 2009, where a successor to Kyoto is to be negotiated.

These talks will cover the need for every country – including developing ones – to take “measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate” steps to reduce their emissions. They will also explore ways of helping poorer countries cope with the challenges of climate change.

The 39 developed countries that have ratified Kyoto, including Australia, agreed to set tougher targets for themselves, guided (but not bound) by scientific advice that by 2020 they’ll have to cut emissions by up to 40 per cent below 1990 levels.

But it’s still no more than talk. As Kipling warns, national pride can come to nothing: “Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / is one with Nineveh and Tyre! / Judge of the Nations, spare us yet / Lest we forget, lest we forget!”

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