A warm welcome

“Are you here for the conference?” “Welcome to the conference!” A smiling young woman darts over to press a sticker onto my chest. I’ve just gotten off the plane in Bali and am feeling a bit disorientated after my 24-hour journey from Brussels.

At baggage reclaim I notice more round stickers bearing the logo of light and dark hands clasped in a handshake against the backdrop of a blue globe topped by a melting icecap. Behind that again, is a large tree split in half.

It could be a nod towards Christmas – it looks quite like a pine tree – but the tree is a reminder that deforestation is high up on the agenda here. Indonesia is the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter if you include deforestation.

One of the drivers of deforestation is demand for biofuels, or plant-based alternatives to diesel and petrol. Energy crops like palm oil are simply more lucrative than rainforest. They are also starting to displace food crops. Re-dressing the balance of incentives for land-use is one of the goals of this UN conference.

An Australian in the plant chemicals business whom I share my cab to the hotel with believes now is a crucial moment in the biofuels debate. “Big fuel companies like BP are starting to take up their positions,” he says, “and what research and crops they back will be critical.”

More on that as the week progresses no doubt. Meanwhile, scientists made an unexpected foray into policymaking on Thursday with a declaration calling on policymakers to recognise global warming must be limited to two degrees and global emissions halved by 2050.

This emphasises the threat depicted by the logo’s melting icecap. But how close are we to those two clasped hands needed to avoid it? In the first week of talks in Bali, several things have started to become clear.

There will in all likelihood be no mention of developing country emission caps in a post-2012 roadmap, Mr de Boer reportedly told journalists on Friday. This despite a recommendation to the contrary in a recent UN development programme report.

Instead, the US and developing countries appear to be endorsing sectoral energy efficiency commitments as a possible way forward. Although US chief climate policy negotiator Harlan Watson was quoted  as saying in the same breath “but not with specific targets or anything”. What this therefore means in practice I still need to investigate.

Australia, Canada and Japan have all been giving NGOs a headache. After receiving a three-minute standing ovation for ratifying the Kyoto treaty, Australia has refused to back 25-40 per cent emission cuts for developed nations by 2020. Meanwhile Japan has avoided all mention of halving emissions by 2050, which it proposed earlier this year.

Mr de Boer’s decision to focus first on tools, not targets, seems apt. But even on tools very different views persist. It’s hot in Bali and very humid. Yet the discomfort outside is probably matched by that in the air conditioned rooms within.

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