US remains unconvinced

There was a marked change in the air as I entered the conference centre this morning. A lot more suits, a lot more ties – even the journalists have dressed up – and a palpable buzz. It seemed busy before, but this is different – more serious, more determined, more “right we’re getting down to business”.

 “As we convene here in Bali, the eyes of the world are upon us,” UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon told ministers in their first plenary session at 10am, “the time for evocation is over, the time to act is now.”

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 Mr Ban reminded those present of the strong call for action they issued at a high-level UN meeting in New York in September. He reminded them of the science they backed when they signed off the last Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) report in November.

But, it seems, despite having been party to both these actions, one country still does not believe in them. The US is refusing to accept that emission reduction guidelines drawn up by the IPCC should guide negotiations on a new climate treaty over the next two years. This is inexplicable unless you conclude they do not believe the science.

“We want to launch a process that is open and does not preclude options,” head of the US delegation Paula Dobriansky told journalists this morning. “Once numbers appear in text it predetermines outcomes… it will drive negotiations in one direction,” clarified colleague Harlan Watson.

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But isn’t this the point? The goal of negotiations must be to prevent dangerous climate change. The IPCC defines this as global warming over two degrees Celsius. The IPCC also says that to ensure a temperature rise below this requires developed countries to commit to 25-40 per cent emission cuts by 2020.

Yet the US is insisting this range should not guide negotiations over the next two years. And even stranger, it seems to be getting its way. Of course we are at the start of three days of ministerial-level talks, but UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon today appeared to confirm suggestions by UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer yesterday that the US position could be accommodated.

“It may be too ambitious if delegations expect to be able to agree on targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, but as I told you sometime down in the road we will have to agree on that,” he said. Mr de Boer clarified once again the discussion is about a guiding range, not targets, but this seems to make the US position even stranger.

Mr Ban named “domestic business” and “national policy” as two reasons behind US reservations. Dr Dobriansky welcomed the IPCC report as “an affirmation of climate change that needs to be addressed” but suggested that since it covers 177 scenarios, the 25-40 per cent cuts one need not be the sole guiding principle for future talks.

It is essential to have the US on board a new climate agreement. Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was interrupted by applause when he said as much in the plenary this morning. But how effective can a roadmap be that does not set out a clear goal?

“I’m sure we will not be able to convince developing countries to commit themselves without having a clear decision about the reduction targets of the developed countries, including the US,” says German environment minister Sigmar Gabriel. “We can negotiate about instruments over the next years, but what we cannot do in Bali is forget what the international science told us in the last two months.”

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