The final scene

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“Although we are in Bali I don’t believe that anyone has seen the beach,” said Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia’s environment minister and chairman of the UN climate talks in Bali in the closing stages of the conference on Saturday. That is about to change.

Long before the final press briefing was over the conference centre was emptying out. Once the gavel had fallen on the Bali roadmap, exhilaration turned quickly into relief, then exhaustion. Taxis may have been bound for bed rather than the beach.

Despite their obvious tiredness, Mr Witoelar and UNFCCC climate chief Yvo de Boer were upbeat when they faced the media at the end of the day. Mr de Boer told journalists he’d been waking up reciting “launch, agenda, end date” during the night for months.

“Today, all three have come out,” he happily concluded. Mr de Boer described the new agreement as “ambitious” – because it “very clearly” references the IPCC science – “transparent” – because it specifically asks business and civil society for input – and “flexible” – because it brings on board all developed and developing countries.

The EU joined in the all-round praise: “We consider this to be a historical day with a historical outcome, everything will be different in relation to climate change,” said Portugal’s environment minister Francisco Correia Nunes, speaking on behalf of the bloc.

Yes the text demands absolute emission reductions from all developed countries, insisted his junior counterpart Humberto Rosa. This wasn’t obvious to many journalists – including me – and one can’t help but wonder what the US take on it is. No getting hold of the Americans just then however.

Green groups were less enthused – not that that’s unusual – with WWF calling the deal “weak on substance” and Greenpeace lamenting the lack of reference to “crucial cuts” and the “relegation of science to a footnote”.

Carbon market insiders like Abyd Karmali at Merril Lynch said the agreement gave a “somewhat bullish” – i.e. positive – signal to the post-2012 carbon market. Mr Karmali welcomed the agreement on deforestation, a recognition that the Kyoto’s Clean development mechanism (CDM)  must be enhanced, and the 2009 deadline to finish talks on a new treaty. One of the text’s major disappointments, he added, was the absence of quantitative emission reduction targets.

Whether valid or not, I am starting to think perhaps these criticisms, in fact all criticisms are not so important right now. For a moment on Saturday the threat of no agreement at all suddenly became very real. It was an eerie, unsettling feeling.

The key turning point was the impassioned speech by Indonesia’s president followed by UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon. “The mood of the room suddenly exploded,” says Mr de Boer wonderingly. A compromise became possible. And perhaps we should celebrate this, rather than ponder all that was left behind on the negotiating table.

Looking ahead, there are challenges, yes, the largest of which many say will be competition with the US major emitters’ initiative for resources in terms of staff and time for negotiations. Four Bali roadmap meetings are planned for 2008, versus one a month for the US initiative I am told.

But even this can wait for a moment. I’m still in Bali and must congratulate Mr de Boer on highlighting one other element that undoubtedly made much possible these last two weeks – the extremely friendly and respectful approach of the Indonesians themselves.

Of course what I’m going to say is I’d like to experience more of Indonesia, preferably on a Bali beach tomorrow, but at the same time it’s worth noting that if the atmosphere of mutual goals and respect that finally prevailed here can be upheld at future talks, the destination may yet become as real as the roadmap.

P.S. For those of you who want a concise overview of exactly what was agreed in Bali – including decisions on the Kyoto protocol – I recommend this European commission memo.

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.