The final scene


“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.


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.”


 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.


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.”