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.”

The darkest hour

I made CAN’s briefing this morning despite being up till 3am. Not sure whether this is due to jetlag or excitement, but either way it’s working out pretty well – definitely getting the most out of my time here.

Today is the Kyoto protocol’s 10th anniversary and the front page of the daily conference programme lists four events to mark the occasion, from a Greenpeace celebration complete with “giant birthday cake” to a “poolside party” at dusk.

Yet there was not much of a party atmosphere at the CAN briefing.

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“It seems like it [Australia] is doing everything it can to block progress,” said Stephen Campbell from Greenpeace Australia and Asia Pacific.

“Japan, Australia, Canada and the US are trying to transform what is an anniversary into a funeral,” agreed Marcelo Furtado from Greenpeace Brazil. Ambitions to cut developed country emissions by 25-40 per cent by 2020 are “being picked apart now and may end up on the trash heap at the end of the week.”

And this, stressed Mr Furtado, as the Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) was yeterday receiving its Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for making these very recommendations. 

“If you don’t know where you are headed, every road will get you there,” warned Alden Meyer of the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, “the stakes are too high for this kind of political game playing.”

Today’s gloomy prognosis stands in stark contrast to the upbeat assessment NGOs issued only a day ago to mark the halfway point in the talks.

Yet there is a ray of hope. In his experience of these UN talks, said Mr Meyer, the darkest hour is always just before the ministers arrive. Luckily, there is also a saying that the darkest hour is just before dawn.

Relief at half-time… or not

I intended to arrive on time for NGO Climate action network‘s daily 10am briefing, which today would give an update on how they feel things stand halfway through the conference.

Instead I stood outside in glorious hot sunshine – or hideous sweltering heat depending on your viewpoint – waiting to register. This took an hour and several delegates looked like they might dissolve altogether before making it in.

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Once inside, it was not the manic circus I had expected, but rather a bustling affair interspersed with coffee drinkers, email checkers and readers. There is a lot going on though.

Everyone claims to be happy with how the talks are progressing. CAN’s daily conference write up calls a draft text setting out principles for a roadmap to a post-2012 agreement a “solid start”. WWF speaks of “satisfactory progress”.

The EU claims “strong support” for many of its points and the US says talks have been “constructive”. China has been roundly praised for its open and flexible approach.

But not all is resolved yet. There remains a fundamental divide for example on what level of ambition should be included in the roadmap.

A draft text currently under discussion calls for 25-40 per cent emission reductions for developed countries by 2020, relative to 1990. It also says global emissions must peak within the next 10-15 years and be cut by “well over” half by 2050, relative to 2000.

But Harlan Watson, lead negotiator for the US on climate change, told reporters on Monday afternoon that Americans wanted no numbers of any sort in a roadmap text.  

“This might prejudge the outcomes [of negotiations over the next two years],” he said.

The US supports the launch of formal negotiations to conclude a post-2012 climate agreement by 2009, Dr Watson continued, and it is these that should set a “long-term, shared emissions reduction goal”. Specific numbers cannot be set in Bali, he argued, because of the limited negotiating time.

Dr Watson also refused to confirm the US would commit to binding targets in a Bali roadmap even if these were left unspecified. Japan is said to be supporting the Americans, despite proposing the very same halving of emissions by 2050 earlier this year.

The US position stands in stark contrast to that of the EU and UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer. “It’s essential we walk away with a clear idea of where this process is going to take us,” Mr de Boer told reporters earlier the same day.

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He said long-term targets were essential to drive investment in clean energy technologies. But Dr Watson questioned whether specific numbers were necessary when the policy direction is already clear.

However intractable these differences may seem, there are forces at work pushing for consensus. On the EU’s side, there is an awareness that not setting forth a clear 2-year agenda at Bali could open the door to other fora, like the US-led major emitters group, seizing the initiative.

Conversely, sources say US opposition to the carbon market is not as resolute as it appears. Tomorrow, officials will finalise their draft texts to hand over to ministers on Wednesday. That’s when the real negotiations begin.

On a lighter note, it’s the Kyoto protocol’s 10th birthday tomorrow and a birthday cake will duly be rolled out. I shall of course be on hand to provide you with in-depth coverage.