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What does Bali mean for Copenhagen?

By Juliet Eilperin

One line in my Saturday article on the climate talks -- which said "the Obama administration is taking a harder line with China than Bush administration officials did just two years ago" -- drew some fire from officials who served under George W. Bush. So this post will explore the question in greater depth.

A brief history: in 2007, the same 192 countries that are meeting now in Copenhagen agreed to what's known as "the Bali Action Plan," which set out a road map for how the world was supposed to reach a binding legal treaty by the end of 2009. There was a big fight about the text--the U.S. initially resisted signing off, but eventually endorsed it -- in part because of how it outlined separate provisions for developed and developing countries, which have always faced different obligations under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

To get two informed perspectives, I turned to Daniel Price, who helped lead climate negotiations for Bush as the White House's international economics adviser and is now a partner with the law firm Sidley Austin, and Alden Meyer, who directs strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists and has participated in these climate talks for 18 years.

Alden dug up the exact quotes for Post Carbon to lay out the differences embodied in the Bali Action Plan:

For developed countries such as the United States, the result of the exercise was supposed to be "Measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives, by all developed country Parties, while ensuring the comparability of efforts among them, taking into account differences in their national circumstances."

For developing countries such as China, India and Brazil, the negotiating objective was "Nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing country Parties in the context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner."

Now, as soon as the agreement was inked, the Bush administration made it clear that it did not think this language would preclude binding emission cuts for major emerging economies. But countries like China and India made it clear they think it does, and their officials refer back to the Bali Action Plan any time they're asked to commit to mandatory cuts.

Back to Meyer for a summary of the Friday proposal that's causing the U.S. heartburn:

And here's the paragraph on developing country mitigation actions that AWG-LCA Chair Michael Zammit Cutujar included in his draft text released on Friday, which the U.S. is now objecting to:

"Developing country Parties shall undertake nationally appropriate mitigation actions, enabled and supported by finance, technology and capacity-building provided by developed country Parties, may undertake autonomous mitigation actions, together aimed at achieving a substantial deviation in emissions [in the order of 15-30 per cent by 2020] relative to those emissions that would occur in the absence of enhanced mitigation, and prepare low-emission development plans, recognizing that the extent of enhanced mitigation by these countries depends on the level of available support."

As you can see, there's no difference between the language the Bush administration signed off on in Bali (admittedly under great duress), and what the Obama administration now says is unacceptable.

Indeed. But Price says the Obama administration is just upholding the same principle Bush was seeking to get into a final deal:

Nothing in the Bali Action plan rules out binding, verifiable commitments from big emerging markets to reduce their emissions. The US negotiators are right to insist on such commitments as an essential element of a final treaty, just as we did.

The US made clear its view of the Bali Action Plan through a White House press statement issued immediately after Bali.

Similarly, at the G8 Summit in Japan in 2008, the leaders stated their expectations that the mitigation actions of major developing countries would need "to be bound" in a new international climate treaty.

Therefore, to suggest that Bali, an interim step toward a final agreement, dictates that binding commitments can't be or should not be an element of the final treaty is simply wrong and is not supported by either contemporaneous or subsequent statements of the US or other major developed countries.

Frankly, a new treaty that does not contain such commitments would be both environmentally ineffective and politically unacceptable.

In other words, Bali wasn't the end of the road, and the industrialized world has considered this issue an open question for two years. This is understandable, but China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and South Africa--who aren't part of the G-8--haven't signed off on what was articulated by the G-8 in 2008.

So where do we go from here? Back to Meyer:

Of course, the Bush administration expressed a desire to have China and other major developing countries take on emissions limitation commitments, but they were not able to get language agreed to in Bali that would force these countries to do so. The Obama administration is not likely to be any more successful in its attempts to do so here in Copenhagen. These countries are correct when they assert that the US, Japan, and other industrialized countries are trying to shift the negotiating goalposts in the last week of a two-year long negotiating process.

The good news is that China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, and many other developing countries have put forward serious emissions limitation proposals in recent weeks and months. These countries understand that improving energy efficiency and shifting to cleaner energy sources is in their own self-interest, from an environmental, economic, and national security perspective.

I believe we should now focus on how to measure and verify these actions--which is still a very difficult issue in these negotiations--rather than trying to make it mandatory for such actions to be put forward by all developing countries. The first objective is achievable here in Copenhagen; in my judgment the second is not.

To find out what happens in the end, stay tuned.


Juliet Eilperin

 |  December 12, 2009; 7:56 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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