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Bali Climate Conference Ends With Compromise

December 17, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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The U.N. climate change conference ended in Bali Saturday with a last-minute deal that sets the terms of a "roadmap" for a new climate change treaty. The talks were described as emotional, with discontent directed toward U.S. objections to specific emissions caps. A U.S. negotiator and a climate analyst assess the talks.
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KWAME HOLMAN: It was only after 11th-hour negotiations this weekend in Bali that delegates from 187 countries agreed to a roadmap for a new climate change treaty over the next two years. The two weeks of talks often were contentious and emotional, with much of the displeasure directed at the United States.

MARTHINUS VAN SCHALKWYK, Head of South African Delegation: The reference by the representative of the United States to developing countries, not excepting their full responsibilities, is most unwelcome and without any basis.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Bush administration refused to accept a plan backed by Europe and many other countries calling for all industrialized nations to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY, Head of U.S. Delegation: We would like to find a way forward here. We are not prepared to accept, though, this formulation at this time.

MODERATOR: Thank you, thank you, United States. May I continue? Thank you.

KWAME HOLMAN: Canada and Japan also were opposed to mandatory cuts, but the sharpest rhetoric was directed at the U.S.

KEVIN CONRAD, Head of Papua New Guinea Delegation: And I would ask the United States, we ask for your leadership, we seek your leadership, but if for some reason you’re not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please, get out of the way.

KWAME HOLMAN: There also was criticism from former Vice President Al Gore.

AL GORE, Former Vice President of the United States: My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali. We all know that. We all know that.

KWAME HOLMAN: The U.S., which is the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter, ahead of China, Russia and India, eventually agreed to compromise.

Under the Bali road map deal, the delegates essentially agreed to negotiate a treaty by 2009. The agreement says significant cuts in emissions will be required of industrialized countries, but does not specify the size of those cuts or whether they will be mandatory.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: The United States is very committed to this effort and just wants to really ensure that we all will act together. So with that, Mr. Chairman, let me say to you that we will go forward and join consensus in this today.

KWAME HOLMAN: China and other developing countries also agreed for the first time to consider controlling the growth of their emissions, but that promise, too, came without any binding commitments.

Industrialized countries also agreed to provide developing nations with economic and technological aid to slow deforestation.

For now, the U.S. stands alone as the only major industrialized country to reject the Kyoto agreement on climate change, which is set to expire in 2012. But Congress is nearing approval of an energy bill that would include raising fuel standards for passenger vehicles for the first time in 30 years. It would require a fleet-wide average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Defining progress

David Doniger
Natural Resources Defense Council
We really only have one chance left to put together a treaty that would stave off the worst effects of global warming. So it's good to get started on this. But, man, it was pulling teeth to get it done.

MARGARET WARNER: To assess what was and wasn't accomplished in Bali, we turn to two Americans who attended. Harlan Watson is the senior climate negotiator at the State Department. He was a leading member of the U.S. team in Bali these past two weeks.

And David Doniger is the policy director on climate change for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. He served as a climate negotiator at the EPA during the Clinton administration.

And welcome to you both.

David Doniger, I want to start with you, because climate change activists were disappointed, expressed disappointment with this outcome, and many editorial writers used phrases like "baby steps." Yet the U.N. chief -- the climate chief said, "Well, you know, Bali delivered what it needed to."

From where you sit, was significant progress made at Bali toward curbing greenhouse gas emissions, that ultimate goal?

DAVID DONIGER, Natural Resources Defense Council: The most important thing is that the country has agreed to kick off a two-year negotiation of the next treaty. We really only have one chance left to put together a treaty that would stave off the worst effects of global warming. So it's good to get started on this. But, man, it was pulling teeth to get it done.

MARGARET WARNER: Pulling teeth because the United States objected?

HARLAN WATSON, Chief Climate Negotiator, State Department: No, not at all. There were many, many issues that -- and this is a consensus-based process -- and so finding the right language that satisfies all, it was a long and difficult process. But, in the end, we all came together.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Harlan Watson, what the Europeans wanted going into this was to set up a framework, like the one that was set up, but that stated specific goals in the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions cuts that would be met by a certain time, perhaps on the level of greenhouse gas emissions. There are all kinds of measurable benchmarks. The United States didn't want any of those. Why?

HARLAN WATSON: Well, basically, we didn't want to predetermine outcomes. What we wanted was a process that would keep all options open. This is going to be, again, a two-year negotiation. And we wanted to make sure that we did not predetermine outcomes. We did have a reference to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

MARGARET WARNER: This is the group that co-shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

HARLAN WATSON: Yes. And I might add that we were not the only ones who were having difficulty with specifically stating specific numbers within the Bali road map itself.

MARGARET WARNER: From your perspective, how much of a disappointment is it or reduction in what this might have accomplished, the fact that there are absolutely no benchmarks laid out?

DAVID DONIGER: Well, what we need in the final agreement two years from now is for the industrial countries to take legal limits on their emissions. And that's what we need to do in the United States especially.

And this has been a big obstacle from the current administration, that both in the domestic legislative process, in the regulatory process, and in the international process this administration has been unwilling to accept legal limits on the total pollution of the United States.

All the other countries involved in the Kyoto Protocol 10 years ago, all the industrial countries agreed to that, and the developing countries are saying now, "We're willing to do our part to slow the growth of our emissions, but we need to see the historical big emitters, the current big emitters do their part." That's where the U.S. has been lacking.

Shift in U.S. policy

Harlan Watson
U.S. State Department
I think we're now seeing an interest in industry, in particular, on wanting to address the issue, taking on meaningful targets. So I think the political climate has changed. The scientists changed. The science has changed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the U.S. did agree to even have -- take part in this upcoming negotiation. That was regarded as a big concession. Explain why.

DAVID DONIGER: Well, two years ago in Montreal, the last of the big climate meetings, Harlan and his colleagues blocked the start of a negotiation like this, along with some other blockers from the developing countries. So it's good that both the administration and the key developing countries have moved on now to start a negotiation.

This is going to go for two years. We're going to have a presidential election in the middle. We're going to field a different team in the second half.

And the whole world is aching for a different face, a different perspective from the United States, looking really to the second half in 2009 to see if we can show something different.

MARGARET WARNER: Before I ask you about the fact that you probably won't be concluding these negotiations, so let me ask about the change of heart between the meeting in 2005 and this meeting. Why did the Bush administration at least agree that there was a need to negotiate a follow-on treaty to Kyoto and agree to take part?

HARLAN WATSON: Well, I think, as President Bush has stated, we're going to learn from the science. I think, clearly, the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been about a five-year process now, and working through all the science that's occurred, I think that certainly had a major part of that.

I think we've also had a great deal of success in our interactions with China, India, and some of the larger developing countries. And working with them -- and they're indicating a real willingness, I believe, to address the issue, also.

MARGARET WARNER: So in terms of the United States' attitude, the Bush administration's attitude, are you saying the political climate has changed, spurred in part by everything from the Al Gore movie to this U.N. panel on climate change and its scientific findings?

HARLAN WATSON: Well, certainly that and certainly domestic, the domestic scene has changed, also. I think we're now seeing an interest in industry, in particular, on wanting to address the issue, taking on meaningful targets.

So I think the political climate has changed. The scientists changed. The science has changed. And, again, also we're getting very good signals from the major developing countries, which is going to be absolutely essential if the United States will ever be able to enter into an international agreement.

Developing countries get on board

David Doniger
Natural Resources Defense Council
[W]hat it's going to take in order to get developing countries to move is for the United States to agree to an absolute limit and reductions, like the legislation that's moving through the Congress now.

MARGARET WARNER: So how significant was this concession by China and the developing countries that at least they would, what, pursue or that this new agreement would somehow reference measurable and verifiable, what, emissions cuts by these developing countries?

DAVID DONIGER: When we negotiated in the previous administration, the Kyoto agreement 10 years ago, the developing countries had a very hard line, no new commitments for them. It was negotiated and that particular line in Berlin, and it's been called the Berlin Wall.

So the Berlin Wall was breached, because the science is screaming at all of the countries that they all need to take part; this much we agree on.

And the Chinese, the South Africans, the Brazilians in particular showed a real open hand that they were finally ready to come off that position of nothing and negotiate what they would do to slow the growth of emissions as they rapidly grow.

This is what we need. We need industrial countries to cut their emissions, developing countries to slow the growth and later to cut their emissions, and that's the only way to avoid the dangerous levels of warming that the scientists are telling us are coming.

MARGARET WARNER: But what the developing countries agreed to at least at Bali doesn't commit them to anything other than, what, voluntary, pursuing some sort of voluntary standards, is that right?

DAVID DONIGER: Not quite.

MARGARET WARNER: No?

DAVID DONIGER: It's not quite right. The door is open to negotiate binding obligations for both sides of the equation, developed and developing.

But what it's going to take in order to get developing countries to move is for the United States to agree to an absolute limit and reductions, like the legislation that's moving through the Congress now, sponsored by Senators Lieberman and Warner, that would cut emissions 20 percent by 2020 and by almost two-thirds...

MARGARET WARNER: Instead of this cap-and-trade system?

DAVID DONIGER: Exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: What is your assessment of how far the developing countries, the Chinas and the Indias, really went?

HARLAN WATSON: I think it was a major step. Again, the difference between when David was there -- and I thanked him today -- we're really seeing a sea change in their attitude. We do believe they're firmly committed.

Although the language is a little fuzzy right now, we think, you know, as this negotiation process goes on, we're really going to see them step forward significantly.

Response to U.S. delegation

Harlan Watson
U.S. State Department
[W]hat was comforting to me is that number of developing countries came forward -- South Africa, India and Brazil and others -- came forward and said, 'No, we are going to move forward in a positive manner.'

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Watson, I have to ask you, were you in the hall when the U.S. delegate was booed?

HARLAN WATSON: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And what was that like? How did you react to that?

HARLAN WATSON: Well, we're always disappointed. But I think what was significant about that, when Undersecretary Dobriansky said we were having trouble with the particular wording, what was comforting to me is that number of developing countries came forward -- South Africa, India and Brazil and others -- came forward and said, "No, we are going to move forward in a positive manner."

So that, to me, was very gratifying. And that's what, of course, led to the undersecretary then joining the consensus.

DAVID DONIGER: But we could move this so much faster if the United States government would say, "We can embrace something like the Lieberman-Warner bill," and then we can take that on the road to other countries and say, "This is what we will do. Now, what will you do in return?"

Right now, the other countries are still waiting for the signal of serious action.

MARGARET WARNER: And is the administration ready to support this bill?

HARLAN WATSON: Not yet.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Harlan Watson, David Doniger, thank you both.

HARLAN WATSON: Thank you, Margaret.

DAVID DONIGER: Thank you.