A day after the dramatic ending of the Bali climate talks, many are wondering if the result was indeed the best outcome possible given the circumstances.

The United States was brought back to the fold, but at the cost of excising from the final document — the so-called Bali Roadmap — any reference to the need for a 25-40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. Such reductions are necessary to keep the mean global temperature increase in the 21st century to 2.0-2.4 degrees Celsius. This lack of mandatory cuts prompted one civil society participant to remark that “The Bali roadmap is a roadmap to anywhere.”

Would it have been better to have simply let the United States walk out, allowing the rest of the world to forge a strong agreement containing deep mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions on the part of the developed countries? With a new U.S. president and a new policy on climate change expected at the beginning of 2009, the United States would have rejoined a process that would already be moving along with strong binding targets. As it is now, having been part of the Bali consensus, Bush administration negotiators will be able to continue their obstructionist tactics to further water down global action throughout the negotiations in 2008.

If Washington had remained true to its ideological propensities, it would have stomped out of the room when the delegate from Papua New Guinea, releasing the conference’s pent-up collective frustration, issued his now historic challenge: “We ask for your leadership and we seek your leadership. If you are not willing to lead, please get out of the way.” But after last-minute consultations with Washington, the American negotiator backed down from the hard-line U.S. position on an Indian amendment seeking the conference’s understanding for the different capacities of developing countries to deal with climate change. The negotiator reported that Washington “will go forward and join the consensus.”

The single-minded focus on getting Washington on board resulted in the dearth of hard obligations except for the deadline for the negotiating body, the “Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention,” to have its work ready for adoption at the Conference of Parties in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP 15).

Many delegates also felt ambivalent about the institutional arrangements that were agreed on after over a week of hard North-South negotiations.

  • An Adaptation Fund was set up, but it was put under the administration of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) of the U.S.-dominated World Bank. Moreover, the seed funds from the developed countries are expected to come to only $18.6-37.2 million, sums that are severely inadequate to support the emergency efforts to address the ongoing ravages of climate change in the small island states and others on the “frontlines” of climate change. Oxfam estimates that a minimum of $50 billion a year will be needed to assist all developing countries adapt to climate change.
  • A “strategic program” for technology development and transfer was also approved, again with troubling compromises. The developing countries had initially held out for the mechanism to be a designated a “facility” but finally had to agree to the watered-down characterization of the initiative as a “program” on account of U.S. intransigence. Moreover, the program was also placed under the GEF with no firm levels of funding stated for an enterprise that is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
  • The REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) initiative pushed by host Indonesia and several other developing countries with large forests that are being cut down rapidly was adopted. The idea is to get the developed world to channel money to these countries, via aid or market mechanisms, to maintain these forests as carbon sinks. However, many climate activists fear that indigenous communities will be victimized by predatory private interests that will position themselves as the main recipients of the funds raised.

Still, many felt that the meager and mixed results were better than nothing.

Perhaps the best indication on whether the conference was right to bend over backward almost 180 degrees to accommodate the United States will come next month in Honolulu during the Major Economies Meeting, a Washington-initiated conference originally designed to subvert the UN process. The question on everyone’s lips is: Will the Bush administration revert to form and use the conference to launch a separate process to derail the Bali Roadmap?

Walden Bello is senior analyst at the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South, a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), and professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines. He was an NGO participant at the Bali Conference on Climate Change.

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