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Bali: A Missed Opportunity

by Dr. Walden Bello Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2007 at 9:50 PM

The gap between the urgent threat of global warming and the collective will to do something about it has never been greater. The recently concluded Conference on Climate Change in Bali was a grand opportunity to act. Instead, it was another missed opportunity. Unfortunately, the United States played a very negative role, standing in the way of consensus at every turn. And unfortunately, the rest of the world thought that seducing the US into a new agreement on climate action was top priority, resulting in a Bali Roadmap that was very sketchy.

Bali: A Missed Oppor...
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A Roadmap to Anywhere

The US 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 to 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 to keep the mean global temperature increase to 2.0 to 2.4 degrees Celsius in the 21st century.

Reference to quantitative figures was reduced to a footnote referring readers to some pages in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 Report which simply enumerate several climate stabilization scenarios. The alternative scenarios ranged from a 2.0 to 2.4 degree rise in temperature to a 4.9 to 6.1 degree increase. This prompted one civil society participant to remark that the “Bali roadmap is a roadmap to anywhere.”

A few days after the new agreement was forged, many are now having doubts whether on balance, it was positive. Would it have been better to have simply let the US 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 US president with a new policy on climate change at the beginning of 2009, the US 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, say skeptics, will be able to continue their obstructionist tactics to further water down global action throughout the negotiations in 2008.

One wonders what would have happened had Washington remained true to its ideological propensities and decided to stomp 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.” As everyone now knows, after last-minute consultations with Washington, the American negotiator backed down from the US’s hard-line position on an Indian amendment seeking the conference’s understanding for the different capacities of developing countries to deal with climate change and said Washington “will go forward and join the consensus.”

Weak Institutional Outcomes

The single-minded focus on getting Washington on board resulted in the dearth of hard obligations agreed upon at the meeting 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 upon after nearly two weeks of hard North-South negotiations.

o An Adaptation Fund was set up, but it was put under the administration of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) of the US-dominated World Bank. Moreover, the seed funds from the developed countries are expected to come to only between .6 million to US.2 million--sums which are deemed 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 US billion a year will be needed to assist all developing countries adapt to climate change.

o 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 US 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.

o 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 simply be victimized by predatory private interests that will position themselves to become the main recipients of the funds raised.

Big Business Roars in

In this connection, Bali will be remembered as the climate change conference where business came in in a big way. A significant number of the side events focused on market solutions to the greenhouse gas (GHG) problem such as emissions trading arrangements. Under such schemes, GHG intensive countries can “offset” their emissions by paying non-GHG intensive countries to forego pollution-intensive activities, with the market serving as the mediator. Shell and other big-time polluters have been making the rounds touting the market as the prime solution to the climate crisis, a position that articulates well with the US position against mandatory emission cuts set by government.

Climate change activists have been appalled and stunned by the business takeover of the climate change discourse. According to them, the carbon market was originally a very minor part of the architecture of climate architecture, one that climate activists agreed to in order to get the US on board the Kyoto express. Well, the US did not get on board, and we are now stuck with carbon markets driving the process since the corporations have found that there is money to be made from climate change. Many climate activists worry that carbon trading will merely allow polluters in the North to keep on polluting while allowing private interests in the South to displace smallholders so they can set up unmonitored and unregulated tree plantations that are supposed to absorb carbon dioxide.

The Philippines at the Frontlines of Global Warming

The Philippines, we learned at Bali, is on the frontlines of climate change. In a study released at the meeting, the institute Germanwatch claimed that the Philippines was the country most negatively affected by climate-related disasters in 2006. Measured on a “climate risk index” derived from four indicators—total number of deaths, deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, absolute losses in millions of US$ purchasing power parity, and losses per unit of GDP—the Philippines topped North Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam. When we talk about the people dying from the recent spate of supertyphoons like Millenio, let us be clear that we are talking about victims of climate change. When we talk about people being displaced or uprooted from their homes, we are talking about environmental refugees, as much refugees as people in Tuvalu and Bougainville who are forced to flee their lands on account of sea-level rise. We are no longer talking about the usual ravages of a normal typhoon season. We as a people are at the frontlines of global warming.

A National Response to Climate Change

The many dimensions of the climate crisis in the Philippines still need to be understood. We are sure, however, that many of the preemptive and adaptive measures needed to protect our people will cost billions of dollars. If what we saw in Bali is any indication, money on this scale is not likely to come from the North in the form of aid. We have to raise it from our own resources. Climate change is one more reason why we need to radically reduce the massive outflow of financial resources to our creditors and channeling it to solutions to national problems. More than ever, we must act to drastically write down the foreign debt.

Radically scaling down our debt is, however, but one aspect of a broader response. Let me conclude by saying that climate change is fast emerging as the greatest challenge to our generation, for even as we prepare for it, we must also make sure that our country develops so we can eliminate poverty. Poverty can never be a solution to the climate crisis. The ultimate solution is a pattern of development that is both sustainable and equitable. A transition to a low-growth, low-carbon economy where people’s standards of living have also risen is possible. But it will only be possible if equity is at the center of development. Thus climate change is both a crisis and an opportunity—an opportunity to overcome the structural obstacles to social equality and genuine democracy.



*Walden Bello is President of Freedom from Debt Coalition. He is also a Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines and senior analyst at the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South. He attended the Bali Conference on Climate Change as a civil society participant.



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