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Our Man in Bali

December 3 | December 6 | December 7 | December 8 | December 17 | Official UNCCC Site

December 3, 2007

This week and next, nearly 10,000 people representing nearly every country in the world and many non-governmental organizations are gathered in Bali, Indonesia, for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The purpose of the conference is to reaffirm and strengthen the commitments of all nations to taking the steps necessary to minimize global warming and its effects on people and the planet. 

One of the main issues at this conference is the approaching end of the "first commitment period" under the Kyoto Protocol. That is the period in which the most developed countries -- those that have historically been responsible for most of the pollution that is causing global warming -- have agreed to cut their global warming pollution to five percent below what they emitted in 1990. The period ends in 2012, and the world's scientists agree that it is essential that these major emitters make even more substantial cuts in the years to come. This conference is intended to begin negotiations to determine how great those cuts will be and how fast they will be made.

But post-2012 targets are not the only issue. Many of the developed countries have not lived up to their pre-2012 commitments, so ensuring compliance is on the table, too.  As is the question of how to assist the less developed countries to adapt to the inevitable -- and in many cases already occurring -- impacts of global climate change. 

The many non-governmental organizations (or "NGOs") represented here -- of which Earthjustice is one -- are working hard to make sure the governments reach the best agreement possible. Some of us make presentations (called "interventions" in UN-speak) during the official negotiations and some advocate directly with the government negotiators. Another way we attempt to influence the proceedings is through what are called "side events." These are mini-conferences that address particular aspects of the negotiations. They are attended by government and NGO representatives alike, and are intended to raise issues that should be considered in the negotiations.

On Monday evening, Earthjustice and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) sponsored a side event on the relationship between climate change and human rights. This is an issue in which Earthjustice is a world leader, having written, with CIEL, the first human rights petition ever to draw the connection. Two years ago, on behalf of Sheila Watt-Cloutier and the Inuit people of the Arctic, we filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demonstrating that global warming was undermining the Inuit's human rights and calling on the government of the United States -- as the country most responsible for those impacts.  

Since we began working on the Inuit petition, there has been increased awareness of the serious human impacts of melting ice, stronger and more frequent hurricanes and floods, and other effects of global climate change. But many nations are still not taking their responsibility for global warming seriously enough or are failing to take into account the human impacts of their actions. As I discussed in my presentation (last link on page, requires Real Player), it is important to recognize that global warming is not just a human tragedy, but is also an issue of human rights. As such, governments have a legal obligation not only to act quickly and effectively to reduce their contribution to global warming, but to make sure that the commitments they undertake as a result of the negotiations in Bali protect the people and communities most directly impacted. 

December 6, 2007

Today, we were given a strong reminder of what this conference is about. Over 200 eminent scientists told the negotiators that if humans don't cut our greenhouse gas emissions by fifty percent by 2050, "many millions of people will be at risk from extreme events such as heat waves, drought, floods and storms, our coasts and cities will be threatened by rising sea levels, and many ecosystems, plants and animal species will be in serious danger of extinction." (Read the declaration.) And at side-events throughout the day, people from all around the world told stories of how climate change is already harming their communities and the environment on which they depend.

Despite the urgency of the mission, the obstacles to success are obvious here. One of the biggest is the refusal of the United States to take a leadership role. After Australia ratified the Kyoto Protocol last week in its newly elected prime minister's first official act, we are now the only major industrialized nation that has not agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. US negotiators today reiterated their refusal to accept any such commitment. They have also indicated unwillingness to help developing countries obtain technologies that would aid in reducing their emissions, one of several steps China and other developing nations insist on before they take on additional global warming obligations of their own. (Developing countries have also demanded that the industrialized countries show progress in meeting their existing emissions reduction obligations, something most developed countries have been unable to do.)

And it's not only the developing countries that are having trouble with the US stubbornness. Japan, Canada and the European Union have indicated concern about renewing their Kyoto commitments without US leadership.

But there is hope here, too. Yesterday, Germany announced a package of measures that would result in 40 percent reductions in greenhouse gases by 2020 and 88 percent reductions by 2050, which would equal two tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person each year. By comparison, the United States presently emits 23 tons per person.

What gives me the most hope here, though, is the international youth delegation. Hundreds of young people have come, and not just to gawk. They're meeting with negotiators (the US youth delegation posted video of their meeting with US negotiators, participating in the strategy sessions of non-governmental organizations, and using online organizing to get the word out (check out this blog for a good example). These people have a clear vision of the future they deserve, and if we follow their lead, we might be able to help them have it.

December 7, 2007

Nearly everyone agrees that transferring energy efficiency and pollution reduction technologies to developing countries is a key to tackling global warming. The sticking point is who will pay.

Predictably, the developing countries argue that they cannot afford expensive technologies protected by patents. The European Union agrees that developed-world financial assistance is needed to overcome this barrier. But the United States is leading a small group of countries insisting that such assistance is inappropriate. Its negotiators insist that the United States will not support a "buy-down" of intellectual property, suggesting a belief that technology developers not only have a right to profit from their innovations, but that those profits must come from the developing world. It's a strange stance for a nation that claims to agree on the need for technology transfer. It almost makes one think their objective is increasing profit, not decreasing global warming.

Or maybe it's just another tactic to prevent progress at these negotiations. The US delegation has admitted that several of its people here are focused primarily on bilateral discussions with other nations to promote the Bush administration's "major economies" process, which is an attempt to pull certain nations into an entirely separate set of climate negotiations. Such efforts, coming in the middle of this conference, distract other delegations from the tasks at hand in Bali and complicate efforts to reach a truly global solution to this global problem.

These US efforts have earned our government yet another "fossil of the day" award, a badge of infamy awarded each day by the Climate Action Network -- a coalition of over 430 environmental organizations representing all the regions of the world -- to the three countries that have been that day's biggest obstacle to achieving the Conference's goals of stopping global warming. (The United States shared the third place awards with Canada for the two nations' opposition to considering a technology transfer proposal supported by 132 mainly developing countries and China. Canada took the day's top award for announcing that it would accept no agreement that did not include mandatory emissions limits for all developing countries.)

December 8, 2007

Saturday was Forest Day at the convention, a day-long series of events organized by an international coalition of scientists to discuss the connection between forests and global warming.

Although approximately twenty percent of global greenhouse gases emitted by human activities come from the destruction of forests, the Kyoto Protocol did not address forests. The issue is on the table in Bali, however, under the acronym REDD -- "reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation." The objective is to create incentives for developing countries to preserve and manage their forests as a way to cut emissions and ensure that forests are available to continue storing carbon dioxide.

Forests are under threat around the world. In Brazil, they are mostly destroyed to create land for cattle-grazing and the production of cash crops like soy beans. In Indonesia, carbon-rich forests are logged for timber and then converted into oil-palm plantations that may qualify for valuable international carbon credits. In parts of Africa, the threat is simply local communities' needs for wood for cooking fuel. This last case demonstrates one of the challenges of linking global warming to forest protection: all over the world, indigenous and other communities depend on the forests for their livelihoods. Creating financial incentives for forest protection creates pressure to commercialize forests, often marginalizing the local communities that have in many cases been proven to be the best stewards of the land. Already there are examples of people being forced off of their forest lands to make way for biofuels or forest management projects aimed at obtaining carbon credits.

Representatives of forest communities are in Bali to ensure that deforestation programs take their concerns into account. The link between human rights and global warming advocated by Earthjustice (see the first entry in this series) supports that struggle.

The potential to make global warming a source of corporate profit goes beyond issues of forest protection. This was evident over the weekend as well, as the top international trade officials flew to Bali for a series of meetings in conjunction with the climate negotiations. These officials appear to be using the urgency of the climate issue to advance their agendas of open markets and competitive advantage. Unfortunately, their preferred methods -- bringing climate change solutions under the banner of the World Trade Organization and other international trade institutions -- have proven problematic for the environment in the past. As just one example, trade proponents have argued that tax incentives to increase purchases of fuel-efficient vehicles would violate WTO rules. As Earthjustice has argued in the past, trade policies should serve environmental protection, rather than trumping it, and this couldn't be more true in the case of global warming.

December 17, 2007

The Bali climate conference is over. After tense last-minute negotiations, the governments of the world finally reached agreement on Saturday afternoon to launch two years of negotiations to develop a binding agreement on "long-term cooperative action" on global warming. But even though Saturday's achievement was decidedly modest -- not much more than a plan to make a plan and containing no guidelines for what the final agreement should achieve -- it wasn't easy.

The United States, with the support of a few allies, had spent the preceding week progressively weakening draft agreements proposed by the conference chair and others supported by nearly all the other governments. Among other things, the US refused to agree that the 2009 agreement should set mid-term goals for emissions reductions by industrialized countries, despite the consensus of world scientists that this was one of the most important first steps in getting climate change under control. In fact, the United States appeared to oppose any outcome that would give developing countries less responsibility than developed ones.

Late Friday night, negotiations appeared to have collapsed. An unscheduled Saturday session was kicked off by critical addresses by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono, who had arrived unexpectedly to urge the parties to overcome their differences and come to an agreement. Then negotiations began again. On behalf of the developing countries, India introduced a compromise text aimed at getting the United States on board by including provisions for including developing countries in obligations to undertake mitigation measures. The United States flatly rejected the proposal. But this time, the world had had enough. One after another, delegates stood to denounce the United States, chastising it for its conduct. The representative from Papua New Guinea said "if you're not willing to lead, then get out of the way." Finally, the United States relented and agreed to join the consensus.

So, after months of work, we have a vague "roadmap" for negotiations over the next two years. But this is really just the end of the beginning. Now, the real work begins.

We must use these next two years to make sure that the final agreement includes clear commitments by industrialized countries to cut emissions by 25 to 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and to cut 80 percent of their emissions by 2050. It must ensure the transfer of technological assistance to developing countries and provide for real and effective adaptation assistance for those who will be -- and already are being -- most directly harmed by climate change. And we must make sure these commitments are equitable. A good first step would be to make per capita emissions, rather than gross national emissions, the starting point for reduction commitments.

But we can't only focus on an agreement two years away (that won't even go into effect until 2013). There is urgent work to do now. We must put an administration in the White House that will understand the need for US leadership on this problem. We must make sure our senators and representatives do, too (after all, even Bill Clinton and Al Gore couldn't ratify the Kyoto Protocol because of the Senate's opposition). Because even the most forward-thinking President is unlikely to agree to an international plan that goes farther than the US is willing to go, we have to support US climate legislation that commits the United States to achieving the levels of reductions the world's scientists say we need.

And we have to start reducing emissions now. In the United States and around the world, governments are making decisions that will keep us locked into a high-emissions lifestyle and make it more difficult to achieve our reduction goals. Like building new coal-fired power plants that will spew carbon dioxide and other pollutants for the next 30 to 50 years. We have to stop those. We must make sure there are viable options for reducing our overall energy use and for getting the energy we do use from twenty-first century renewable energy sources instead of outdated dirty ones. If we can't get action at the national level, we should push our states and cities to do their part. And we must understand the harm that climate change is already causing to our wild places and wildlife, and take steps to reduce those impacts.

Earthjustice is working hard on all these fronts, and more. But we are not doing it alone. While I was in Bali, I was always aware that my work, and the work of all of us at Earthjustice, wouldn't be possible if it weren't for the concern and generosity of our supporters. It was as though we were all there together, calling on the world to wake up and solve this problem.

In an earlier report, I noted how impressed I was by the youth delegates in Bali. They are the ones inheriting this problem, and rather than moaning about how they didn't cause the problem, they're stepping up and taking responsibility for ensuring that there is a solution. So I couldn't think of a better way to close than with the words of one of the youth delegates as he flew home from Bali:

"So, was it worth it? Did I earn my 3 tons of carbon dioxide [that his plane flights released]? The problem with work like this -- which is, essentially, simply a form of high-level nagging -- is that you can never really tell what you've achieved. You can count your blog posts, or the number of hours you've spent watching ministers talk, or the number of times that one Reuters photograph of you in a reindeer suit has circled the globe. But it's never just you; in the case of this summit I was surrounded and supported by scores of the most amazing, passionate, intelligent people I have ever met. And we're all working together, not just in Bali but in our own countries, all over the world, to ensure strong, decisive action to protect our future. The agreement in Bali sets the stage for the global solution to the climate crisis, which is a pretty big prize to keep our eye on. We have at least two more years of work to hammer out a new agreement, and then we may spend our lifetimes developing it, protecting it, and implementing it in our own communities. It's going to be a lot of work, but as my friend Karmila said, addressing ministers from all over the world: 'The world is watching. The youth are rising. Join us.'"