A big win for the planet, and others

by John Quiggin on December 16, 2007

The outcome of the international climate talks in Bali has been a huge win for the planet. Given the participation of the Bush Administration, we were never going to get firm short-term targets in the agreement of this round of negotiations (except as the result of a US walkout, and a deal struck by the rest of the world). But on just about every other score, the outcome has been better than anyone could reasonably have expected, including:

  • Agreement in principle on a 2050 target of halving emissions
  • Agreement to negotiate a binding deal in 2009, when Bush will be gone, and short-term targets back on the table
  • Agreement to provide assistance to developing countries for both mitigation and adaptation
  • Agreement by China to pursue emissions-cutting actions that are “measurable, reportable and verifiable.”

There are of course, some individual winners too, of whom the most notable is undoubtedly Al Gore. His intervention, correctly blaming the US Administration for the lack of progress at the talks, and putting effective pressure on its remaining allies, the governments of Canada and Japan, made it clear that the political price for a failure would be paid by the US, and that those who backed Bush now would find themselves alone in the near future.

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has also been a big winner. Until his election, Australia, as the only other significant country not to ratify Kyoto, was Bush’s most important supporter. After the switch, Australia was able to pursue a negotiating strategy which sometimes seemed to accommodating to the US, but ultimately produced an excellent outcome.

Of course, there are also some losers, who did all they could to stop this happening, and failed. But they know who they are, and there’s no need to dwell on them today.

There’ll be plenty of difficulties ahead, and plenty of hard bargaining over details. But for the first time, we can be reasonably hopeful that the people of the world will act to avoid the worst of the impending ecological catastrophe of climate change.

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12.16.07 at 2:37 am
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12.17.07 at 1:26 am

{ 23 comments }

1

Matt McIrvin 12.16.07 at 1:37 am

Huh. Most of the people I’ve seen commenting on Bali online have been extremely morose, and see the US’s intransigence as turning the conference into a joke–on the assumption, I guess, that the US will be in the grip of Bushism forever.

2

Shelby 12.16.07 at 1:53 am

The big question, of course, is what will actually happen when countries try to nail down the details of the “agreement in principle” and otherwise give the agreement definitions and meaning. Agreements to agree (or to negotiate) sound great, but are not enforceable. That said, Bali does represent progress — it’s just a rather modest step. I hope the 2009 talks bear fruit.

3

John Quiggin 12.16.07 at 1:56 am

One crucial accomplishment is that the idea of a separate process, outside UNFCCC, where the US and a couple of other big emitters would cut a deal is now dead.

4

john in california 12.16.07 at 2:36 am

Given the amount of investment China is putting in it’s neighbor’s (and Iran’s) gas and oil, it is doubtful they will agree to anything very tough unless the consuming nations make going green part of trade. The only guy pressing for this on the US national scene is Dennis Kucinich, and I don’t see Gore getting behind him for prez. Also, India will do a ‘you first’ wrt to China, so I expect it will take the complete melting of the North Pole to force the issue.

5

jacob 12.16.07 at 4:43 am

except as the result of a US walkout, and a deal struck by the rest of the world

Why would this not have been the preferred outcome? Why is a worse compromise solution backed by the US better than a better, stronger agreement by everyone else?

6

Leinad 12.16.07 at 4:49 am

Because it keeps the US in the process, and in Bali the logic behind it is that come the Copenhagen conference the attitude of the US delegation will likely be substantially more amenable, if you know what I mean…

7

Lee A. Arnold 12.16.07 at 5:12 am

John I agree. Global warming has become entirely a political argument, not a scientific nor economic one, and this minor U.S. capitulation is the beginning of the end of denialism as U.S. policy. By every opinion poll, a majority of the U.S. public is already on board regarding climate change — indeed over 70% of U.S. citizens are sick to death of the Bush Administration on any topic. And Al Gore has visualized, as perhaps no one else in history, a way to peacefully guide his own country and perhaps the rest of the world without actually having political power. It’s a remarkable performance. He appears to be ready to back it up by guiding venture capital into solar thermal generation of electricity, among other things, and make another quarter of a billion dollars for himself in a quick and quiet energy revolution to power over half the economy with a clean technique that doesn’t even have a fuel cycle. This man is an astounding achiever, one for the history books.

8

alex404 12.16.07 at 8:19 am

I hope to hell this sinks Stephen Harper’s career.

9

John Quiggin 12.16.07 at 9:38 am

#9 I agree, and plan to post on this, RSN

10

otto 12.16.07 at 10:12 am

The difficulty with the US is not so much in the international negotiations, but the ability of the American political system to impose any meaningful costs on the current lifestyle of prosperous suburbs dwellers. There’s no reason to expect it to happen, no matter who becomes President.

11

Hidari 12.16.07 at 12:00 pm

This strikes me as a good deal. HOWEVER (and this is an extremely big however) how are ‘we’ going to penalise people who do not meet their targets: especially if these people include China, India and the United States? What precisely are ‘we’ going to do about it?

For example: the (2012) Kyoto targets. The EU (on the whole) is going to miss them (as things stand). What’s going to happen to the EU? How will it be penalised? And by whom?

12

wab 12.16.07 at 3:26 pm

Yes, targets are fairly meaningless unless there is a sensible way to meeting the targets. (Does anyone believe that the Kyoto Treaty made any difference to the carbon emissions today relative to what would have happened had the treaty not existed?) What we need is a global carbon tax (or the equivalent). The way things stand now, if the EU stops producing steel and imports it from China, the EU emissions have officially gone down, which is a nonsense. Emissions should be counted by consumption, not production. And the way to do that is to have a global carbon tax, set at a level to achieve the targets. Anybody who is just pushing for targets (especially just for the developed countries only) is just playing games. Of course then there is the issue of how you enforce the carbon tax, and what happens with the money, and that is what people should be focussing on, not just targets.

13

Eli Rabett 12.16.07 at 5:28 pm

While I agree with you about Bali, the central problem remains how deal with the recalcitrant. Eli has a modest suggestion

14

Order of Magnitude 12.16.07 at 5:41 pm

In 1998 the US Senate adopted unanimously the Byrd-Hagel resolution which states that the U.S. Senate will not ratify any treaty signed at Kyoto that would impose binding limits on the industrialized nations but not on developing nations within the same compliance period and “would result in serious economic harm to the economy of the United States.”

If the Dems get the presidency, I look forward to see how they are going to handle it (just like they boldly handled Iraq once they got Congress, right?).

From the US perspective (and yes, we should do what’s right for us, euroweenies nothwithstanding), the way to solve the climate challenge would be through R&D in clean automobile tech, nuclear power and other green tech and not through yet another worthless intl. agreement we’ll keep and others won’t. This would create jobs, tax revenue, and maintain US dominance in science and tech. The US should also point out European hypocrisy: the EU only managed to meet Kyoto targets in the aggregate through a sleigh of hand, namely dismantling Eastern European smokestacks. Europe, as usual, distracts the naives by focusing anger at the US. Plus don’t discount the usual factors: European envy at US economic power, US consumer culture and wealth grafted onto their socialistic dreams, thirld worldist idealism, etc.

As for Gore (the new Jimmy “I whine about my country in front of sympathetic foreign audiences” Carter) he may start by leading through personal example. So Saint Al, downsize the McMansion and pour your own money into green technology.

For a poor liberal arts academic, living w/ a small carbon footprint is not virtue, it’s a necessity, so many of the crooked timber types don’t get credit here. I’d love to see some of the saints in your green Pantheon walk the walk, though.

15

Bobcat 12.16.07 at 6:03 pm

I definitely agree with hidari (or rather, hidari’s implication) that China and India, particularly (I’m less sure about the US) will be hard to keep to their word (and I’m not really sure what word they have given). However, I’m more optimistic than otto that suburbanites will be willing to accept some costs, on the lower end of meaningful, but meaningful nonetheless.

16

Lee A. Arnold 12.16.07 at 7:29 pm

Kyoto was the first step towards a global institution of a new kind, to deal with a new kind of problem. Penalty enforcement under Kyoto is hardly a major issue, as Kyoto was seen all along as merely the first experimental step into this new arena. But institutions of any kind have certain abstract requirements, and one of the first is getting everybody who is affected into them. Things will proceed more quickly after that. We may eventually see penalties attached to trade, because then prices on alternative energies will be more competitive, and after that, public opinion can start to push for the right choices. Already, public opinion in almost every country appears to be 70-90% in favor of doing something. The United States has not been the rational actor: quite the reverse. There is corporate capture of government policy in the United States, promulgating an enormous amount of anti-science propaganda — but the larger trend is inexorable. I don’t think we’ll see much trouble from either India or China — in fact their original complaint (and all along since) has been allowances for development, because the developed world has caused almost all the trouble so far. They have not fallen prey to the self-serving, anti-science poison, like the U.S.

17

John Quiggin 12.16.07 at 8:03 pm

Eli, you’ll be pleased to know that your idea is already on the table

18

Russell Spinney 12.16.07 at 8:25 pm

In the European news last night (BBC/ARD/ZDF) there were pictures of the US delegation backing down from opposition to the difference between industrial and developing nations in the document text and everyone else clapping when the US delegation said they would not oppose the majority. One speaker said, if the US will not help, then please get out of the way. So this has a symbolic echo for the world. Coverage of Gore’s speech has been overall positive, but some commentators felt he stopped too short of more explicitly calling for the US to act (perhaps he is waiting to 2009 now too for Bush to go). In the German press, there has also been some questions about how Germany can even meet its rather robust goals in the coming years. Even for the committed leaders of the world there are problems ahead. Meanwhile, the environment is changing.

19

Eli Rabett 12.17.07 at 3:11 am

John,

Cool:)

I think that what I proposed is a bit beyond the border tax you point to. I am also certain that what I wrote about is not unique, maybe the package, but certainly not the elements. Still, I think that Eli Rabett’s Patented (pending) Emissions Added Levy has many advantages over carbon taxes/markets and should be further discussed, if only to bring pressure on the wanna be free riders and their horses. I am also sure that there are flaws and needed improvements.

20

Hidari 12.17.07 at 6:59 pm

Incidentally, I wouldn’t break out the champagne just yet.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/dec/17/bali.climatechange

21

John Quiggin 12.17.07 at 10:01 pm

Actually, hidari, I count the belated issue of a “signing statement” as more good news. Clearly the Bushies realize that they were pushed into signing something they didn’t want. Even their negotiators couldn’t quite stand up to being booed and heckled at an international conference. I don’t imagine their successors in 2009 will want to.

22

Matt 12.18.07 at 5:28 am

Just two links:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,2228609,00.html

and the latest n+1.

23

a very public sociologist 12.20.07 at 11:16 am

Shelby @#2, we’ve already seen a very recent example of some of the problems re: the EU’s announcement that it wants cars manufactured within its jurisdiction to cut the amount of Carbon grams cars release per mile. German chancellor Angela Merkel has opposed it, noting it would mean the ruin of the country’s car industry. If the costs of managing climate change cannot be offloaded onto working people, the ruling class are not interested.

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