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Bali: Disaster Loomed and Everyone Blinked. Now Let’s Get Serious, Fast

[This post originally appeared on the Center for Global Development's "Views from the Center" blog.] The White House finally blinked in the final hours of the UN’s Bali Conference on Climate Change. The catalyst may have been the unprecedented boos and hisses directed at the US delegation from the floor, or the peremptory challenge from Kevin Conrad, Papua New Guinea’s representative: “If for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please, get out of the way.” Confronted by the prospect of pariah status, the US dropped its categorical resistance to emissions reduction targets and permitted their inclusion in a footnote to the final agreement. This was a belated recognition of an obvious truth: We will not keep emissions within safe limits without some form of mandatory carbon regulation.

Less-appreciated, perhaps, is the fact that China, India and other developing nations also blinked. For the first time, they accepted the principle that verified reduction of their emissions should be considered in a future agreement. From a global perspective, this was a victory for common sense. As Kevin Ummel and I note in a recent paper, unrestricted emissions from developing countries are growing so rapidly that they will create a climate crisis in this generation, even if developed-country emissions fall to zero immediately.

And the Europeans blinked as well, although their rhetoric remained aggressive to the end. After insisting on quantitative targets throughout the conference, they grudgingly accepted a non-specific commitment to future emissions reductions, and abandoned their threat to boycott US-sponsored talks among major carbon emitters. This was simply realistic, because the deal that must be struck will include many more elements than emissions targets.

Everyone ultimately blinked on Bali because they recognized several uncomfortable truths: The global stakes are mortal; time is short; success depends on universal participation; and getting everyone onboard will be impossible if negotiations focus only on emissions reduction targets. A sustainable global compact to halt global warming will also require provisions for clean technology development, accelerating global adoption of clean technology; and assisting poor countries that will be hard-hit by inevitable climate change.

Negotiating the global compact will not be simple, because each country faces different opportunities, risks and costs (For a comprehensive look, see “Country stakes in climate change negotiations : two dimensions of vulnerability“). To cite a few examples among many: Some countries (most notably the US and China) are so dependent on coal-fired power that a very rapid transition to clean energy will be wrenching and costly. They will not join a compact that threatens their economic and political stability. Many developing countries have huge renewable-energy potential, but it can only be tapped with developed-country support. This should include relaxing intellectual property laws to permit low-cost deployment of innovative technologies, but too much relaxation will eliminate the profit incentive that drives innovation in the first place. And for developed countries, the cost of supporting clean technology development will have to be weighed against their own transition costs, as well as the costs of assisting developing countries with adaptation to climate change.

Everyone blinked at the Bali Conference, opening the way for serious work on the global compact. The North and South are now fully aware of their interdependency. Each side emits enough carbon to create a climate catastrophe, and each faces such heavy transition costs that accepting them will require a new vision of global development. The North has the financial and scientific resources to support the compact, but carbon mitigation by the South is the key to making it work in the long run. The compact will have to reflect a host of country-specific benefits and costs associated with emissions reduction, accelerating the transition to clean technology, and financing adaptation to climate change.

While many uncertainties remain, one thing is certain: In forging the compact, this generation will shoulder a huge cost to protect future generations. And the sacrifice will only be acceptable if the global compact respects strict principles of accountability and transparency. To forge a meaningful compact, the international community has to know where carbon emissions are coming from; who is accountable for them; and what concrete steps are being taken to reduce emissions.

The demand for accountability and transparency defines an action plan that we can start implementing now. To establish accountability, the UN should immediately develop a global inventory of emissions from all critical sources, including deforestation. This inventory should identify specific sources (e.g. power plants, cement mills, motor vehicle fleets, land-clearing operations), and the organizations that are accountable for them. To ensure transparency, the emissions inventory should be disclosed to the global community on an accessible, easy-to-use, constantly-updated website.

At the Center for Global Development, we have attempted to catalyze this international effort by launching CARMA (Carbon Monitoring for Action) at CARMA is the first global carbon disclosure site for the power sector, which produces over 25% of all carbon emissions. It provides easily-accessible emissions and power data for 50,000+ power plants, 20,000+ power companies, and 200,000 locales. With very limited resources, we have established an initial benchmark for global accountability and transparency. Now we believe that the international community should step up. The United Nations, or a consortium of donor nations, should immediately apply the same principles to building a comprehensive public emissions inventory that will provide a key foundation for negotiating the global compact. It’s the first step on a long road, and time is short. Let’s get started.

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Reader Comments

The stake on the gambling table is the destiny of humanity – not the earth, as that has before and will again recover from catastrophy. With such a stake you would think that a true concensus and action plan would be relatively easily forthcoming. Perhaps a few more years of devasting hurricanes, floods, and pestulance etc will do the trick! In the meantime, the population inexorably increases, and we all keep on keeping on. However, I am not wholly pessimistic about the future. I think that a tipping point is looming (perhaps a new resident in The White House will be the crest of the wave). As for the Chinese, I believe that a civilisation that was been around for several thousand years before the western one is not going to screw it up over the course of a few decades of rapid growth. This is where I believe the change will come from..and they will not ask…they will TELL. East will lead and the West will follow. Hopefully the South and North will be involved too!