Can We Save the World by 2015?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Stephen Jaquiery / AFP / Getty

A helicopter lands on an iceberg

If international leaders were as united as the scientific community on climate change, warming might be a thing of the past. This year the UN's Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a series of reports that laid to rest any doubts that global warming is real — and outlined the frightening consequences of continued inaction. At the release of the IPCC's final summary last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon — who has made climate change a top priority of his administration — laid out the threat in stark terms. "The world's scientists have spoken clearly, and with one voice," he said. "I expect the world's policymakers to act the same."

Unfortunately, the global political community is a long way from speaking with one voice on anything, and climate change is no exception. We'll know for sure next week, when environment and energy ministers from around the world meet on the Indonesian island of Bali, for the UN's climate change conference. The summit has been held nearly every year since 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) — the document that has since guided international work on global warming — was hammered out. It was at the 1997 conference, held in Japan, that the Kyoto Protocol was passed, but since then, there's been little progress, thanks in no small part to President George W. Bush's determined foot dragging on climate change.

But with the Kyoto set to go into effect in 2008, this year's talks in Bali will be the most important international environmental negotiations in over a decade. The Kyoto Protocol — which requires developed nations who have ratified the deal to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of about 5% below 1990 levels by 2012 — expires in just five years. Given how long international treaties take to be developed and ratified, the world needs to begin immediately at Bali the process of preparing a successor to Kyoto to be ready by the end of 2012 — otherwise, we'll be faced with a global vacuum at the very moment when greenhouse emissions must begin falling in order to avoid dangerous climate change. "It's really critical to get negotiations formally started," says David Doniger, the policy director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's climate center. "We're almost at the point of no return. If we don't turn these emission trends down soon, we're cooked."

The good news is that the White House is seemingly the only place green hasn't gone mainstream. Just last week, 150 top global corporations — including General Electric, Johnson & Johnson and Shell — endorsed a petition calling for mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, a business position unthinkable just a year ago. Australia — a Kyoto holdout, like the U.S. — just elected a new Prime Minister with a strong environmental record who says he'll ratify the Protocol. States and cities in the U.S. have taken their own steps on climate change in the absence of action from the White House, and Congress is finally ready to step in; representatives just hammered out the details of a bill raising automobile fuel economy standards to 35 mpg. "The tenor seems to be different this time," says Jennifer Haverkamp, international counsel for Environmental Defense. "There is a building sense that enough time has been wasted and it is time to act."

One major dispute could trip up progress at Bali, however. Under Kyoto, only developed countries were required to make mandatory cuts in their carbon emissions; developing nations like China and India had no such demands. The U.S. has long maintained that it won't sign onto a new deal unless the developing countries are included in a more substantive way — a position unlikely to change even when the occupant of the White House does. Beijing and New Delhi both argue that the vast majority of historical carbon emissions came from the developed nations (CO2 stays in the air for up to 200 years), so action should come from the rich first — a contention arguably supported by the UNFCCC itself, which calls for "common but differentiated responsibilities" between nations on climate change. But the reality is that the bulk of future CO2 emissions will come from rapidly growing developing nations, and a climate deal that gave them a free pass would be useless. "We need a process that opens the door for negotiations for all economies," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

None of this will actually be decided at Bali. Despite the fact that we are rapidly running out of time to cap carbon emissions — the head of the IPCC has said the world has until 2015 at the latest — Bali is just the beginning of the beginning, not the end. As Claussen points out, a successful summit would be one that, counterintuitively, leaves much undecided — while attaching a firm deadline to the end of negotiations, with 2010 as the latest possible date. With the Bush Administration nearing lame duck status, a 2010 deadline would give a new U.S. Administration time — though not much time — to enter the process and hopefully take a leading position. That extra time might also allow China or India to soften their negotiating tactics, and perhaps accept lesser limitations, such as mandatory targets in energy efficiency or renewable power use. The best contribution President Bush can make for the Bali process is to continue doing what he has done best on climate change: nothing.

The whole process can seem frustratingly slow, considering how dire the threat of climate change is — as if we were convening a town hall meeting to decide to put out a fire that is already raging. "Getting 185 countries around a negotiating table is a difficult way to run the world," says Andrew Deutz, who heads the Nature Conservancy's International Institutions and Agreements team. "But the advantage of the UN process is that it's about the process. It can continue to evolve." That's already begun to happen in recent years, as consensus on global warming has grown in every corner of the world, as businesses have turned to alternative power and governments have begun to set their own caps on carbon. But we're in a race and we're already behind. If we can't get off to a good start at Bali, we may never catch up.