Who Won and Lost at Bali

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Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty

A delegate at the UN Climate Change Conference carries his child as he watches a demonstration at the venue of the meeting on Bali.

Correction appended December 17, 2007

In the nearly a decade since the U.S. rejected the landmark climate change agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. has become accustomed to being attacked at U.N. environmental gatherings. But the pounding it took in the tortured all-night negotiations that capped the UN climate change conference in Bali was unprecedented. Not only did developing nations big and small from India to Papua New Guinea openly chastise the U.S. for its last-minute refusal to endorse the new agreement dubbed the Bali Roadmap, but — with the exception of a confused statement from Japan — not one of the allies that had generally stood with the U.S. the past two weeks — Australia, Russia, Canada — rose in its defense.

In the end, the U.S.'s total isolation was too much for even it to bear. "We've listened very closely to many of our colleagues here during these two weeks, but especially to what has been said in this hall today," said lead American negotiator Paula Dobiansky. "We will go forward and join consensus." Boos turned to cheers, and the deal was essentially sealed. Here's a breakdown of what it means, who won and who lost:

WHAT WAS ACHIEVED

The roadmap is essentially the beginning of a beginning. The negotiations to come have a specific end date — 2009 — and for the first time, dismantles what the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary Yvo de Boer called "the Berlin Wall of climate change," the idea that only the rich nations need to take responsibility for fighting global warming. Both developed countries, including the U.S., and developing countries, including the large economies of China and India, have signed onto the climate change fight.

The two sides still have different responsibilities, with developed nations ready to take on more quantifiable emissions cuts, and developing nations preparing to take on less specific national actions, but no country is left behind. That matters because the majority of future carbon emissions will come from the developing world, and no climate deal can work without the participation of China and India. "The developing nations of the South are on the same road as the North," says Peter Goldmark, director for the climate and air program for Environmental Defense. "They're using the same roadmap."

Bringing the developing nations on board made it possible for the U.S. to join. Since the Kyoto Protocol was signed — and then rejected by the Senate — the U.S. has insisted that it can't take part in a climate scheme that doesn't include India and China. Though specific commitments will still need to be negotiated, the U.S. is now on the track. With momentum building for domestic carbon cap legislation, there's a real chance that by 2009 — when a new, and likely more climate-friendly Administration will be in place — the U.S. can lead on global warming, just as nations like Papua New Guinea demanded.

Lost a bit in the final drama was the Bali roadmap's most substantial achievement: putting forestry front and center for future climate change negotiations. Deforestation accounts for up to 20% of man-made global warming emissions, but the Kyoto Protocol has no mechanism to support the protection of forests. That will change, and eventually tropical nations could be rewarded for not cutting down their forests, providing a way to reduce carbon emissionand protect trees. "The Bali roadmap provides a way to reduce deforestation," says Stephan Schwartzman,co-director of the international program for Environmental Defense. "For the first time in history it would create value for standing forests. That�s significant."

WHAT WASN'T ACHIEVED

The Bali roadmap contains no specific commitments or figures on the emissions reductions that developed countries will need to take, beyond language that "deep cuts" will be needed. Earlier in the week the EU fought hard to include a specific target of 25 to 40% cuts for developed nations by 2020, and a need to halve global emissions — two figures cited by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) latest assessment of global warming science. Neither made it into the final text, thanks largely to determined opposition from the U.S., although a footnote points to the IPCC report. For environmentalists who had hoped that the recent avalanche of data underscoring the rising crisis of climate change might prompt tougher action, Bali was a disappointment. "It was a rather weak deal," said Meena Rahman, chair of Friends of the Earth International. "It's compromised."

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