/ 2 December 2007

Bali’s road map for the planet’s survival

World leaders will converge on the tropical island of Bali this week for the start of negotiations that experts say could be the last chance to save the Earth from catastrophic climate change.

The United Nations conference of 191 countries is the beginning of talks to agree a new international treaty to cut greenhouse-gas emissions causing climate change and continue the work of the Kyoto Protocol after 2012.

Last week negotiators were ”managing expectations” and warning that the aim of the gathering of 10 000 people was to agree a ”road map” or timetable for negotiations.

”Bali is about putting a process in motion rather than taking any substantial decisions,” said Michael Roberts, director of business environment for the Confederation of British Industry.

But even such modest ambitions are likely to generate controversy over key issues such as which countries will be expected to sign up to targets to cut emissions, how cuts can be made and who will pay.

Key figures also warned that what is agreed must lead to an agreement at another major conference of the international community in Copenhagen in two years. That would give governments time to ratify the new treaty before the first phase of Kyoto expires. Crucially, this is after the next United States president is installed — raising hopes that the biggest obstacle to agreement will have been removed.

Privately, officials admit some extension might be needed to the self-imposed 2009 deadline but publicly all sides appear to have agreed to use it to pile the pressure on negotiators during the 12-day conference.

”[The new agreement] has to be in 2009 because we know Kyoto expires in 2012, and it can take a year or two for governments to ratify, so 2009 really is the cut-off point,” said Nick Nuttall, the official spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Programme.

The Bali conference officially opens on Monday but negotiations will reach the crunch in the final three days, when governments are expected to send their most senior figures to finalise any agreement.

Britain will send the Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, his Deputy Minister Phil Woolas and Nicholas Stern, the former Treasury mandarin who wrote the influential Stern Report arguing that it would cost five to 20 times more to tackle climate change in future than if the world were to act now to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The first issue to be decided will be the headline promise to limit global warming to an average temperature increase of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and what cuts will be needed to meet that. Estimates range from 50% to 80% by 2050.

With the rapid growth of big economies such as China, India and Brazil, the major debate will be over whether developing nations are forced to accept mandatory targets to cut emissions. Last week China and Brazil were reported as saying they would only make cuts if they were paid.

The other key area of controversy will be how emissions reductions can be made. Likely flashpoints are whether countries should be paid not to chop down forests, support for nuclear power and biofuels as ”low-carbon” sources of power in future, and the ”clean development mechanism” — allowing emissions to be ”offset” by investing in reducing them elsewhere.

There will also be pressure from some quarters to set specific targets for some sectors, for example buildings and transport, and to include emissions from aviation and international shipping in future agreements.

Hopes of a successful conference are high, partly because countries are not expected to sign up to any specific commitments. The Bali meeting follows a spate of high-profile reports in the past year warning of the impacts of climate change.

”Bali could be the last chance for humankind to avoid the worst effect of global warming,” said Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth.

”The politics of this are changing very quickly. One should be cautiously optimistic about the prospects for getting the outline of the deal because we’re stuffed if we don’t.” — Guardian Unlimited Â