Players and Plays at Bali

With less than 48 hours to go before the Bali climate conference comes to a close, it is now universally expected that the 13th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 13) will produce a watered-down “Bali Roadmap.” Once again, countries will be bending over backwards to seduce the United States into joining a post-Kyoto multilateral process to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.

The expected declaration is supposed to get the parties to agree to hammer out the details of a negotiating framework by COP 14 in Poland in 2008 and to come out with a final agreement by COP 15 in Denmark in 2009. It is also expected to contain a reference to a 25-40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020, though Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was quick to disavow that this was “not a target.”

Australia Rejoins the Fold

The opening of the “high-level segment” of the meeting, which has been going on for nearly 10 days, was marked by a dramatic appearance by Australia’s prime minister of 10 days Kevin Rudd, who personally delivered his country’s instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Under the previous government of John Howard, Australia had allied itself with the United States in not ratifying the protocol. As if making up for the sins of his predecessor, Rudd voiced his support for a new multilateral agreement with binding emission targets and promised a 60% greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction by 2050 from 1990 levels for his country. “There is no Plan B,” he told the participants. “There is no escaping to another planet.”

Some climate activists, however, have not been swept away by Rudd. They complain that his words still have to be reflected in the behavior of Australia’s negotiators in Bali, who are imprisoned in the obstructionist paradigm of the Howard regime.

Obstructionists Inc.

The repeated urging by speaker after speaker for binding targets contrasted with the background reality of the continued absence of a positive attitude on the part of the United States, Canada’s replacement of Australia as George W. Bush’s closest ideological naysayer, and Japan’s ill-concealed backtracking from mandatory emission cuts owing to strong pressure from Japanese industry. On the other hand, China and the Group of 77 have projected a willingness to do their share if the developed world decrees meaningful GHG cuts and finances the development and transfer of technology to assist developing countries in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

North-South tensions have been high. On December 11, talks broke down on three issues, including the key problem of transfer of technology to assist countries of the South cope with global warming. The transfer-of-technology talks broke down over whether to use the term “facility” as the developing countries wanted, or “program,” the preferred word of the North, according to Pakistani Ambassador Munir Akram, chairman of the Group of 77 and China bloc. According to one developing country deputy environmental minister who did not wish to be identified, “the United States has sent dinosaurs to these negotiations, and that’s why we’re stalemated on 80% of the issues.” Washington is the bete noire in Bali, and no one is more frustrated than U.S. climate change activists who constantly apologize for the Bush administration’s intransigence.

Differences within the Group of 77, while much less visible, have not been absent. Malaysia, for instance, surprised developing country delegates at the beginning of the negotiations when its representative appeared to hew to the U.S. line that it wanted an institutional outcome to the negotiations that was “flexible” and “non-binding.” At a side event sponsored by the Indian government on December 12, one speaker suggested that commitments to GHG emission cuts would depend on whether a country belongs to the rich-country bloc, the developing world, or a third category made up of “one big country.” This was obviously a reference to China, whose presence in the Group of 77 bloc has made many — especially the smaller island countries that are clamoring for emergency aid to meet the sea-level rise that is already drowning them — uncomfortable since they see their interests as entangled in the dynamics of the negotiations between the global north and China. The rich countries want China, which is on track to surpass the United States as the biggest GHG emitter and is experiencing record but environmentally destabilizing economic growth, to be eventually included in a regime of mandatory emission reductions. The same demand has been made, though not as strongly, with respect to India and Brazil.

Big Business Roars in

Bali will probably be remembered as the conference where big business came to climate change in big way. A significant number of the side events have focused on market solutions to the GHG problem such as emissions trading arrangements. Under such schemes, GHG intensive countries can “offset” their emissions by paying non-GHG intensive countries to forgo pollution-intensive activities, with the market serving as the mediator. Shell and other big-time polluters have been making the rounds touting the market as the prime solution to the climate crisis, a position that meshes well with the U.S. opposition to mandatory emission cuts set by government. UN officials justify the greater private sector presence by saying that 84% of the $50 billion needed to combat climate change in the next few years will need to come from the private sector and the latter needs to be “incentivized.”

Climate change activists have been appalled and stunned by the business takeover of the climate change discourse. “I can’t believe it,” one Indian activist muttered as he walked out of a session entitled Linking Emissions Trading Markets. “These guys have their own specialized jargon. I did not understand one word of what they were saying.”

According to Kevin Smith of the Durban Network on Climate Justice, “The carbon market was originally a very minor part of the architecture of climate architecture, one that climate activists agreed to in order to get the United States on board the Kyoto express. Well, the United States did not get on board, and we are now stuck with carbon markets driving the process since the corporations have found that there is money to be made from climate change.” Smith and others claim that the carbon market is a panacea that will merely allow polluters in the North to keep on polluting while allowing private interests in the South to displace smallholders so they can set up unmonitored and unregulated tree plantations that are supposed to absorb carbon dioxide.

World Bank Provokes Protest

The World Bank has had a major presence at the conference. This has not been to the liking of many parties. For over a week, negotiators haggled over the mechanism to manage funds that would go toward assisting countries on the frontline of the climate crisis. The developed countries wanted the World Bank to act as trustee for the funds and the Bank-managed Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to serve as the administrator for the funds. This did not please the developing country governments, which have had many negative experiences with Bank control of the GEF. The impasse was resolved only when the negotiating parties agreed to establish an “Adaptation Fund Board,” composed mainly of developing states, that would oversee the administration of the funds by the GEF.

An even bigger reaction greeted the Bank’s launching of its $300 million Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, which is designed to use market mechanisms to compensate developing countries, including host country Indonesia, for not cutting down their large tracts of forest. Some 100 activists staged a one-hour-long demonstration at the Grand Hyatt Hotel that put World Bank President Robert Zoellick on the defensive. The protesters, which included members of the Indonesian Civil Society Forum, Friends of the Earth International, World Rainforest Movement, Global Forest Coalition, Jubilee South, the Durban Group on Climate Justice, and Focus on the Global South, warned that incorporating forests into the carbon market would simply guarantee their passing into the hands of big private interests.

Of special concern to the protesters was the fate of indigenous communities. The proposed Bank facility, they warned in a statement, “could trigger further displacement, conflict, and violence. As forests themselves increase in value, they [would be] declared ‘off limits’ to communities that live in them or depend on them for their livelihoods.”

Global Civil Society Erupts

The mass action against Zoellick within the conference site underlined another reason Bali will be remembered. It marked the entry of the global justice movement into the climate change negotiations. The meeting was attended not only by civil society organizations working on trade and development like Oxfam and the World Development Movement but also by mass movement networks like Via Campesina and Jubilee South. An alliance of Indonesian NGOs set up a venue called Solidarity Village for a Cool Planet less than a kilometer from the conference site to serve as a parallel conference. Among the hundreds of participants in the weeklong gathering were representatives of environmental refugees from the Pacific Islands, indigenous peoples threatened by forest carbon trading schemes, and farmers from Via Campesina.

This eruption of trade justice and development activists brought a contentious, World Trade Organization ministerial-like atmosphere to the negotiations, which had formerly been marked by a civil if not chummy relationship between government negotiators and climate lobbyists. “This opening up of the process to folks who are bringing new issues like trade and justice and people’s empowerment into the equation has been a bit disconcerting to the traditional climate NGOs,” said Emma Brindal of Friends of the Earth-Australia.

“Climate Justice” was the call that united the groups at the Solidarity Village. In a statement issued at the end of the meeting, the participants stated: “By climate justice, we understand that countries and sectors that have contributed the most to the climate crisis — the rich countries and transnational corporations of the North — must pay the cost of ensuring that all peoples and future generations can live in a healthy and just world, respecting the ecological limits of the planet. In Bali, we took another step towards building a global movement for climate justice.”

Walden Bello is senior analyst at the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South, a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), and professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines.