The Lessons of Bali: The U.S. Needs to Lead on Global Warming

The United States did not lead at this past weekend’s diplomatic gathering in Bali to decide what to do next about climate change, but in the end the Bush administration “got out of the way” to allow for a Bali mandate. In contrast, the U.S. House of Representatives voted this week to boost vehicle fuel efficiency requirements for the first time in decades, increase the production and availability of renewable fuels, hike building and appliance energy efficiency standards, and phase out the 100-year-old incandescent light bulb. All of these measures will significantly reduce U.S. global warming pollution.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration and its congressional allies blocked even deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by convincing 40 Senators to threaten to filibuster the entire energy bill if it included a renewable electricity standard and tax incentives to invest in low-carbon energy technologies. That threat was enough to force Senate leaders to remove these provisions, which would have reduced U.S. global warming pollution by millions of metric tons annually.

These back-to-back actions by the Bush administration to block worldwide agreements and congressional efforts to combat global warming speak volumes about current U.S. administration-led environmental and economic policies. During the Bali negotiations (and in its recent efforts to curb the energy bill) the Bush administration missed out on two critical opportunities to lead the world in transforming the way nations produce and consume energy and to promote the vast economic opportunities this transformation will offer.

Developed and developing nations alike came to Bali committed to pursuing a global, sustainable low-carbon energy future, yet the United States chose to obstruct this process and assert its continued support only for voluntary emission reductions—the same failed policy it has pursued at home. After a delegate from Papua New Guinea angrily complained about U.S. intransigence (“If you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way”), echoing the views of most other diplomats from the developing world, the United States finally relented and agreed to language without specific limits on global warming—language that will serve as a base for negotiations over the next two years to develop a global pollution reduction agreement.

In the final negotiated language of the Bali summit, neither developed nor developing nations committed to any specific numeric emission reduction targets. But they did commit instead to measurable, reportable, and verifiable mitigation “actions.” In the case of developed nations, this also includes measurable, reportable, and verifiable mitigation “commitments.”

Financing and capacity-building were also guaranteed to developing nations in their efforts toward sustainable economic development and emission reductions. What these actions and commitments will entail will be further developed during the upcoming global meetings in Poland next year and in Denmark in 2009.

Developing nations, of course, must also work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but they are far less responsible for the high levels of emissions currently in our atmosphere or the effects that global warming has already inflicted on the planet. For instance, the United States contributed an estimated 30 percent of the atmospheric greenhouse gases emitted between 1850 and 2003. As such, developed nations have a moral responsibility to make deep cuts in their emissions and help developing nations avoid developing along carbon intensive pathways.

Since the beginning of the Bali meeting, developing nations such as China, Brazil, and South Africa made it clear that in order to walk down the path toward commitments to reduce emissions in their own countries, they needed to see stringent and binding reduction commitments from developed nations. They made it equally clear that they would also need adequate financing and technology-transfer assistance to help their economies develop in a more sustainable manner.

Language circulating early last week in Bali, for example, would have committed so-called Annex 1 nations (developed nations) to a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2020. Similarly, early negotiating language emphasized the need for global emissions to peak within the next 10 to 15 years, and called for global emissions to be reduced by 50 percent of 2000 levels by 2050.

These are reasonable proposals that were supported by developing and developed nations alike including the European Union. A few nations, such as Germany, currently are working towards such ambitious goals. In the United States, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S.2191) now before Congress requires a 15 percent reduction below current levels by 2020 and a 70 percent reduction by 2050. The original Bali proposal is more stringent than this bill sponsored by Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and John Warner (R-VA), but it is technologically achievable and is based on what the science tells us is needed to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, especially in the near term.

Although S. 2191 does not meet this more ambitious goal, its enactment into law would demonstrate to the world that the United States is committed to reducing its emissions and put America on the path towards leading, rather than stalling, the global climate dialogue. What’s more, once the United States commits to stringent emission reductions, it will spark a wave of transformative economic opportunities in renewable, clean technology both here and abroad.

The Bali road map is a start, but as scientists warn us, we need to move extremely quickly to negotiate deep global emission reductions during the next two global warming meetings, including serious immediate reductions from the United States.

As the Indian delegate at the Bali meeting explained, the road from Bali must be much stronger than the road to Bali. What is at stake is saving future generations from the effects of global warming, which include drought, famine, sea-level rise, storms, and other horrible consequences. The question is not what the emissions reductions committed to by one or another country, but what we commit to do together.

It is imperative that the United States play a more constructive role to help the community of nations promptly begin to reduce their emissions of global warming pollution. This is essential if we hope to avoid the worst effects of global warming. In its last year in office, the Bush administration must do more than get out of the way. And the U.S. Congress must pass comprehensive global warming legislation that not only caps greenhouse gas emissions but also promotes low-carbon technologies, renewable electricity, greater efficiency, and more green job creation.

This way the United States can take the lead once again in this planetary effort. Our globe depends on it.

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