Global Policy Forum

Disappointment in Bali

International Herald Tribune
December 17, 2007

A conference that could have brought important progress on climate change ended in disappointment. In Bali, where delegates from 187 countries met to begin framing a new global warming treaty, America's negotiators were in full foot-dragging mode, acting as spoilers rather than providing the leadership the world needs.

In Washington, caving to pressures from the White House, the utilities and the oil companies, the Senate settled for a merely decent energy bill instead of a very good one that would have set the country on a clear path to a cleaner future.

The news from Bali was particularly disheartening. The delegates agreed to negotiate by 2009 a new and more comprehensive global treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. (Kyoto expires in 2012 and requires that only industrialized nations reduce their production of greenhouse gases.) They pledged for the first time to address deforestation, which accounts for one-fifth of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.

And they received vague assurances from China - which will soon overtake the United States as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases - and other emerging powers that they would seek "measurable, reportable and verifiable" emissions cuts.

From the United States the delegates got nothing, except a promise to participate in the forthcoming negotiations. Even prying that out of the Bush administration required enormous effort.

Despite pleas from their European allies, the Americans flatly rejected the idea of setting even provisional targets for reductions in greenhouse gases. And they refused to give what the rest of the world wanted most: an unambiguous commitment to reducing America's own emissions. Without that, there is little hope that other large emitters, including China, will change their ways.

There is some consolation in knowing that the energy bill approved last week included several provisions - among them the first significant improvement in automobile mileage standards in more than 30 years - that over time should begin to reduce the United States' dependency on foreign oil and its output of greenhouse gases. The bill would have had much greater impact if the Senate had not killed two important provisions opposed by the White House and its big industrial contributors.

One would have required utilities to generate an increasing share of their power from renewable sources like wind. The other would have rolled back about $12 billion in tax breaks granted to the oil companies in the last energy bill and used the proceeds to help develop new energy technologies.

The decision to maintain the tax breaks was particularly shameful. Blessed by $90-a-barrel oil, the companies are rolling in profits, and there is no evidence to support the claim that they need these breaks to be able to explore for new resources. Yet the White House had the gall to argue that the breaks are necessary to protect consumers at the pump, and the Senate was craven enough to go along.

This Senate will have another chance to provide the American leadership the world needs on climate change. An ambitious bipartisan bill aimed at cutting America's greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent by mid-century has been approved by a Senate committee and may come to the floor next year. Though the bill is far from perfect and will provoke intense debate, it could offer a measure of redemption for the administration's embarrassing failure in Bali.

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