The Bali negotiations have laid bare the central issue for climate treaty negotiations: who should pay for climate change. There were two major points of dispute:
1. Should developing countries be bound by an obligation to reduce or limit greenhouse gas emissions, or should rich countries alone make such a commitment?
2. How should abatement costs be allocated among rich and poor countries? In particular, how much aid should rich countries give to poor countries?
The United States (and Canada and Japan) took the reasonable position that the rich countries should commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to helping the poor countries do so, only as long as the poor countries agree to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. The developing countries (and Europe) argued that the rich countries must help the poor countries but the poor countries need not make commitments.
The final agreement is ambiguous and open-ended, not really committing anyone to anything except further discussions, research, etc. But the gist of the agreement is that the rich countries must proceed to a discussion of their greenhouse-gas abatement commitments, and must agree to provide aid to the poor countries, while the poor countries need only consider “actions” to reduce or not to increase greenhouse gas emissions, in return for money and technological assistance from the rich. That is to say, the poor countries agree only to act in their national self-interest.
One needs to remember that China and India are considered poor countries. They certainly are, on a per capita basis, but not in the aggregate. China is apparently the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and India, as it develops, will be an increasingly major contributor. We can expect that other developing countries with enormous populations (Brazil, Indonesia, Bangladesh) will eventually join this group. A climate treaty that omits binding commitments from these countries will do little to ameliorate the effects of climate change. As the New York Times put it today, even if the rich countries shut down all industry immediately, the rate of global warming would be delayed only by a few decades, as the developing nations would quickly take up the slack. And if the rich countries have bound themselves before China and India are expected to, then the latter countries will have enormous bargaining power in any further negotiations, and indeed may simply refuse to enter any agreement.
In a much-noted turn in the negotiations, American diplomats withdrew their opposition to an agreement that omitted poor-nation commitments. This seems like a big mistake, and the White House is already backtracking.
One might reasonably ask, Why shouldn't rich nations incur the costs of climate abatement? They are mostly responsible for causing global warming, and can most afford to fix the problem. The answer is here. In brief, there are better ways to help the poor than to agree to an ineffective climate treaty.
So what’s so great about Bali? And, even more of a puzzle, what’s in it for the Europeans? Why don’t the Europeans join the U.S. and insist that there can be no deal without China?