Will the climate change talks in Bali fall apart over the notion of "climate justice"?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Dec. 12 2007 1:42 PM

Dispatch From Bali

Will the negotiations fall apart over the idea of "climate justice"?

(Continued from Page 1)

And it ought not to be, says Emil Salim, chief negotiator of the Indonesian government. In order to deal with climate change, he argues, China needs what all other developing nations need: technology transfer from the West. But the industrialized countries do not want to compromise. Salim sees a clear division of labor between North and South. The industrialized nations focus on carbon-dioxide reduction, while the developing nations concentrate on poverty alleviation. According to Salim, "a low-carbon society will be a byproduct of sustainable development." Seen this way, climate policy is the new development policy.

Industrialized nations have long accepted the idea that they will have to do more to fight global warming than the developing nations will have to. The draft of the Bali declaration reflects that when it speaks of "common, but differentiated responsibilities." But the draft also mentions "measurable" and "verifiable" commitments of developing nations. At the time of this writing, countries of the South are fighting hard to remove this language. To explain the logic of this tactic, the Indonesian chief negotiator mentions that per-capita emissions of an Indonesian citizen are only a fraction of those of an American citizen.

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After having colonized and oppressed much of the rest of the world, the South argues, Europeans (and later Americans) embarked on an ill-conceived path to affluence, which in turn led to droughts, floods, and heat waves in more vulnerable regions of the globe. Now the developing nations insist on climate democracy to make things right: one man, one milligram.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has embraced this notion, but many in the West reject it. (Sen. John Kerry called it "nonsensical" during his blitz visit to Bali.) Theoretically, emissions rights could be allocated to each individual on the globe. And theoretically, the citizens of Brazil, Indonesia, India, and China could be freed from all commitments to reduce emissions, because each of them emits relatively little on their own. But taken in aggregate, the majority of future emissions will come from these very citizens, and those of a few other countries. If "climate justice" were to prevail, emerging economies would not have to mitigate until they reached the same per-capita emissions level as Western countries.

Under those conditions, how could we keep global warming at less than 2 degrees Celsius in the coming decades? The countries of the old West would have to transform themselves into zero-carbon societies in the blink of an eye. It seems very unlikely that anyone—the next American president, or even Chancellor Merkel—would be able to make this type of commitment.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is the senior director for policy programs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.

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