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"?

Environmental activists. Click image to expand.
Environmental activists demonstrate in Bali

The heart of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali is a meeting center surrounded by several luxury beach hotels. While delegates from 190 nations negotiate in the ballroom, the sprawling hotel complex is used as a fairground for a global trade show on climate. Carbon traders and other businessmen mingle with environmental advocates and delegates, while dozens of meeting rooms are used for public "side events." One recurring theme of these events is the purported injustice that the industrialized North has committed. In a typical scene, Mohammed Adow, an activist from Kenya, tells an anecdote: "A man builds a big log home. When his younger brother wants to build a similar log home for himself, the older brother tells him: 'There are not enough trees left.' … Is that fair?" The room erupts in applause. Adow expresses a widespread sentiment that many Western NGOs share with delegates from the South. Allegedly, the industrialized nations are using climate policy as an excuse to control or slow growth in the developing world. For Adow, climate change is a problem "created in the past." Poverty is today's most pressing problem, and it's inconceivable to "ask the poor South to pay for a problem that the super-rich have created."

That's why everyone in Bali is talking about "climate justice," the latest addition to the language of rights. It refers to the idea that every citizen of this planet shall enjoy equal rights to add carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. This milligrams-per-person theory has enormous potential to divide the world. And it might even stymie efforts to reach a global agreement about the reduction of greenhouse gases by 2009.

But let's start with the good news: The age of outright denial regarding climate change is over. The world's biggest polluters, the United States and China, no longer reflexively block any type of agreement. According to U.S. lead negotiator Harlan Watson, the final document, due Saturday, shall include a mandate for "negotiations" rather than simply asking for further global "dialogue." Chinese negotiator Su Wei points to an ambitious program to increase the use of renewable energy to 10 percent and improve energy efficiency by 20 percent, all by 2010. With similar rhetoric coming from other emerging economies, like Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico, the do-nothing coalition has now been reduced to Saudi Arabia and a few other oil-producing states.

Unfortunately, old and new friends of the Earth don't exactly see eye to eye when it comes to sharing the burden of cooling the planet. Everybody demands climate action, as long as someone else does the work. Ten years ago, during the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, developing nations argued that climate change was a luxury pain of the North—if the industrialized nations wanted to act on it, they should feel free to do so. This attitude was reflected in the final treaty: Among the 174 signatories, only the wealthiest three dozen were actually expected to reduce their emissions. Ten years later, it is harder for the developing world to make the same argument. Having accepted the notion of the climate crisis, they now need a better reason for declining to commit. The theory of "climate justice" is their savior.

Nobody expresses this notion with greater self-assuredness than the Chinese. They call it a fair solution if the industrialized nations agree to mandatory cuts on greenhouses gases, while the Chinese do not. To lead the fight against global warming, Su Wei opines, Western countries should embrace a less extravagant lifestyle. China, on the other hand, is in the process of industrialization and needs growth to fight poverty. The Chinese like to tell this story from a conversation with a European: "How did you manage to clean up Europe?"—"Well, we moved production to China." To remain the industrial heartland of the world, China needs the right to pollute. The question of when a country might make the official switch to being an "industrialized nation" is not part of the argument.

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.

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.