Environment ministers from around the world were gearing up for a final week of talks this week in Bali, Indonesia, hoping to find a way forward once the Kyoto climate treaty expires in 2012.
One idea that seemed to be gaining strength is a fund to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries adapt to the change brought on by global warming.
It has been a decade since the start of negotiations in Kyoto, a process that produced a treaty that looked dead on arrival after the United States declined to ratify it. Since then, talks on reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been in a holding pattern. The hope at Bali is to get at least a hint of forward motion.
David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there are positive signs emerging from the first week of the conference.
"I think they've been making progress, turning what's been called a dialogue into a formal negotiation," he said.
The hope is to close a deal in 2009. But some features of a potential agreement are starting to emerge. One big change from the 1997 treaty is that a new deal might actually help the countries most at risk from climate change.
Saleemul Huq is a climate specialist at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. He has been working to help countries like his native Bangladesh get more funding to cope with rising sea levels and stronger typhoons.
"This is not development assistance. This is the polluter paying the victim of pollution," Huq said.
Currently, when a country can't meet its carbon emissions caps, it can make up for that by investing in climate-friendly projects in the developing world. Huq's idea is to take a small percentage from those transactions and put that money into a fund for the poorest and most vulnerable nations. Estimates are that these countries will ultimately need hundreds of billions of dollars, so this funding mechanism would be a modest start.
It would be up to the developing countries to figure out how to spend that money, but Huq said disaster preparedness would be an obvious use.
Hurricane Katrina was a stark reminder that even rich countries are vulnerable. Doniger said Katrina is also a major reason the Bali talks are getting a nudge forward.
"Hurricane Katrina made a huge difference," he said. "Al Gore and his movie made a huge difference, so real legislation is moving forward and people from other countries see something new and different is coming."
Regardless of who is elected president, the expectation is that Washington will end up with a more aggressive policy toward climate change. And that is creating a tentative sense of optimism in Bali.
There are other looming issues — including reluctance on the part of China to make promises about cutting its burgeoning emissions. But it seems the nations of the world want to have some agreement to govern emissions after 2012.
A globe stands outside the venue of the U.N. Climate Change Conference 2007 in Nusa Dua, on Bali island.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Putting Four Legs on the Climate Table
Much of the agenda in Bali will be focused on four issues that experts say any future agreement will have to address:
Mitigation: Creating a menu of specific actions that nations can take to slow or cut emissions of greenhouse gases (such as trapping carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants or switching to alternative energy sources).
Adaptation: Helping nations adapt to the impacts of climate change, such as water shortages or shoreline flooding. Scientists say the world will undergo the effects of some warming, no matter what happens in Bali.
Technology: Figuring out ways to spur the innovation of new technologies — from solar power to drought-tolerant plants — that could help countries mitigate or adapt.
Money: Crafting new markets and financial tools that create incentives for rich countries to cut emissions, while helping poor nations grow their economies without greatly adding to emissions. One popular idea is a "cap and trade" system that would allow companies and countries to buy and sell pollution credits. Another is to pay developing nations to protect large swaths of forest which suck up and store vast amounts of carbon. — David Malakoff
More than 180 nations are meeting in Bali, Indonesia this week to discuss a future global pact on fighting climate change. The first phase of the Kyoto Protocol on climate expires in 2012, and the United Nations is asking representatives meeting in Bali to think about what's next. Here, a look at some of the major issues:
How do you get the big greenhouse emitters to play?
Perhaps the biggest issue on the table is how to get the world's biggest greenhouse gas producers — including the United States, China and India — to agree to participate in a future agreement. The U.S. backed out of the 1997 Kyoto accord, which set specific emissions targets, after the Bush administration decided it would be too expensive and not very effective. China and India were not included because they were developing economies, and argued that developed nations should take the lead.
Experts agree that all of these big players must agree to take significant action to cut future emissions of warming gases, such as carbon dioxide, if any agreement is to be effective. But many nations are skeptical of Kyoto-style mandatory cuts and want more flexible voluntary approaches. The focus in Bali will be coming up with a menu of incentives and strategies acceptable to all the players.
How warm is too warm?
Nations will ultimately have to agree on how much warming we are willing to accept. Scientists say the world is already committed to nearly three degrees Fahrenheit of warming. Many European governments argue that the ultimate limit should be 3.5 degrees — anything above that would have dangerous consequences. To stay within that limit, researchers say the world has just a decade or two to take major steps to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
What's the timetable?
With the end of the first phase of the Kyoto accord just four years away, some nations are pushing to have a clear framework for a new agreement in place by 2009. But that timetable could be delayed by a wide range of factors, from the results of the November 2008 presidential elections in the United States, to political shifts in China and Europe.