Bali to Copenhagen

Bali convinced me that agreeing a new phase of Kyoto is by far the most important objective for clim

I have no idea whether or not, as the tourist guidebooks insist, Bali is beautiful. In common with most of the 11,000 negotiators, journalists, lobbyists and campaigners attending the UN climate-change conference in Nusa Dua resort, all I saw of Indonesia's Island of the Gods was the monotonous inside of the International Convention Centre. This is not to say that the jamboree was a gigantic waste of time (and carbon), as cynics insist. On the contrary, Bali convinced me that agreeing a new phase of Kyoto is by far the most important objective for climate-change stabilisation.

Most commentators now agree that the first phase of Kyoto has been a qualified success at best, and is unlikely to lead to any measurable cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. But Kyoto was agreed in 1997, and those were very different days. This time, the EU and many other parties came to the Bali conference with a science-led agenda calling for a peaking of global emissions in ten to 15 years, 25-40 per cent cuts by developed countries by 2020, and a halving of worldwide emissions by 2050. These are astonishingly ambitious targets, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that they are necessary if the long-term rise in temperature is not to go more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. For the first time, the agenda at the UN climate talks was being set not by what everyone considers politically possible, but by what the scientists suggest the earth needs. This is a seismic shift in international climate policy.

The change has come about for three reasons. First, the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report showed that the science of climate change is now so conclusively settled that objections on the basis of "scientific uncertainty" are no longer tenable, and even the Americans have given up that line of argument. At the same time, the climate sceptics have dwindled from being a major political force a few years ago to a lunatic fringe of conspiracy theorists and mavericks today.

Second, there has been a shift in global public opinion. Climate change leads the agenda in many countries, and clearly swung the election in Australia. Some governments are implementing policies to limit global warming that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago, as the UK is with its climate-change bill.

Third, the power of international business is no longer being wielded against action on climate change, as was the case at Kyoto and for many years afterwards. Most of the world's largest corporations now speak in favour of mandatory emissions limits. In effect, business is demanding that it be regulated - a position that would have been unthinkable until very recently.

So why, given that negotiators should have been pushing at an open door, was Bali not an unlimited success? There were some victories - an agreement to bring tropical deforestation into the climate process will be hugely important, and developing countries will benefit from a decision on how to manage funds for adaptation to the impact of climate change. There were also signs that China and India will soon accept their own targets, a critically important shift. But the main Bali road map still shows a formidable obstacle: the United States. Although the final text was widely reported as being a defeat for America, given its eleventh-hour volte-face amid extraordinarily emotional scenes at the concluding plenary, the US did succeed in deleting the EU's numerical targets. Instead, a footnote refers to three pages of the Fourth Assessment Report, which themselves merely assess various scenarios for temperature stabilisation.

But this is the tail end of a dying US administration. In just one year, a new president will move into the White House, with a new climate policy. By the time negotiations conclude in Copenhagen in 2009, the political landscape could look very different, leading to a consensus on long-term targets that includes every government in the world. The road begins in Bali, but ends in Copenhagen. Start planning now.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot