Because of its extraordinary beauty, Bali has been called "the island of the Gods." It could lose this designation if flooding, wildfires and other climate disasters persist. No wonder the United Nations chose this Indonesian island as the site of its 13th Climate Change Conference. From Dec. 3-14, representatives from 191 countries are gathering in Bali to set a roadmap for a new greenhouse-gas emissions deal that would take effect after 2012, when the current Kyoto protocol expires. The United Nations, in a mood of optimism, hailed the "momentous" progress of the last 12 months in raising awareness of climate change, citing the groundbreaking reports of its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Nobel Prize the IPCC recently shared with former vice president Al Gore.
Will this momentum lead to an effective agreement in Indonesia? Before the negotiations have even started, important developing countries Brazil and India have already spoken out against emission targets, and the Bush administration, which is not party to the talks, shows no sign of reversing its stance against mandatory caps on emissions. NEWSWEEK's Thijs Niemantsverdriet discussed the politics of the Bali conference with John T. Holdren, professor of environmental science and public policy at Harvard University, director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and a policy adviser to the United Nations. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What is at stake at this summit?
John T. Holdren: What's at stake is whether the world can muster the political will to avert a climate change catastrophe. My view is that the stated goal of the U.N., which is "to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system," is out of reach. We're already experiencing this. All around the world floods are up, droughts are up, wildfires are up, powerful storms are up. According to the World Health Organization, already in the year 2000 climate change was responsible for more than 150,000 premature deaths in the world. Bali is supposed to achieve an agreement on a framework for reducing greenhouse gases after 2012, when the Kyoto treaty ends. There won't be any concrete numbers or targets out of this conference, only an agreement between the countries on a multistep process.
Has Kyoto been a success?
A limited success. It was signed by 176 countries. To get so many countries to work together on a global problem is already progress. And everyone understood [in 1997] that this was only a first step. Kyoto has been criticized for being inadequate: it would not make that much difference, even if its targets were met [reducing the world's greenhouse gas emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012]. But everyone understood at the time that there would need to be deeper reductions in the period following 2012. The achievement was getting agreement at all.
Which countries are actually on track to meet the Kyoto targets?
Very few. As far as I know, the United Kingdom and Germany are on track. And critics say the reasons for that have very little to do with the Kyoto protocol itself—more with the U.K. shifting from coal to natural gas and the shutting down of very inefficient industries in the former East Germany after German unification.
What is the punishment for not meeting the targets?
There was never an agreement on what the penalties would be. It may sound odd, but it's not unusual in international treaties. There are no specified punishments for violating arms control treaties either.
Why would countries comply if there's no punishment?
The punishment is a combination of international disdain and, in the case of arms control treaties, sanctions. If you fail to meet a treaty that you entered, your national interest has been harmed. That's why treaties have worked in spite of their usual lack of any prescribed penalties. In my opinion, Kyoto focused too much on numerical targets and too little on the mechanisms by which those targets would be achieved. Targets in the absence of mechanisms are likely to be missed. Some of the flaws in Kyoto could have been remedied on the fly if countries had agreed on a penalty that would remedy the shortfall in the next round. For instance, if the punishment for missing the targets had been to increase national investment in low-emission technologies in proportion to the amount by which the target was missed.
A number of important developing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, have already come out against targets on greenhouse gas emissions, even though they are likely to suffer from climate change. Why?
In Kyoto in 1997 it was decided that there were not going to be greenhouse gas targets for developing countries. In the first round up to 2012, there would be different commitments for countries at different levels of economic development. Rich industrialized nations that caused most of the trouble in climate change would have to go first. As a matter of historical responsibility, equity and capacity, they would lead. That was understood by everybody at the time. Today the major developing countries say they are still waiting for the industrialized nations to lead, above all the U.S. Until then, they say, they are not ready to set numerical targets that will harm their economic development. There is no chance that China, India or Brazil will embrace any targets before the U.S. does. In my judgment they are correct in that.
How do you square the climate ambitions with another very important U.N. goal: eradicating poverty, which would entail growth of consumption and thus of emissions in the Third World?
You reconcile them by saying that the world can afford some growth in energy use and emissions in the developing countries. If we want to avoid climate catastrophe, global emissions will have to peak and begin to decline no later than 2015 to 2020. That means that the industrialized nations will need to start to reduce their emissions immediately, and the developing countries no later than in 2020, and preferably sooner. That leaves room for some energy growth in these countries in the years immediately ahead. You cannot realistically expect Mexico, China, India, Indonesia and Brazil to start reducing their emissions right now, as they are too poor. And you can only afford this if the rich countries start reducing immediately. However, there is a way perhaps to persuade the developing countries to commit themselves to numerical targets as well. That is, if we use another metric. The Kyoto metric was absolute: it determined by what percentage countries had to reduce their emissions from 1990 levels. But an alternative could be the "intensity metric": the ratio of greenhouse gases to the GDP. This is the one that president Bush embraced in the voluntary proposals he announced in 2002 after making clear that the U.S. would not ratify Kyoto. The developing countries have per capita emissions that are far lower than the industrialized nations, so they're saying to us: why should we agree to overall cuts when our per capita levels are only a small fraction of yours? Why would we only be entitled to have half a ton in emissions per person when the U.S. is entitled to five tons per person? The intensity approach would allow those gaps to narrow somewhat. And you would get the developing countries to sign on considerably sooner.
What other important points are there on the table in Bali?
One is deforestation. This is going to be a big issue in Bali. Many of the developing countries, most conspicuously Brazil and Indonesia, can make big contributions in reducing their emission rates by cutting down fewer trees. Brazil emits about 70 percent of its greenhouse gasses through deforestation, and only 30 percent through fuels. So it has a big opportunity here to reduce its emissions without adversely affecting economic development. Countries like Brazil could be rewarded for less deforestation by a process called "compensated reduction." The idea is that revenues of the sales of emission permits in countries with cap-and-trade programs can be used to compensate developing countries for leaving forests intact. The reasons forests are cut down are largely economic. People cut down forests in order to grow soy beans or sugar cane instead. My institute, the Woods Hole Research Center, has calculated that it is quite feasible to compensate Brazil or Indonesia for sparing forests. The other crucial point is what we call "low-hanging fruit" in emission reduction. There are a lot of possibilities to drastically improve energy efficiency. You can make very efficient automobiles, and you can develop manufacturing processes for steel, plastics and paper that are much more energy-efficient. And since in the developing world the rate at which these industrial activities are growing tends to be high, you have the opportunity there to get relatively more modern facilities. Those countries can become more prosperous with a much smaller energy growth than the rich nations. And a lot of that potential can be achieved at a profit. The money you save on energy expenditures more than pays for the investments you make in modernizing the technologies. Better buildings, better air-conditioning and more efficient cars all pay for themselves. It's a win-win strategy: people would do these things even if they didn't care about climate change.
How seriously does the Bush administration take the Bali talks?
The rhetoric of the administration on climate change has evolved quite a lot in the last year or so. Bush has lately been acknowledging that climate change is a real problem and that it is going to require international cooperation to resolve it. But what he has not yet acknowledged is that mandatory measures are going to be required. And in spite of the more positive rhetoric, the U.S. has obstructed progress in the negotiations behind the scenes. Ultimately the U.S. will change its position. But I worry that the Bush administration is not yet ready to embrace real commitments. It would be very unfortunate if that continues to be true in Bali. It all hinges on the U.S.; the other major emitters are certainly not going to move until the U.S. does. A continuing failure of U.S. leadership will be very damaging to the prospects of the whole world coming to an agreement.
Will the U.S. come out of this summit ever more isolated on climate change?
I think so, yes. The defeat of John Howard in Australia has led to a change of position on climate change there, and Australia was the only other major industrialized nation that was aligned with the U.S. in being a determined laggard. We're already isolated to an embarrassing and damaging degree. Bali would be a great time to shift from lagging to leading.
The administration says that fighting global warming would hurt the U.S. economy.
I think the amount of hurt has been wildly exaggerated. The best economic analyses that have been done indicate that the costs of fighting global warming are very modest. The U.S. government itself has calculated that the cost of embracing a sensible set of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 would be fourteen hundredths of a percent of U.S. GDP. That means that Americans in 2025 would have to wait until Jan. 18 to be as rich as they otherwise would have been on Jan. 1. The notion that there is an intolerable price to pay to reduce climate catastrophe is ridiculous on its face. Environmental regulation in general was once argued to be something that would wreck the U.S. economy, and now meeting these regulations is a $200 billion-a-year industry in the U.S. It has created lots of jobs and lots of income and lots of investment. The notion that all the money is going down a black hole is just wrong.
Which of the current presidential candidates is addressing the issue of climate change most openly and directly, according to you?
All leading Democratic candidates have a strong, sensible position. On the Republican side it is less clear, in part because for Republicans climate change is not a good issue in the primaries—except for John McCain, who has a strong, forward-leaning position. But my projection is that Giuliani or Romney will end up with a sensible position on climate change once they get the nomination.
Any chance climate change is going to be an election issue?
It may not become a big issue, simply because it won't be a point of disagreement, if my assumption about the Republicans is right. In the last election Bush and Kerry agreed that terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons is the greatest security threat that the U.S. faces. There was no more argument about that because they agreed. That might happen with climate change as well, in the next election.
What kind of car do you drive?
I drive a Toyota Prius, a hybrid car. And I commute to Boston by bus. Although that's largely out of convenience: I can work on the bus.