Officials stressed the need for "political will" to stem the impact of global warming as the United Nations Climate Change Conference got underway on the Indonesian island of Bali on 3 December.
The joint meeting of the 192 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 177 Parties to the Kyoto Protocol are expected to prepare the ground for a new deal on climate change to be put in place after 2012.
This is when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, a commitment made in 1997 by 36 industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least five percent against a 1990 baseline, expires.
Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have warned that if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut by at least 30 percent in the next 10 to 15 years, global temperatures would increase by two degrees Celsius, which will destroy 30 to 40 percent of all known species, and bring bigger, fiercer and more frequent heat waves, floods and droughts.
"A large part of the solution is available to us today; what we need is political will," said Yvo de Boer, UNFCCC Executive Secretary at a press briefing on 2 December in Bali. "The big question for me is: 'Ministers, what is your political answer to what the scientific community is telling you so very clearly?'"
IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri told IRIN, "I am generally optimistic, but you need political leaders who will take the initiative."
The conference kicked off on a positive note with the newly elected Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on 3 December, leaving the United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, isolated as the only industrialised country that has not signed. The US objected because the Kyoto Protocol excluded China and India, two of the world's fastest growing economies.
Lengthy applause greeted news of Australia's ratification, which de Boer hailed as "very significant political decision" and said it reflected appreciation for the courage shown by Australia in dramatically shifting its position and engaging more strongly with the international community on climate change, which boded well for the country's future role in the negotiations.
|The biggest single barrier to that is the role the US administration has played in wrecking the climate negotiations, but we cannot wait for the US administration; the EU and others must lead, because we just cannot afford to wait|
"Each country must take its fair share of responsibility for tackling the problem in the second commitment period [post 2012]," said Shane Rattenbury, Political Director of Greenpeace International. "The biggest single barrier to that is the role the US administration has played in wrecking the climate negotiations, but we cannot wait for the US administration; the EU and others must lead, because we just cannot afford to wait."
At the press briefing De Boer noted a number of recent positive political developments: the European Union has announced a commitment to reduce emissions by 20 percent by 2020; the G8 has called for negotiations on a future climate deal to be concluded by 2009, when the next meeting of all parties to the UNFCCC takes place in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Indonesian Environment Minister and President of the conference, Rachmat Witoelar, commented in his opening remarks on 3 December that while "the launch of negotiations and a clear deadline of 2009 to end the negotiations would constitute a breakthrough, anything short of that would constitute a failure."
There are four main "blocks" on the conference agenda: mitigation (action to limit or reduce emissions); adaptation (putting in place a strategy to help developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change); technology (helping countries limit or reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change by supplying technology; financial support to help developing countries act on mitigation and adaptation.
|Indonesian Environment Minister and President of the UN conference on climate change, Rachmat Witoelar, addressing the opening session in Bali|
Other important issues include deforestation, recognised as a key driver of climate change that accounts for up to 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The aim is to launch pilot projects in developing countries that will enhance their capacity to reduce emissions from deforestation.
The Clean Development Mechanism, one of three mechanisms in the Kyoto Protocol that offer rich countries the choice of reducing emissions at home or in developing countries, with benefits for both parties.
"Action in the North is needed to fuel clean growth in the South," de Boer said in his opening address on 3 December. "While it is clear that we will need to continue using fossil fuels for some time to come, we can't afford conventional technologies to continue to keep a grip on the world."