Bali Conference

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Bali Conference


The Bali Conference, hosted by the United Nations on the Indonesian island of Bali between December 3–14, 2007, brought together delegates from more than 180 nations— accompanied by thousands of observers from intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations—to start negotiations on a new climate change treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2012.

Prior to the conference, there was recognition from the U.N. and a majority of governments that the main goal of the conference was to initiate a timetable for negotiations on a new international climate change agreement, rather than to deliver a fully negotiated and agreed climate accord.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect in February 2005, marked the most significant intergovernmental treaty aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. The agreement set out to lower overall emissions from a group of six greenhouse gases in industrialized nations by an average of 5.2% by 2012 (when compared to their 1990 levels).

Although hailed by a majority of politicians, scientists, and environmentalists as a landmark agreement, Kyoto was simultaneously criticized by many within that same constituency for being replete with flaws. It lacked the support of the United States, the world's largest polluter; there were no targets for developing nations, such as China and India; and the overall greenhouse-gas reductions simply scratched the surface of the climate change problem instead of delivering the radical cuts necessary to mitigate it. Furthermore, endless political wrangling had meant that the protocol— first agreed to in December 1997—had taken more than seven years to come into force, giving it a lifetime of less than the period of haggling that led to its passage into law. Indeed, beginning from the 1992 Earth Summit, at which the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change first emerged, the Kyoto process had taken nearly 13 years to pass from conception to reality.

Almost as soon as the Kyoto Protocol came into effect, therefore, the search for a viable successor treaty, to take effect in 2012 when Kyoto ended, began. Led by European Union (EU) member countries, ambitious targets for greenhouse-gas emissions were often mooted, as scientific evidence of the devastating extent of human-made climate change became overwhelming. Pressure for developing countries to be bound by emissions reductions in a post–2012 deal, also began to mount. And as the presidency of George W. Bush neared its conclusion, there were hopes that the United States would sign up to a post-Kyoto Treaty.

Staged in Bali in December 2007, the thirteenth meeting of the conference of parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP–13), was the occasion on which a timetable for negotiations for a Kyoto successor treaty was laid out. “Bali must advance a negotiating agenda to combat climate change on all fronts, including adaptation, mitigation, clean technologies, deforestation and resource mobilization,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the build up to the conference. “Bali must be the political response to the recent scientific reports by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. All countries must do what they can to reach agreement by 2009, and to have it in force by the expiry of the current Kyoto protocol commitment period in 2012.” Ban, a South Korean career diplomat and former foreign minister, succeeded Kofi Annan as U.N. secretary general on January 1, 2007. Ban identified climate change as one of the key issues facing his administration.

Impacts and Issues

The Bali Conference came at the end of a year in which climate change had, perhaps for the first time, been forced to the absolute forefront of the international political agenda. Earlier in 2007, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Gore's film about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar. Hundreds of millions of people watched or attended the Live Earth concerts. The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, published in June, made newspaper headlines and led news broadcasts the world over with its near apocalyptic predictions of the effects of global warming should greenhouse-gas emissions continue unimpeded.

This fed a fresh wave of resolve in government ministries across the world. In the build up to Bali, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy all expressed their desire to agree to a new international deal that would keep global warming under the widely accepted danger level of two degrees centigrade. Brown succeeded Tony Blair as British prime minister in June 2007 after a decade as chancellor of the exchequer and had expressed a longstanding determination for Britain to lead the global agenda on climate change.

On the eve of the conference, the new Australian government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed up to the Kyoto Protocol after years of opposition. Even in the United States, where the Bush administration had achieved global notoriety for its refusal to agree to binding emissions caps, more than twenty U.S. states and hundreds of cities had enacted legislation to curb carbon emissions.

By the end of the first week of negotiations, such optimism had begun to be translated into demands for the significant reductions necessary to mitigate climate change, although the wrangling which had so defined and undermined the Kyoto negotiations was also much in evidence. An initial road map for a post-Kyoto agreement had been put forward and backed by the European Union, calling on dramatic greenhouse-gas reductions in developed nations. The first draft demanded countries respond to the “unequivocal scientific evidence that preventing the worst effects of climate change will require [developed nations] to reduce emissions in a range of 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and that global emissions of greenhouse gases need to peak in the next 10 to 15 years.” Such bold targets, argued the draft's supporters, were needed to reflect the urgency of the problem and in keeping with the radical action demanded by scientific bodies, such as the IPCC. It would also encourage industry to invest in green technology, which economists including Sir Nicholas Stern, say is crucial to nullifying the economic costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the United States dismissed the proposal as unrealistic and unhelpful, and made clear from an early stage that it would not agree to a firm target, presented either as an emissions reduction or as a maximum temperature rise. Canada and Japan also expressed an unwillingness to support such dramatic targets.

Another issue, not dealt with by the Kyoto Protocol, regarded carbon emissions from international aviation and shipping. Environmentalists and scientists had long expressed concerns that increases in aviation and shipping emissions could cancel out gains made elsewhere (although there was recognition by a majority of scientists that calculating to which nation international transport emissions belonged was replete with difficulties). After initial moves by the EU to get a commitment on international transport emissions reductions included in Bali's draft framework failed, EU negotiators expressed hopes that their efforts would initiate serious negotiations on the issue in the future.

Prior to the Bali Conference, the Bush administration had hinted at a new era of cooperation on climate change, even convening a meeting to discuss its economic consequences subsequent to the Bali gathering. However, the U.S. delegation present at the Bali Conference did not depart from previous U.S. policies expressed at climate change negotiations. The United States pressed for language in the conference's “road map” to make its terms voluntary and non-binding.


: Signatories to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty drafted in 1992. The treaty entered into force in 1994, and COPs have been held ever since. It was at COPs that the Kyoto Protocol was drafted.

: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all countries with the goal of mitigating climate change. The United States, as of early 2008, was the only industrialized country to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to be replaced by an improved and updated agreement starting in 2012.

Speaking on the penultimate day of the Bali Conference, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore asserted that the United States was “principally responsible” for blocking progress toward an agreement on launching negotiations for a post-Kyoto deal. He further urged delegates to reach unanimous agreement before the conference's end, even if it meant putting aside goals for emissions cuts. He said: “You can do one of two things here. You can feel anger and frustration and direct it at the United States of America, or you can make a second choice. You can decide to move forward and do all of the difficult work that needs to be done.”

In the end, as time ran out on the Bali Conference, a compromise was finally reached. However, the agreement's lack of ambition for dramatic emissions reduction targets prompted anger from several critics, including environmental groups and climate scientists. International criticism was again directed toward the United States. “The United States in particular is behaving like passengers in first class in a jumbo jet, thinking a catastrophe in economy class won't affect them,” said Tony Juniper, a spokesman for the environmentalist coalition present in Bali. “If we go down, we go down together, and the United States needs to realize that very quickly.” Other critics noted that heavy-emitting developing nations must also play a larger role in future agreements.

Tensions were high during the last days of the conference and the sessions ran into overtime. Frustrations were evident as a representative from Papau New Guinea, borrowing from early American Revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine's writings, lectured the American delegation to “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” The American delegation's subsequent policy u-turn and agreement to compromise resulted in the adoption of the Bali roadmap.

The Bali roadmap sets forth agreement on a negotiating process for a post-Kyoto agreement to be completed by 2009. In addition to agreements to further meetings, the Bali conference facilitated the launch of the Adaptation Fund and key decisions on technology transfer and resolutions on specifically reducing emissions from deforestation. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer asserted, “This [the Bali agreement] is a real breakthrough, a real opportunity for the international community to successfully fight climate change …. Parties have recognized the urgency of action on climate change and have now provided the political response to what scientists have been telling us is needed.”

See Also Kyoto Protocol; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); United States: Climate Policy.


Web Sites

“United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali.” United Nations, 2007. <> (accessed December 10, 2007).

James Corbett

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