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In Bali, new urgency for a climate change accord

As negotiators prepare to discuss a new emissions framework in Bali, environmental damage continues to exceed expectations.

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"It's my personal hope that we can focus on the questions we need to answer today," says the UN's Mr. de Boer. He says he would count the coming two weeks a success if government ministers flew home with an agreement to begin talks on a new pact, a common list of issues to include, and a firm commitment to sign off on a pact in or for 2009.

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Indeed, several factors would appear to weigh in on the side of relatively quick action, Ms. Claussen notes – especially compared with 1995, when countries agreed to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol after the voluntary provisions of the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change proved ineffective in slowing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Throughout 2007, leaders, including President Bush have called for concerted international action, although differences remain on the best approach to deal with global warming. Indeed, last week Australians elected a new prime minister who has pledged to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the US as the only industrial country in the world to take a pass on the treaty.

A growing political will

Still, within the United States, efforts in Congress and among states to curb emissions have gathered significant momentum. And support for action has grown among leaders of major companies around the world. Last week, leaders of some 150 companies with a combined value of up to $4 trillion signed a petition asking governments to act quickly at Bali to curb greenhouse gases.

In the US, a compromise between leading Democrats last week paved the way for a bill that would require a 35-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency standard by 2020. Meanwhile, state efforts to set up regional carbon-trading systems has expanded to the Midwest.

And if the timetable for a new global agreement gets stretched, "that wouldn't prevent countries from continuing to move at the national level," notes Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center.

The Pew Center's Claussen notes that virtually everyone agrees that the key to success lies in getting the US to agree to binding commitments to reduce emissions, as well as getting key developing countries, such as China and India, to curb emissions growth. China is trying to cut its economy's greenhouse-gas intensity by 20 percent between 2005 and 2010, and next year will set its average fuel-economy standard to 37 miles per gallon. Brazil has pledged to cut its rate of deforestation by 50 percent.

This year "has been a very productive year; there's a strong sense of momentum," Claussen says. "Expectations are high." But as talks begin here, she cautions, expectations may be too high.

With respect to the US, she notes, a new administration will take over in 2009. It could take six months or more to assemble a negotiating team that would be jumping into the process midstream. This suggests that it's unlikely that countries will be able to seal a deal that includes the US until 2010 at the earliest. And if the ratification process for the Kyoto Protocol is any guide, the international ratification process may take longer than anticipated. Some key players may jockey for last-minute concessions in exchange for ratifying.

"We need to keep the pressure up" on governments to negotiate, Claussen continues, "but we need to be realistic."

For now, this is putting increased onus for moving beyond the Kyoto Protocol on emission-control efforts in individual countries – regardless of their participation in 1997 pact, notes Jake Schmidt, director of international programs for the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington.

Indeed, as some US states move toward the kind of emissions cuts many would like to see globally, their efforts may provide a reality check, adds the State Department's Dr. Watson. "They could provide a real-world test on what is feasible."