United Nations conferences on the environment à la various "Earth Summits," serve two fundamental purposes: They give nations, collectively, a chance to outline and set goals for progress. The results are usually general – critics might say weak – since they're arrived at by consensus.
Such conferences also give nations, individually, a chance to promote their own points of view and to form alliances to work around (and sometimes try to change) the general goals.
The climate-change conference of some 190 countries taking place this week in Bali, Indonesia, is no exception.
It's probably not a coincidence that Germany announced this week its legislative plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by about 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, an article in this paper reported. This move directly addresses the country's main challenge regarding global warming and greenhouse gases. A Reuters report continues:
"Germany's CO2 reduction has stagnated since the mid-'90s. Most of its 18 percent cut to date since 1990 is due mainly to the collapse of the heavily polluting Communist East German industry that disappeared after unification."
Meanwhile, China, which is passing the United States as the world's largest greenhouse-gas emitter, is touting its plans to build eight biomass plants in leading grain-producing provinces in hopes of cutting carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation. Another Reuters story spells out the significance:
"The plants have a total installed capacity of 200 megawatts and are expected to burn 1.6 million tons of stalks a year. 'Compared with coal-fired power plants, these biomass projects are expected to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 800,000 tons annually,' Xinhua news agency quoted Cui Mengshan of the National Bio Energy Company as saying."
Despite these signs of greening, China, like the United States, is resisting mandatory greenhouse-gas reductions imposed by international agreement, according to a report from the Bloomberg news service:
" 'Third-world countries should not be forced to accept any mandatory measures,' Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said recently.... 'It's a game of hide and seek now,' said Lo Sze Ping, campaign director of Greenpeace China. 'The US is trying to hide behind China, and China istrying to hide behind the US. This kind of attitude is not going to help us avoid disastrous climate change.' "
A report in Germany's Der Spiegel, said to be based on "a source familiar with the Bush administration's Bali strategy," says the White House "is discreetly searching for partners in Beijing and Delhi [India] to derail the prospects for any binding agreements to curb emissions of greenhouse gases." The story continues:
"According to the source, Washington is hoping that the two greenhouse gas emitters will openly declare during the conference that they are unwilling to accept any binding limits on emissions of greenhouse gases – at least not as long as the US is unwilling to do more or if the Western industrial nations do not provide them with more financial aid for climate protection initiatives. If successful, the US could use the tactic to prevent itself from becoming an isolated scapegoat if negotiations in Bali end in a stalemate."
Such back-channel maneuvering is particularly disconcerting to the smaller, poorer countries that scientists say may be hardest hit by the effects of climate change. At Bali, they're asking richer nations to fill the "Adaptation Fund" set up to finance such projects as sea walls, improved water supplies, and training in new agricultural techniques.
However, the fund remains far below the projected need, setting up potential conflict between industrial nations most responsible for human-caused global warming and countries, including tiny island nations, in the western Pacific. An Associated Press story from the Bali conference points to one example:
"As seas expand from warming and from the runoff of melting land ice, higher and higher tides are eating away at tiny places like theCarterets, a sandy atoll of a half-dozen islands in the South Pacific. Its 3,000 people, no longer able to grow taro, their staple crop, are preparing to abandon the islands over the next several years, resettling on designated land on nearby Bougainville island. The islanders have a relocation appropriation of 2 million kina in local currency ($800,000), but to move 600 families that 'doesn't go a long way,' said their representative, Ursula Rakova. 'We still need more money, from people like America,' she said."
Now that Australia's new Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the US is the only major developed nation opposed to that agreement's binding goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of at least 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
But in its search for a plan to reduce greenhouse gases without causing economic harm, US officials insist they're not being obstructionist, according to Reuters reports. "We're not here to be a roadblock," US delegation leader Harlan Watson said on the opening day of the Bali meeting:
"The United States intends to be flexible and work constructively on a Bali roadmap," [Mr. Watson] said, referring to plans for Bali to launch two years of negotiations on a new UN-led deal to fight climate change beyond 2012."
• This weekly feature appears with links at csmonitor.com