While Tony Blair has been passing his time sending Christmas wishes to George Bush's pet dog, the rest of the world has been attempting to persuade his administration that it must act to limit climate change. The US's intransigence at the Bali conference, which reached a humid climax last night, has been all the more shameful because it is no longer accompanied by a denial of the basic science. The US now accepts that the world faces catastrophe. But it still refuses to take its share of the pain needed to avert it - which is selfish behaviour on a global scale.
The Bali meeting was not a failure, which has allowed it to be declared a success. But relief that talks got somewhere cannot hide the fact that US obstructionism still threatens chances of a post-Kyoto protocol deal by 2009. Al Gore was right when he told delegates on Thursday that "my own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali". A new policy must await a new president.
Privately, European Union negotiating teams accept that they made more progress against the United States than they had feared. The country turned up, talked and accepted the need for a deal by 2009, which is the last point possible if Kyoto is to be replaced when it runs out in 2012. There was agreement on schemes to protect forests, and help the developing world acquire clean technology and adapt to the consequences of climate change. All this was a step forward. So was the US administration's isolation during the talks, although they were not the only culprits, although the US was denied the assistance of Australia, whose new leader has transformed his country's position. But there was no deal committing industrialised countries to deep cuts in emissions by 2020. The US shied away from specifics, especially the EU's idea of targets of 25-40% for reductions on 1990 levels of emissions. Without such a medium-term target, a successor to Kyoto would not mean very much.
As Kevin Watkins pointed out on these pages yesterday, even a deal on emissions would not in itself mean that action will be taken. It would only impose a duty on countries, which many will ignore, if the example of Kyoto is repeated. Interviewed yesterday by the BBC, Hilary Benn boasted of Britain's climate change bill, but that too does nothing directly to ensure cuts will happen here. Promises of better behaviour are no substitute for action. Britain, planning a third runway at Heathrow and considering proposals for a new coal-fired power station, the first in more than 20 years, has no reason to be smug. Despite Mr Benn's confidence, carbon emissions have risen since Labour came to power in 1997 and Britain is only exceeding its Kyoto obligations because of accidental changes in energy policy over a decade ago.
Unless the rich world begins to act in a serious way, cutting emissions in a manner that will change the way people live, there is little prospect of the developing world following suit. Nor would it be just to ask the poor to forgo benefits that the rich refuse to give up. Kyoto only involved industrialised nations. Bali has laid the route to an ambitious deal. But the example of the Doha round of trade talks, which feels like it will go on for ever, shows how hard a climate deal will be to pull off. Doha, after all, aims to make the rich world richer; a climate agreement might limit economic growth.
Criticising the US president for his stubborn ignorance is one thing. For others to benefit from it by doing nothing themselves is quite another. All the dates under discussion - 2012, 2020, 2050 - are arbitrary. There is no need to wait. Industrialised countries are doing too little now. Bali may steer the world toward a united response to climate change. But global emissions are rising, not falling, now. Action is unavoidable, and if it begins America's next president may be shamed into following suit.
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