Europe-U.S. feud explodes into threat of boycott
EU says future Washington-led negotiations are pointless unless Bali agreement includes goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions

December 14, 2007

NUSA DUA, INDONESIA -- In the final hours before their deadline, Bali's climate negotiators are scrambling to resolve the escalating tensions that exploded into a highly public clash between Europe and the United States yesterday.

The simmering feud reached a new peak last night when the European Union threatened to boycott a U.S.-led series of climate negotiations next year if the United States refuses to allow a Bali agreement to include goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

In unusually harsh terms, European leaders said it would be "senseless" to attend the U.S.-led climate talks if no agreement is reached at Bali on targets for climate negotiations over the next two years.

The Bush administration has put a huge emphasis on the U.S.-led negotiations, involving a hand-picked group of 16 countries, the so-called "major emitters," which began their talks in September. Environmentalists have criticized it as a deliberate effort to undermine the United Nations climate talks that are now taking place in Bali.

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"If there is no Bali [agreement], there is no MEM [major emitters meeting]," said Humberto Rose, Portugal's Environment Secretary. "That's not blackmail. That's logic."

The United States, supported by Canada and Japan, has fought a European proposal to set a goal of 25 to 40 per cent for greenhouse gas emission reductions by wealthy nations by the end of the next decade.

Europe says the target is essential to prevent global warming from reaching dangerous levels. The United States, with support from Canada and Japan, has argued that the climate negotiations should begin without any targets, to avoid "prejudging" the outcome. Europe and many others have argued that the absence of targets would make it a directionless process that would drift on for too long.

The conflict is also a struggle between two different visions of the negotiating process. Most countries prefer the UN process, which brought nearly 190 countries to Bali for relatively open negotiations. But the United States and its supporters prefer the Washington process, where the much smaller group of nations would strike a deal and then present it to the UN as a fait accompli.

"I can certainly understand the frustration of the European Union," said Steven Guilbeault, an environmentalist with the Equiterre group. "They're saying to the United States, 'If you want to mess up this Bali process, you can forget about yours.' Normally, they would make these comments in the corridors or behind closed doors, so this is a sign of how deep the European frustration is. We're seeing a ramping up of diplomatic and public pressure."

In recent days, Washington announced plans for several more meetings as part of the U.S.-led negotiating process over the next half a year, making it central to the Bush administration's political strategy for responding to voter pressure for action on global warming. "This is something they want, and they want it bad," Mr. Guilbeault said. "This created the perfect opportunity for Europe, which has found it a very big bargaining chip."

In a predawn move, U.S. negotiators took an even harder position, putting forward proposed text that in effect would give any country the right to take voluntary action rather than be brought into mandatory curbs, environmental groups said.

The groups accused the United States of seeking to sabotage the outcome of the summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, according to Agence France-Presse. "This new text threatens to drive discussions off the road and into a ditch," said Antonio Hill, Oxfam's senior adviser on climate change.

"The Bush administration proposes to strip the most important elements out of this agreement. Global emissions are still rising and voluntary cuts by rich countries just won't work. Poor people will suffer the terrible consequences of continued delay."

In a speech last night to the Bali conference, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore supported the European position, accusing the United States of being "principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali."

Mr. Gore, who arrived from Oslo where he was the co-recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming, was greeted with loud applause from the conference delegates.

The UN climate chief, Yvo de Boer, warned that the dispute between Europe and the United States is jeopardizing any chance at an agreement. "If we don't get wording on the future, then the whole house of cards falls to pieces," he told reporters.

In the only good news of the day, the conference negotiators were able to break an impasse over the technology-transfer issue. They agreed to set up a special program to help transfer "clean" environmental technology to the developing nations, helping them reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The issue was a crucial one for the developing nations, which were unlikely to agree to emission targets if there was no promise of technology transfer.

Canadian Environment Minister John Baird, meanwhile, gave his first formal speech to the Bali delegates yesterday, defending his own plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020. "Canada is determined to honour our commitments," he told the conference. "We have already seen the impacts of climate change in the north with melting permafrost, schools shifting off foundations and the spread of the pine beetle."

Opposition MPs said he misled the conference by fudging the issue of when Canada's emission reductions would begin.

While most countries have promised to reduce their emissions from their 1990 levels, Mr. Baird's plan would reduce emissions only from Canada's 2006 levels, which are much higher.