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Bali climate talks nearly melt down

The 187 countries meeting to discuss climate change in Indonesia narrowly averted a total breakdown last week by agreeing to set 2009 as a deadline for a new treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. For that deadline to be met, China and the United States will both need to agree to something they have resisted so far: binding commitments on emission reductions.

One of the most dramatic moments of the two-week conference came when former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change, declared: "My country's been responsible for obstructing the process here in Bali, we know that. Over the next two years, the United States is going to be somewhere where it is not now. You must anticipate that."

Much will depend on the next American president, to be elected later this year. In the meantime, the Bush administration continues to insist that before Washington will agree to big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, emerging economies such as China and India, whose emissions on a per capita basis are a small fraction of that of the United States, must agree to such cuts.

This is putting the cart before the horse. The United States and other developed countries were responsible in the first place for producing the global warming gases that have created the problem for the world. But while Europe is keen to put ambitious targets in place for 2020, the White House will not accept any numerical targets.

It may well be true that, as the U.S. says, cuts by developed countries alone will not solve the problem. However, as China has said, developed countries must take the lead in cutting emissions and assist developing countries reduce emissions by offering them new technology and financial aid.

At least, there is now agreement in principle on such aid. Norway took the lead by committing to spend US$500 million a year toward protecting forests in developing countries.

There is clearly a need for developed and developing countries to work together on climate change. After all, we are all in the same boat, which is going to sink unless all countries act together.

Thus, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is vital. Developed countries should take the lead in reducing emissions not only because they are the ones whose actions led to the current situation, but because they are in a better position to do so.

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