Only at the Copenhagen summit on climate change – an event billed as the world’s big chance to commit to cuts in carbon emissions, but one which inevitably deteriorated into political bickering – could so much fuss be made over a piece of punctuation. Yet the debate over the "Bali comma" helps explain why December’s conference in Denmark ended with nothing more than a face-saving deal that at best represents a small step toward a more robust, legally binding accord.
The Bali Action Plan, signed in 2007, set out several broad areas of agreement that went on to form the basis of the Copenhagen talks. It included a commitment from developing nations to curb emissions "in the context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner." The comma after "capacity-building" was initially removed, but the US negotiators demanded it be restored. In their eyes, it clarified that all efforts to curb emissions would be measurable, reportable and verifiable, not just those that depend on financial and technological support from the developed world.
As we discovered in Copenhagen, China isn’t keen on hosting international inspectors. Apparently this is a matter of principle, but some might suggest the inspectors would be welcomed if they came bearing enough cash and intellectual property.
It was an entirely predictable impasse, one born of a breakdown in trust between developing countries (led by China, India, Brazil and South Africa) and their developed counterparts. The developing world accuses rich nations of falling short on former promises to take the lead on emissions cuts and provide assistance for them to take "nationally appropriate" action. The rich nations want this action to be properly qualified and tied to deadlines for emissions cuts before they hand over any money. (An annual total of US$30 billion has been put on the table, potentially rising to US$100 billion, although it’s unclear exactly where the cash will come from.)
China has been criticized for its intransigence, but in truth the blame must be shared. The "Bali comma" debate is evidence that the agreed text in these negotiations is sufficiently broad as to be wildly open to interpretation. This is often the case when political expediency requires an agreement and political steadfastness sees it repeatedly watered down.
Those who spoke loudest in Copenhagen must now lead efforts to ensure that the loose agreement does indeed become a fully fledged treaty. Compromise is required on all sides. China won its "national sovereignty" battle and progress reports on purely domestic mitigation efforts will be made at national level, with "international consultations and analysis" a secondary option. But Beijing has to make this mean something – inaccurate or obfuscating reports will only undermine coordinated global efforts. Similarly, rich nations must see China for what it is: a country seeking to address environmental concerns, but limited by the requirements of its growth trajectory.