UN Kicks Off Bali Climate Conference

The Associated Press
Monday, December 3, 2007; 1:21 AM

BALI, Indonesia -- Delegates and scientists from around the world opened the biggest-ever climate change conference Monday, urging rapid progress in building a new international pact by 2009 to combat global warming _ or risk economic and environmental disaster.

Some 10,000 conferees, activists and journalists from nearly 190 countries gathered on the resort island of Bali for two weeks of U.N.-led talks that follow a series of scientific reports this year concluding that the world has the technology to slow global warming, but must act immediately.

The Bali meeting will be the first major climate change conference since former Vice President Al Gore _ due to arrive next week _ and a U.N. scientific council won the Nobel Peace Prize in October for their environmental work, fueling the growing sense of urgency as ice-caps melt, oceans rise and extreme weather increases.

"The eyes of the world are upon you. There is a huge responsibility for Bali to deliver," said Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the conference. "The world now expects a quantum leap forward."

The immediate aim of the Bali conference will be to launch negotiations toward a pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol on global warming when it expires at the end of 2012, and set an agenda for the talks and a deadline. The U.N. says such an agreement should be concluded by 2009 in order to have a system in place in time.

A main thrust will be to draw the United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, into the process. Washington did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that mandatory cuts in emissions would harm the economy and calling into question the veracity of global warming science.

Speakers at the opening session Monday said the world had more to lose by inaction than by taking some of the costly steps needed to cut emissions.

"One of the stumbling blocks so far has been the fear of economic hardship," said Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar, the host of the Bali meeting. "Though the cost will be significant ... it's insignificant compared to the damage that uncontrolled climate change will wreak."

Among the most contentious issues ahead will be whether emission cuts should be mandatory or voluntary, as the U.S. favors. Also to be tackled will be to what extent up-and-coming economies like China and India will have to rein in their skyrocketing emissions, and how to help the world's poorest countries adapt to a worsening climate.

Confronted with the scientific reports of the past year, the Bush administration has signaled a willingness to play a larger role in the negotiations, and U.N. officials agree that they must craft a post-Kyoto framework that Washington will go along with.

The U.S. could find itself isolated at the conference, after new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Monday he had signed the paperwork to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

"We see a lot of momentum," said Eric Young, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "We need the U.S. to do as much as the rest of the world."

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