Bali's double standards

As governments meeting in Bali reach the end of UN climate change negotiations today, one question remains unanswered. Will the world's richest nations underpin any agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with a plan for transferring low-carbon technology and finance to developing countries? If not, any deal to replace the Kyoto protocol is destined for failure.If we are to avoid the catastrophic reversals in human development that will follow in the wake of climate change, we need to more than halve emissions of greenhouse gases. That will not happen without a global accord that decarbonises growth and extends access to affordable energy in the developing world: a shake-up in energy policy backed by a programme similar to the post-second world war Marshall plan.

About 70% of the carbon surge over the next 25 years will originate in developing countries - most of it in India and China. From a climate change perspective, Asia has three critical ingredients that add up to crisis: high growth, large populations, and an energy system fuelled by large reserves of coal.

Some developed countries at the Bali talks take the view that developing countries just have to bite the bullet and sign up for deep carbon cuts. No cuts, no deal is the refrain. This is viewed across the developing world as a case study in double standards.

The counter-refrain from Beijing highlights the responsibility of rich countries for more than 70% of greenhouse gases. True, India may become the world's third largest emitter by 2015, but try telling the 500 million Indians lacking access to electricity that a global climate change deal requires cuts in energy use. Yet the hard fact is that it is the world's poor who will suffer the toughest and earliest effects of climate change. They, more than any other constituency, need a global deal.

Instead of reciting the familiar positions that threaten any prospect of a post-2012 Kyoto accord, we need a new approach. There are two building blocks. First, rich countries have to act as first movers. That means agreeing to emission reduction targets of at least 30% by 2020. Second, developed country governments need to create economically enabling environments for developing countries to produce lower emissions without compromising poverty reduction goals.

This is an area in which there are huge and largely untapped win-win options. Take the case of coal. By accelerating the adoption of best-practice technologies, it would be possible to make deep cuts in emissions and enhance energy efficiency. By 2030, cuts equivalent to current emissions from Japan and Germany would be possible.

Of course, this outcome would require increased capital investment and early adoption of new technologies. And that is where a global plan of action comes in. In this year's UN Human Development Report we called for the creation of a $20bn-$50bn Climate Change Mitigation Facility to cover the costs of developing-country entry into a mitigation treaty. What is currently on offer is simply not fit for purpose, in terms of funding or scale.

Although there are positive signals in Bali, the politics of climate change - with its grandstanding, rivalries and failure to develop a collective response - is hopelessly out of touch with the urgency that the evidence provided by climate change demands.

Time is running out. Today, more than at any period in human history, we need the world's technology leaders to demonstrate political leadership in forging new institutions and creating new incentives for a low-carbon future.

Kevin Watkins, director of the UN's Human Development Report Office.