For a climate-change conference, last month's U.N. meeting in Bali, Indonesia, was as uncontroversial as they come.
But the dissonance in opinions of where to go from here, and what role the United States should play in post-Kyoto negotiations, more than makes up for it.
Most of the players in the international climate-change arena welcomed the results of the meeting, held Dec. 3-14, and the adoption of the Bali road map -- an agreement among more than 180 participating countries to form the world's second climate-change mitigation plan by 2009. The treaty will replace the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to cut emissions, which expires in 2012.
One of the main achievements of the Bali meeting was the universal participation it tentatively secured, said Joe Stanislaw, chief executive officer of The JAStanislaw Group, an advisory firm for investment in energy and technology.
"It got the right result in terms of the United States signing up to go forward," Stanislaw told United Press International.
Concern over the U.S. willingness to participate has been high because the nation remains the only major industrial country in the world yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, after Australia signed the treaty in December. As the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, however, the United States' support of Kyoto's replacement will be crucial to the plan's success.
U.S. leaders have historically been wary of ratifying Kyoto because it does not require developing countries to make commitments. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., reflected this sentiment at a hearing in the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality last week that examined the administration's role in Bali.
"One of the defects of the Kyoto plan (was that it) left the United States with a significant burden and not enough on others," said Dingell, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.
With China quickly closing in as the world's second-largest CO2 emitter and India at No. 5, opponents of ratifying Kyoto argue the United States cannot compete with these newly emerging markets if placed under emissions restrictions. On the other side, developing countries have pointed to the role of industrialized countries in producing most of the CO2 already in the atmosphere, as well as the difficulties restrictions could place on their fledgling economies.
But many developing countries are taking a new stance, forcing the United States to come to the table in Bali and in negotiations to come, said Timothy Wirth, who served as U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs during the pre-Kyoto negotiations.
"The U.S. was hoping that China and India would say they wouldn't (cut emissions), and then they could point to them" as a reason not to participate, said Wirth, now the president of the U.N. Foundation. "But they weren't able to do that because India led an effort to require everyone to sign on, so the U.S. had to join the consensus."
The decision at Bali to require some sort of measurable commitments from developing countries represents a major success for the environment, said Andrew Deutz, director of international institutions and agreements at The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit organization.
"The Bali meeting was probably the most significant meeting for forest conservation so far this decade," said Deutz, referring specifically to the deforestation issues it brought front and center.
Deforestation, which occurs primarily in developing countries, accounts for 25 percent to 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Representatives from both Brazil and Indonesia, No. 1 and No. 2 in deforestation emissions, presented targets to decrease the practice in their countries at the Bali meeting.
Initiative by developing countries underscores the need for the United States to adopt comprehensive climate-change legislation if it wants to play a leadership role in the negotiations to come, Deutz told UPI.
"Historically, in the area of environmental law, if the U.S. does it at home first, then the U.S. can lead that agenda internationally," he said.
By Deutz's definition of a leader, though, the European Union may be stepping into that spot ahead of the United States. Last week the EU set individual target emissions for member countries, a step toward meeting its proposed goal of 20 percent emissions reductions by 2020.
While the United States hasn't established mandatory cuts like the EU, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said the country is at the front of the fight.
"I would be willing to put our record up against any country in the world when it comes to using our funds to make actual measurable benefits and not just create carbon trading schemes and mandates to handcuff economic progress," Burgess told UPI, pointing to the $37 billion the country has invested in climate-change initiatives since 2001. "This $37 billion amount is more than any other country."
In general, the international community's perception of the U.S. commitment to stopping climate change does not reflect the country's actual actions, said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
"When we present what the U.S. is actually doing on the local, state and federal level, people (from other countries) are amazed, because of the misperception presented in the media about what we're doing," Connaughton said last week at the committee hearing on Bali.
One way the administration has attempted to take a leadership role is through a series of Major Economies Meetings for the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters.
The second meeting takes place this week in Hawaii and will bring together 16 countries plus the European Union. All together, the countries invited are responsible for more than 80 percent of total emissions worldwide.
While most agree the concept of the meetings is a good one, not everyone thinks they'll pay off in reality, including Bryan Mignone, a staffer on the Senate Energy Committee.
"It's a question of whether any concrete ideas will come out of it, or whether it will simply distract from the larger process," Mignone told UPI.
One of the main difficulties inherent in any of the post-Kyoto negotiations is the current administration's weak position as a negotiator, as the president's term expires in less than a year.
"There's an interesting calculus going on for other countries (that have to decide) if they want to take seriously the administration during its last year, or if they want to hold out for a more engaged administration," Mignone said.