When the U.S. team, led by Harlan Watson and Paula Dobriansky, finally gave its green light to the rest of the world's proposals, the Bali conference had managed to strike an accord that according to many achieved more than what could have been expected.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in the past months has positioned herself as a leader in the struggle to curb climate change, said the Bali conference constituted a "big success," adding that the route had been paved for an effective post-Kyoto agreement with binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"I am convinced that the Bali mandate will soon prove groundbreaking," she said.
This week has nevertheless seen much criticism for the U.S. foot dragging, a strategy that only crumbled in the final hour of the conference, when public rebukes that included boos and hisses from most of the other 186 delegates forced Watson and Dobriansky to give in.
"If for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us," Kevin Conrad, the negotiator from Papua New Guinea, told the U.S. delegation. "Please, get out of the way."
Most of the controversy had circled around two issues: explicit emissions reduction targets for developed nations and what sort of obligations poor and emerging economies should take on in the future.
After the Americans had given in, a joint paper was unveiled that concludes that "deep cuts in global emissions will be required" and stipulates that negotiations to agree to these cuts should be finalized by the end of 2009, at a climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
All industrial nations, including the United States, pledged to take part in those negotiations. Moreover, the quickly growing economies (including India and China) have vowed to join climate protection efforts and seek "measurable, reportable and verifiable" emissions cuts. However, no decision was made on how exactly developed and developing countries would share the burden of curbing emissions.
While the U.S. and Russian delegations successfully fended off European calls for concrete reduction commitments, the accord in its non-binding preamble includes at least indirect goals: A footnote points to the findings of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which stipulate a 50-percent cut in emissions globally by 2050, and the demand that industrialized nations cut emissions by 2020 up to 40 percent below 1990 levels.
The Bali accord also includes commitments for technology transfer to aid the emerging economies to grow sustainably, to address the serious issue of deforestation (which is responsible for one-fifth of the world's greenhouse gases) and to create a U.N. fund to help poor countries adapt to the effects of climate change, such as droughts and flooding.
"This is less than what is needed when we look at the reality of global warming," Susanne Droege, climate-change expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Berlin-based think tank, told United Press International Tuesday in a telephone interview. "But given the steadfast opposition from the United States, this agreement is more than could have been expected. Now one can proceed to tough negotiations over the next two years."
Droege added the bad-boy role the U.S. delegation took over during the two-week conference united countries, for example Canada and Japan, that otherwise may have slowed down the negotiations.
But others are not positive about the U.S. position in Bali.
"As long as this government is calling the shots in Washington, we will see very little progress," said German Green Party Chairman Reinhard Buetikofer.
Observers say hopes in Europe are pinned to a new administration that may be more open toward bold steps to halt global warming.
The White house called the plan "quite positive" but added that it had "serious concerns" about the limited steps taken by emerging economic powers. "The negotiations must proceed on the view that the problem of climate change cannot be adequately addressed through commitments for emissions cuts by developed countries alone. Major developing economies must likewise act."
Nevertheless, the commitment to curb climate change may result in the creation of a green economy, a rather optimistic U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week. Some countries, including Germany, have vowed to push their green technologies to rake in the business positives that may come from climate protection.
However, Abyd Karmali, global head of carbon emissions at Merrill Lynch, told the Financial Times that the lack of emissions-reduction targets may endanger future investments.
"It seems some policymakers still fail to understand that the incremental annual investment flows of roughly $200 billion required in 2030 will only materialize with an explicit policy framework that reduces investment risks and which results in a robust carbon market," he told the FT. "Capital is not scarce but where returns are equivalent, it tends to migrate to less risky investment opportunities."
Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in his speech in Bali referred to an in-house study showing that the costs of limiting climate change are indeed manageable: Cutting greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2050 would slow down global economic growth by only 0.1 percentage points a year through to 2050, he said, according to the FT.
No matter the economic impact of managing climate change, experts are convinced that the negotiations in Bali were a walk in the park compared to those leading up to Copenhagen in 2009.