Climate change is an emotive topic. Just ask United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) executive director Yvo de Boer. When it looked like there would be no agreement at the Bali climate change summit this month de Boer broke down in tears.

But climate progress is not achieved through emotive statements and actions. As UK environment secretary Hilary Benn pointed out following the summit, ‘compelling clarity of the science and the strength of the case for urgent action made the agreement possible, but it was political leadership that made it happen.’

The year just ending has been a pivotal year for climate progress. With the first commitment period of the 1997 Kyoto protocol commencing 1 January 2008 the year has built up a crescendo of optimism and expectation that by the end of the Bali summit a new long-term climate roadmap would have been agreed between both industrialised and emerging economies. Yet while the UNFCCC proudly proclaimed such a roadmap had been agreed at the eleventh hour in Bali, closer inspection shows this is less a roadmap and more a series of climate aspirations. Far from providing the framework for a new global climate agreement by the December 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen these open-ended aspirations first need to be refined and quantified before any objective roadmap can be put in place. And the omens do not look promising.

As the delegates trooped off from the summit de Boer conceded that ‘finalising the negotiations in 2009 will be a lot more difficult than what we have been doing in the past two weeks.’ He is of course right, but even the most optimistic of delegates must surely concede that the events of Bali suggest the robust ‘son of Kyoto’ protocol desired by the UNFCCC and its most ardent climate disciples, such as the EU, looks increasingly like an ideal and less like a reality.

After all, Kyoto took seven years to implement yet its successor has to be agreed and implemented in under five years. But history also tells us that agreeing the current Kyoto protocol required significant dilution of its originally proposed content. The draft Kyoto treaty promised that industrialised nations would reduce all greenhouse gases by 6% below 1990 levels by 2008, yet the final version trimmed the number of greenhouse gases to just six, reduced the cut to 5.2% and extended the deadline to achieve this cut to 2012.

Given the past climate failures and the concessions of the Bali summit, some might ask why Benn hailed the summit as being ‘historic’. The simple answer is that the US begrudgingly agreed to add its name to the agreement. But its agreement only came after it had forced the EU to abandon its demand for actual 2050 emission reduction targets of between 35 and 50%, to be replaced with the vague agreement that ‘deep cuts’ are required in emissions, and after a chorus of boos (and de Boer’s tears) seemed to embarrass the US delegation into a last minute U-turn. Yet even as the ink was stilldrying on the agreement the White House was voicing its concerns.

There are arguably two main protagonists in the climate arena, the EU and the US. On one side of the Atlantic the pro-Kyoto EU wants challenging quantified emission reduction targets and is prepared to accept that these cuts should only be made by industrialised nations. Across the Atlantic the US view is that emission cuts should be voluntary, that emerging economies have to commit to emission reductions, and that the development of clean energy technology and the transfer of this technology to emerging economies is the best way forward.

Of course there is no single ‘best’ approach to reduce emissions. Market based instruments, such as cap-and-trade schemes and taxation, should work in theory through incentivising companies to reduce emissions or face a financial penalty. But the problem with the trading approach, as the EU has found to its cost, is that it is potentially open to abuse with generators passing through the notional cost of allowances in wholesale electricity prices even though they have received the bulk of their allowances for free. Also, if the cost of carbon falls significantly then there is no incentive to cut output (and hence physical emissions) as it becomes more economical to pay the fine or buy the carbon allowances.

There are also problems with the technology route. As with all new technologies, clean energy technology is largely unproven and considerably more expensive than existing proven generation technologies. If these technologies are to be developed there needs to be some investor certainty, which can either be linked to the cost of carbon or can be safeguarded by government subsidies. If the carbon price route is to be used then the best way to achieve a high carbon price is to apply strict carbon caps through a traded market. This means that technology and trading have to work together. And if a subsidy approach is to be adopted, for example the UK Renewable Obligation, it opens up accusations about a non-level playing field for non-renewable generation investment.

But even if agreement can be found to balance the merits of trading and technology the stumbling block to a global climate agreement will always be the role of emerging economies. China’s emissions may well exceed those of the US but its emissions pale against the US when measured on a per capita basis, while a quarter of China’s emissions are from producing goods that are exported to the West. A similar argument on a smaller scale can be put forward for India.

So where do we go from here? Given the difficulty of agreeing a quantifiable global deal in Bali, and the likelihood that this will continue for the next year until a new US president takes office in January 2009, there is a strong argument for national climate plans to take precedence over global programmes, at least in the medium term. China, for example, has introduced energy efficiency measures for new buildings and Thailand has stated its preference for nuclear power to meet its combined energy/climate security. And in the US there is a growing number of state initiatives to reduce emissions.

The great expectations of Bali have not been realised and neither may the even greater expectations of Copenhagen in two-year’s time. But there are positives that can be taken from this year. The build-up to Bali has generated unprecedented media coverage and surveys over the year have shown consistent growth in the public’s climate awareness and its desire for action. And as political leadership is central to climate progress, and the public ultimately elects these leaders, there is hope that climate progress will be made. But it may take considerably longer than expected.