How Not to Get Lost in the Desert

Doha 2012: A new paradigm needs to be at the foundation of the new agreement. Photo:; Licence: CC-BY-NC-SA

November 7, 2012
Hans JH Verolme
The world needs to overcome a triple crisis. These crises are interwoven and cannot be addressed in isolation. Firstly, there is the financial crisis that came to a head in 2008. It has had systemic consequences and deepened into an economic recession. Secondly, despite the emergence of a global middle class, poverty in absolute terms persists. This has combined with growing economic and social inequality in both the global North and South. Thirdly, we have hit planetary boundaries. Global warming, for example, is here, now: heat waves, floods, droughts, glaciers and Arctic sea ice melting ... Deep cuts in emissions are needed if we are to avoid more damage. Yet, at the same time, a lack of access to (renewable) energy continues to hamper sustainable development.

Climate change has been on the global political agenda since the late 1980s. This resulted in the signing of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. But only in 2005 did climate change become an issue that heads of state had to contend with. Yet, despite – or because of – their involvement, there was a failure in agreeing upon a fair, ambitious, and binding agreement at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. Environment ministers and negotiators from more than 190 countries have been struggling to revive the UN negotiations ever since.

Today, the world’s leaders are “distracted” by the economic crisis and seem to be ignoring the other dimensions of this crisis. Without questioning the root causes of the crisis, they are under pressure from corporate lobbies to return to business-as-usual, seek new GDP growth, and join the scramble for ever scarcer resources. At the multilateral level, the case for cooperation, not competition, has never been clearer.

Qatar – the mouse that roars

From November 26 to December 7, 2012, the small Gulf state of Qatar will host the next round of UN climate talks. The first OPEC country to host a climate COP, Qatar is a rising political and economic power in the Arab world. It has also become an important investor elsewhere in the world. Its wealth flows from being the world’s largest exporter of liquid natural gas (making it the world’s highest emitter of carbon emissions on a per capita basis). Its growing influence is also extended through the work of the Qatar Foundation and the Al Jazeera television network.

The Doha COP: Key issues and anticipated outcomes

Last year in Durban, governments agreed to launch Kyoto’s second commitment period on January 1, 2013, but despite this political decision, the second commitment period is not in place. Crucial details such as the numerical binding targets were left to be resolved later. In conjunction with the agreement on the Kyoto Protocol, the parallel talks on long-term cooperative action (LCA) were agreed to be wrapped up. These negotiations, launched in 2007 in Bali, were to have come to fruition in Copenhagen. But they did not progress and, realistically speaking, the underlying disagreements will be carried forward. Finally, governments adopted the Durban Platform on Enhanced Action, in which further UN talks were mandated until 2015, when a new international agreement should be concluded that takes effect in 2020. But a lot needs to happen before then and things may still unravel.

Kyoto Protocol

One important outcome of the Doha COP will be the adoption of Protocol amendments. Ideally, such amendments increase the environmental integrity of the second commitment period. Specifically, governments need to close existing loopholes, including by neutralizing those assigned amount units (AAUs) that do not represent emissions reductions. These AAUs represent hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon that were falsely allocated to Eastern European economies, which restructured in the early 1990s. The ball is in Europe’s court regarding this, but Poland and several of its allies have blocked the EU from agreeing to limit the use of this “hot air.” This puts European climate action back in the spotlight.

Really, Doha spells the end of the Kyoto Protocol – in my view, there will not be a third commitment period. So why bother with the rules? Well, the Protocol negotiations are pertinent to the design of the post-2020 legal agreement that will supersede it.

The early escape from the Kyoto framework by Canada, Japan, and Russia cannot go unmentioned. Too little diplomatic pressure has been put on these countries to take on ambitious binding targets. The same countries remain, however, unopposed in their bid to continue to have access to Kyoto’s market mechanisms. Given the failure of the carbon “markets,” this is not without irony. Carbon markets are not free and presently do not create a price and investment signal nor drive emission reductions. This is important to consider, as governments are repeating (past and present) mistakes in designing new mechanisms, both at the international level and in emerging economies.

The power of money is evident in the international climate negotiations. But in the midst of the economic crisis, the discussion on “fast start finance” for the period 2013–2015 and the debate on long-term sources of money for the Green Climate Fund (GCF) cannot be expected to make much progress. The formal decision to house the GCF in South Korea will be taken in Doha, but for now it will be an empty institution and governments will not touch on the sensitive role of the private sector in achieving the transformation to a green and just economy. Interestingly, some movement on the sensitive topic of loss and damage is considered possible.

Long-term Cooperative Action

As quid pro quo for the agreement on the Kyoto Protocol and the launch of fresh negotiations under the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform on Enhanced Action (aka the ADP track), the LCA negotiations are to conclude in Doha. What keeps many negotiators busy today is not what can be concluded (or implemented), but what happens to the issues they cannot agree on. Where do these get taken up again, and if not, why? Some have a home in the ADP, others might be considered by the subsidiary bodies (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice; Subsidiary Body for Implementation), yet a few remain homeless.

One of the central elements of the Bali Action Plan, which mandated the LCA track, was the need for a comparable level and form of effort by those developed countries not party to the Kyoto Protocol, that is, the United States. The inability of the US government to take legislative action on climate change seriously hampers the room for maneuver here. But in addition to agreeing to common accounting standards, countries under the LCA should confirm their legal commitment to make emission reductions at the highest end of the pledges their heads of state made in Copenhagen. Many important countries, including in the Arab world, did not make such pledges and are under pressure to do so in Doha. After Copenhagen, the United Nations Environment Programme has shown the inadequacy of the existing pledges in light of the agreed aim to limit warming to 2°C. In Cancun governments acknowledged the existence of this so-called emissions gap. The LCA should confirm the commitment to increase ambition and close the gap. This should be underpinned by a decision to draw up a global carbon budget in addition to the targets for 2020 and 2050.

Durban Platform for Enhanced Action

Finally, the ADP will commence its work in earnest in Doha. After spending two meetings squabbling over the agenda and the assignment of chairs, governments are expected to get down to business and discuss the issue of increasing ambition between now and 2020. For now, this will be a battle along familiar lines of Annex 1 (the old rich economies) versus the rest of the world. The review of the adequacy of the 2°C threshold and the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could give governments the much needed jolt to increase ambition to a higher level. The outcome of this negotiation will determine to a significant extent whether global emissions peak before 2020 or not.

The talks on a new universal binding agreement will have to take a fresh look at the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities according to respective capabilities. Increasing both climate ambition and equity are intricately tied together, and governments need to agree a negotiating approach to the issue. A new paradigm needs to be at the foundation of the new agreement.

What legal form that agreement will take – and, importantly, whether it will retain Kyoto’s binding target structure as opposed to a pledge and review framework – is hugely important from the perspectives of science and economy. For now, the level of effort as well as the stringency and form of the future commitments are unclear. Decisions on these issues are not anticipated for Doha.

Success or failure in Doha

While Durban marked a political make-or-break point, the Doha COP is not expected to increase the pulse of the UN climate talks. But the conclusion of both the Protocol and LCA talks will require deft diplomacy. A diplomatic failure is not really an option here. What will be interesting to watch is the shifting of alliances, both old and new, that led to the launch of the ADP negotiations. Climate action, while not contingent on a global consensus, is spurred to a large extent by global cooperation. The road to 2015 will thus require a fundamental change in attitude among all parties.


Hans JH Verolme, Climate Advisers Network



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