What next for the UN climate talks after Doha?

By Ed King

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Doha was that in the end, it seemed to go so well.

Rumours of behind the scenes chaos and incompetence reached a crescendo halfway through week two – leading many to believe they had Copenhagen Mk2 on their hands.

But after days of convincing onlookers he was a tired old man who just wanted to go home, COP18 President Al Attiyah had a Red Bull moment, hammering away until all the texts up for discussion had been passed.

In the space of a minute a Kyoto Protocol extension was confirmed, future negotiations were streamlined and the assembled nations’ slow but steady commitment to a global deal in 2015 was reaffirmed.

COP18 President Al Attiyah enraged Russia by hammering home the Doha Gateway to widespread acclaim from delegates

Perhaps most importantly of all, participants acknowledged the effects global warming is having today, with the announcement of plans for a mechanism to provide compensation to climate vulnerable states.

Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo labelled the conclusion a “betrayal” and a “substantial failure”, others like the UK’s Ed Davey and the EU’s Connie Hedegaard claimed it was a “modest step” forward.

So how should we reflect on Doha?

Science

The facts do not make pretty reading. The world is on a pathway to 3-4C, and existing pledges need to be ramped up fast to make a dent in these projections.

From an emission reduction perspective Doha was a Dodo. Pledges have become less ambitious, with Japan, Canada and Russia all pulling out of Kyoto, and China refusing to make any commitments.

The IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report out next year is likely to offer more of the same doom-laden predictions, but is anyone really listening?

Kyoto remains intact

The value in Kyoto’s emission reduction potential is negligible – it covers less than 15% of global emissions.

The rules, structures and industries it has generated are what was at stake here. If those were scrapped the whole concept of carbon markets would have been trashed.

A second commitment period involving the EU, Norway, Switzerland and Australia making binding emission reduction pledges ensures those elements remain intact until a global deal comes into play in 2020.

COP19 hosts Poland maintained its stash of hot air credits, a relic from the Soviet era, but found its potential buyers renounce their addiction one by one. Imagine winning the lottery and finding no-one used money anymore.

Equally importantly the new deal involves an ambition ratchet in 2014, which could see the EU adopt a 30% reduction target. This could be a template for the deal set to be agreed in 2015, offering a precedent for countries to increase ambition under an existing treaty.

Simplified negotiations

Japan’s lead negotiator Kuni Shimada warned of a ‘Kuni crash’ during COP18, such were the breadth and complexity of the talks. Given he was seen on the penultimate night dressed as a Sheikh, it is possible this crash actually happened.

Everyone is in agreement that the UN climate talks had grown too big with a variety of working groups and tracks, often debating similar issues.

Doha saw these streamlined into one main track focusing on a 2015 global deal, with two subsidiary levels focusing on implementation and science.

The ‘firewall’ that apparently split developed and developing countries has for now been extinguished, although it is likely to reappear in various guises next year.

Most appear to agree that a deal signed in 2015 and rolled out in 2020 is the way forward. That road may be bumpy, but at least they are all walking the same way.

Important milestones include the basis of a negotiating text by the end of 2014 and a draft text by May 2015.

Outside the talks further initiatives to increase ambition are gathering pace.

The US and UNEP sponsored Climate and Clean Air Coalition is making progress on cutting black carbon, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will host a summit in 2014 in an attempt to re-engage world leaders into the process.

Money, money, money

First the figures. $100bn by 2020 is what has been promised, some of which will be channelled through the South Korea-based new Green Climate Fund, which received the green light in Doha.

Talks at COP18 were complicated by the end of the ‘Fast Start Finance’ period, which ran from Dec 2010-Dec 2012, providing $30bn of climate mitigation and adaptation funding.

Not all of that has been delivered; some is still sitting in development banks, much apparently came with ‘strings attached’. Not a situation that builds trust.

A collection of EU states pledged $6bn until 2015. From others the silence was deafening.

The USA, New Zealand, Poland and Russia all featured on the daily Fossil of the Day award for most obstructive country

The US refused to be drawn on future pledges, although it was revealing that the White House asked Congress for $60bn worth of loss and damage funding post Hurricane Sandy during the talks.

That request may come back to haunt them. Loss and damage is now firmly ingrained in the spirit of the talks, and efforts will double in 2013 to work out how it could work.

Bluntly it means wealthy countries may have to offer compensation to extreme weather events that trash poorer parts of the world.

The costs could run into trillions – that prospect may focus the minds of many politicians who think the climate issue is a problem for the Global South.

Developed v developing

Often portrayed as a simple rich v poor debate, events in Doha demonstrated it is too simplistic to see these talks in such a binary fashion.

Brazil blocked the REDD+ talks, India refused to give ground on agriculture. China largely stayed silent, but its 29% share of global emissions is on the radar of Africa and small island states.

Qatar proved to the planet that its status as a developing nation is a joke. Many feel it and Gulf neighbours could have made financial pledges at this conference, as it is they settled with an ambiguous ‘pledge to pledge’ on emission reductions.

Russia’s delegation squealed at the end but revealed little – does President Putin really have a strategy for the climate? We may see when St Petersberg hosts the 2013 G20 summit.

Closing thoughts

The hallways post-summit were burning with anger, as NGO representatives lined up to denounce what had been agreed.

But what was signed off is largely what everyone predicted a month ahead of the conference – bar a new proposal on loss and damage.

Russia’s negotiating team may moan, but if this was such a big deal for them, why leave just one member of your negotiating team in town?

Emission reductions and financial pledges are woefully inadequate. Policy certainty for business is shaky at best. Commitments from the world’s major emitters are vague.

But the route to a potential endgame in 2015 is now clear, which is something of an achievement.

The trouble is that for every step the UN talks make, the earth’s temperature is making two.

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