What Did Doha Do?

The latest round of global climate talks known as COP18 finally came to an acrimonious end on Saturday night, almost a day later than had been planned. It was a messy end and to many it was a very unsatisfactory one.

States appeared more interested in not pleasing their gracious Qatari hosts than in making progress towards addressing the adverse effects of climate change that have been increasingly dangerous to human beings. States seemed to be oblivious to the typhoon that took hundreds of lives in the Philippines during COP18 and Hurricane Sandy caused 60 billion US dollars of damage in the United States just days before the meeting started.

The Doha meeting was taking place at a crucial time as the first commitment period Kyoto Protocol–the main treaty containing obligation for States to control the emission of greenhouse gases that cause climate change–was coming to an end. This meant that, if a new commitment period was not agreed, States would not have meaningful legal obligations to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

This new commitment should have been agreed years ago. In 2007 at COP3 in Bali, States agreed to work in two tracks. An Ad-Hoc Working Group on Longterm Comprehensive Action (AWG-LCA) and an Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP). It was expected that negotiations in the AWG-KP would result in a second commitment period to be adopted at COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Indeed, this meeting received tremendous fanfare and was attended by about a hundred heads of States and government and almost 50,000 State representatives and civil society observers. The latter particular hoped for a more ambitious second commitment period as required by the evolved warnings of science.

The Copenhagen meeting did not deliver the anticipated result. Instead, States led by the United States with its President Barak Obama attending, forced a result that called only for voluntary pledges on emissions. This undermined the legal regime that had been put in place by the Kyoto Protocol. The spectra of voluntary pledges for the historically largest polluters even appeared to undermine the most basic principles, such as that of common but differentiated responsibilities, in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which virtual every had ratified.

Doha continued the lack of ambition and lack of responsible action. An ambitious limit on greenhouse gas emissions was not among the final decisions despite the fact that these outcomes were the priorities for almost every one of the almost two hundred countries present and the hundreds of environmental activists. For developing countries, the much needed sharing of the financial burden of combating climate change was also denied by rich developed countries who were too worried about their own economies at home to live up to obligations they undertook more than two decades ago.

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Thus the two main hopes for the conference–ambitious emission cuts and adequate funding–were not achieved. All that was agreed were the most meagre promises to keep working on it for another year to implement the UNFCCC and a few very small steps in the direction of responsible action.

States did agree to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, but with such a low level of emissions cuts that it hardly seemed worth the effort. Nevetheless, Executive Director of the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christina Figueres (@CFigueres), made the most of this meagre accomplishment tweeting “[a]ll #COP18 decisions adopted by acclamation. We have a Second Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol!!!” But if the UNFCC was upbeat, most States and observers found even the establishment of the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period an anti-climax because of the low ambition it reflected. With emission cuts in excess of 45% are needed, the new Kyoto commitment period calls for emissions cuts that are less than 20%. Moreover, it does include the States responsible for almost 85% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

For environmental activists this was much too little and for environmental scientists it was, they said, probably too late. Although they said that the ambition of States and observers had been very low from the start, for many the outcome was still disappointing.

Mr. Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, warned that the real winners in Doha were the coal industry and oil industry. The NGO International-Lawyers.Org lamented that action was not taken that was consistent with what was required by the science and the existing international law. Article 2 of the UNFCCC calls upon States to act to ensure that greenhouse gases do not reach a dangerous level in the atmosphere. The 2007 Assessment Report from the reputable International Panel on Climate Change indicated that significantly more ambitious action was needed to achieve this goal. The Doha outcome makes little if any progress towards meeting this obligation.

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The conference was rife with organizational problems from the start. It was clear the Qatari government lacked the expertise to host the conference both logistically as well as substantively. The Qatari President of the COP18, Abdulla Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah , the Deputy Premier of the small Gulf hereditary monarchical State, had to enlist ask oil companies to second staff to advise him, according to one of his advisers who sought to remain anonymous. The dozens of oil company lawyers and policy adviser that Qatar’s riches bought, however, knew little or nothing about about climate change. Despite his constantly amiable manner both the Qatari President and his team seemed overwhelmed.

Delegates were also frustrated by the Karwa buses that didn’t run as scheduled, frequently failing internet connections in some areas of the huge conference venue, a lack of information about here and when meetings were taking place, and hiked up prices at hotels and taxis that regularly charged double usual rates. The frustration reach such point that a Chinese delegate in a statement to COP18 compared the unhappy compromise reflected in the decisions the conference was considering to the poor food being served trough out the conference center.

Qatar did not help its image by arresting and deporting youth who had protested Qatar’s own lack of ambitious contributions to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions. This drew further attention to the fact that Qatar is the biggest per capita emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world and would rather talk about it than do something about it.

And as if to deflect attention from the deadlocked negotiations, during its first week a Qatari court handed a life sentence to the poet who had become famous for his inspirational support for the Tunisian popular uprising, Mohammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, for criticizing Qatar’s hereditary ruling class for failing to relinquish political power to elected officials.

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But If COP18 was a public relations fiasco for Qatar, it may turn out to be an even greater disaster for the future of our planet. In recent years a lack of ambition and vaguely worded promises to keep trying have delivered very little on either emissions limitations or financing. Yet, once again this is how another COP ended.

Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Mr. Asad Rehman called the compromise that was reached unacceptable and called on States to reject it. The Stockholm Environment Institute’s climate & policy research team tweeted that the “climate talks fail to deliver on urgent issues, hit developing countries hard.” Indeed as Ministers of Environment began to arrive mid-way through the second and last week, the possibility of no outcome at all loomed over the conference. Some activists argued this was the most honest outcome at which the Parties could arrive. A handful of countries discussed this possibility as well.

The President responded to the impasse by reminding States that he was at home and that he was willing to take as long as necessary to get a result. Still no sign of a willingness to make needed cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or on the provision of finance by developed countries was emerging. On these two crucial issues both sides were digging in their heels. It was only as negotiations ran through the night on Thursday and at the daily stocktaking held on Friday that it appeared that an agreement could be reached. At the same time it became clear that if this was to be the case it would be at a low common denominator, but one that gave enough to everyone that it could not be refused.

By this time the Qatari chair had asked the assistance of Mr. Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado , the Under-Secretary-General for Environment, Energy, Science and Technology at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry. Machado had been one of the driving forces behind the outcome of the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012. His imposition of discipline on States negotiating the Rio+20 outcome had overrode dissent and virtually imposed an agreement. In Doha, however, he was in less familiar territory and had to work with the much less experienced Qatari hosts than in Rio+20.

Nevertheless, with the help of other experienced negotiators, like South Africa’s Foreign Minister Ms. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, and buoyed by a constant stream of bi-lateral and multilateral meetings, by the time COP18 was into extra-time on Friday night it was apparent that an agreement was on the way. It also became evident that it was being driven less by the already agreed legal obligations of States or the science, but more by political expediency and the need not to insult the host country by walking away without anything at all.

When the stocktaking, planned for early Saturday morning finally convened in mid-afternoon, most observers began to suspect that a text would emerge that no State could reject. Hours later when the text appeared that expectation was bourne out. It also became clear that the compromise text would have to be drawn up by the Presidency and his advisers.

For example, after all night negotiations on loss and damage provisions–a broad term for compensation to countries effected by climate change or having to make a special effort to mitigate their emissions–States had arrived at four or five alternatives that the facilitator agreed to pass to the President. Nevertheless, only one slightly tweaked proposal for action appear in the final text on loss and damage.

By Saturday a sense of urgency and fatalism had set in. Many developed countries had been depleted of their best people who had to depart on pre-booked flights that they could not change. And at the same time, some of the larger countries increased their competitive advantage to the point that developing States feared an agreement would be based on the influence of only developed countries interest. The final compromise was slightly more balanced, but still denied developing countries, the overwhelming majority of States their key demands.

The decision on the Kyoto Protocol brought the Ad-Hoc Working Group on this treaty to a close by establishing a second commitment period. The commitments, however, make it probably that temperatures will rise globally as much as an average of 4 degrees Celsius. There are only vague future half-promises to consider a high ambition in the future. If past promises are an indication, such promises count for little.

Some countries point to a victory limiting carbon trading and the fact that the decisions related to the Kyoto Protocol generally prevent States from carrying unused rights to pollute into the second period of the commitment to cut emissions. This might turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory because it may also lead to a significant cut in funding to the Adaptation Fund which benefited from a tax on carbon trading and for which no alternative form of financing was agreed. A delegate from Japan, one of the States effected, explained that Japan will continue to accumulate the pollution rights or credits as this is not prohibited, but “will use the credits in [its] internal carbon market where no tax has to be paid.” Moreover, having lost on ambitious mitigation targets and financing it is hard to view the limits on carbon trading as much of a victory.

At the same time as carbon trading is limited, the exploration of new market mechanisms is encouraged. Developing States have ensured that non-market mechanisms will also be considered, but this is more by implication than the clear one page of text that calls for the consideration of new market mechanisms.

Almost half the outcomes that were adopted concerned financial matters. Nevertheless there was no commitment to new and additional financing and no real consideration of how to ensure financing. The developed countries had offered 30 billion USD in fast-track funding and 100 billion USD by 2020. This figures was already low as the World Bank, UNEP and the South Center have estimated that as much as 1.1 trillion will be needed every year to assist developing countries in limiting their emissions and in adapting to the harm being caused by climate change. Estimate also call for another trillion USD for technology transfer that is called for in the UNFCCC. Even the insufficient amounts of 30 and 100 billion were not forthcoming. Several States did make pledges to the new Green Climate Fund (GCF), which was launched in 2012, but not one penny has yet been deposited. The GCF remains without funds. Furthermore, several long existing climate funds remain underfunded with no clear plan as to where new and additional funding will come from despite the fact developed countries are obliged to provide such funding in the UNFCCC.

The grand text on a Longterm Cooperative Action, which had been the subject of an Ad Hoc Working Group was being closed down, but offered mainly linguistic responses to the demands of the developing countries and the requirements the UNFCCC.

The linguistic victories included, as Bolivian chief negotiator Mr. René Gonzalo Orellana Halkyer pointed out that “Mother Earth, equity, equitable access to sustainable development as part of the right to development are incorporated.” The seminal principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is also include in the text on Longterm Cooperative Action. All of these are principles that developing countries having been urging the COP to take on board. There was, however, no reference to human rights, despite the fact that there had been in earlier LCA texts and the fact that the UN Human Rights Council has indicated that climate change is one of the most significant challenges to human rights in this century. The real test, however, will be whether States will also act in accordance with these principles.

Finally, a new Durban Plan of Action provided only aspirations for action to cutting emissions and on adequate financial assistance to developing countries. It was a struggle to even get the some States, again led by the United States, to even agree to ensure the Durban Plan of Action work was consistent with the UNFCCC.

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In the end it seemed like little progress was made towards the urgent need to deal with the adverse consequences of climate change despite the fact that the global climate meeting, dubbed COP18, started just days after Hurricane Sandy ravished the United States and as the meetings was ongoing hundreds of Filipinos were killed by a tropical storm. Although climate skeptics were increasingly out of fashion, ambitious action still seemed to be in short supply.

The Philippines Climate Change Commissioner and Deputy Head of Delegation, Mr. Mr. Naderev Saño, made several impassioned pleas’ for adequate action tearfully recalling the recent natural disaster that befell his country. He cautioned delegates that that they had to take urgent adequate action asking “[i]f not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

To wake negotiating State representatives, civil society observers, and business representatives at the start of what was supposed to be the closing session a video song as played with young people calling for action on climate change. The impassioned calls of the youth and views of the majority of States just didn’t seem to be enough to overcome the indifference of the small minority of a few rich and powerful States that just refused to take adequate action to protect our planet’s atmosphere.

The future does not look bright. Having held COP18 in the country with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions, next years will be in the country that single handedly has been holding back the European Union from making greater emissions cuts. The Polish hosts will have their work cut out for them if they are not to be branded a pariah in the global forum for international climate change action. They will have to ensure the ambition that was missing this year while at the same time ensuring that funds are put on the table by developed countries. Neither of these aspirations look very realistic at the end of COP18. At the end of the annual Climate Summit only the rapidly increasing destructive effect of climate change look like a sure thing.

Curtis FJ Doebbler is a visiting adjunct professor of law at Webster

Curtis FJ Doebbler is a visiting professor of international law at the University of Makeni, Webster University (Geneva) and the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He is attending the climate talks in Paris on behalf of International-Lawyers.Org, an UN ECOSOC accredited NGO.