Doha climate conference yields more heat than light


ANALYSIS:Ciara Gaynor of Oxfam Ireland had her first introduction to a UN climate conference in Doha and is still reeling from the experience.

“It’s like a David and Goliath scenario”, she said during the week. “We lobby and campaign so hard to move things forward, but all we get are crumbs from the table.”

On Saturday, after the negotiations had gone on all night behind closed doors, activists staged a dignified silent protest by lining up against a white-marbled wall of the vast Qatar National Convention Centre’s main concourse, with messages of support for poorer countries seeking a stronger deal.

“Stand Strong,” they said.

But the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process is governed by consensus and characterised by compromise, so what often emerges is the lowest common denominator – an agreement to move forward with which almost no one is entirely happy, but that is widely recognised as the best available at the time.

And so it was with the Doha Climate Gateway, which opens up a more focused set of negotiations towards reaching an internationally binding deal in 2015 involving all parties, to take effect in 2020. Indeed, much of the effort made by many delegates in Doha was to ensure that the latest track would have firm foundations.

One of the building blocks had to be a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol – the only international, legally-binding agreement aimed at curbing global warming. The treaty was adopted 15 years ago, but didn’t come into force until Russia ratified it in 2005. And it would have expired at the end of this month unless it was given a new lease of life.

But this time Russia made it clear that it would not sign up for a “second commitment period” under Kyoto, mainly because China – now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases – wasn’t covered by it. Japan and New Zealand took a similar stance, while Canada “resigned” from the treaty after last year’s Durban conference.

‘Hot air’

So that left the European Union, Australia, Norway, Switzerland and a number of other countries, including tiny Monaco and Liechtenstein, to pledge a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol until 2020; the last session of the Doha conference was delayed for at least two hours while UN officials sought signatures on behalf of countries subscribing to it.

The EU had pledged a 20 per cent reduction in its emissions by 2020 and was criticised by climate activists for not being more ambitious. Climate Action Network Europe calculated that it was already on course to reach 25 per cent and could even achieve 27 per cent, based on the likely effect of initiatives such as the energy efficiency directive.

The issue of “hot air” turned out to be even more contentious. This refers to the carbon credits accumulated by countries in the former Soviet bloc due to the collapse of their centralised economies. Naturally, they wanted to be able to “bank” these potentially valuable credits for Kyoto 2, even though this would undermine its integrity.

Within the EU, Poland was particularly keen to retain its credits with a view to selling them to other countries at a later stage. Russia took the same view and its delegate, Oleg Shamanov, banged his nameplate on the desk – just as Nikita Khrushchev once did with a shoe at the UN General Assembly – as the Doha conclusions were being adopted.

But the genial conference president, Qatar’s deputy premier Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, simply carried on while pledging that Russia’s reservations this time would be noted in the conference report. “I don’t want to open the Pandora’s box, because then we would never finish,” he said to widespread applause from bleary-eyed delegates.

Australia, Norway and Switzerland as well as the EU also won applause by pledging to protect the “environmental integrity” of Kyoto 2 by declining to purchase any “hot air” credits to achieve their targets to cut emissions.

The United States made no such pledge and also recorded its reservations about other elements of the package.

The US was particularly concerned about the concept of “loss and damage” for climate change creeping into the text. Its climate envoy, Todd Stern, was overheard saying: “I will block this. I will shut this down.” Here again, however, a compromise was reached that at least partially satisfied the demands of less developed countries.

But the delegate from Nauru, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific, complained that there was “no new finance on the table” to help countries like his cope with global warming – even though Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and the EU Commission had pledged nearly €7 billion during the week.

What worries the poorer countries is that no indication has yet been given by their richer counterparts of how the target of $100 billion a year – heralded by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit – is to be reached. Especially as the first three years of “fast-start funding” totalling $30 billion has run out.

Existential threat

Given the budgetary problems faced by many countries, notably the fiscal cliff facing the US, it was unrealistic to imagine that climate finance could be provided by public funding alone. Other innovative ways of raising money will have to be found, such as levies on the aviation and maritime sectors and/or financial transactions.

Nauru, which considers global warming an existential threat, said “much much more is needed if we are to save this process from being simply a process for the sake of process, of simply talk and no action, that locks in the death of our nations, our people and our children” – in the event that we fail to avert catastrophic, or “runaway”, climate change.

But Adam Matthews, secretary general of the Global Legislators Organisation, was probably right when he cautioned that a deal in 2015 will only happen if national regulatory frameworks to control emissions are put in place. “It is by implementing national legislation that the political conditions for an international agreement will be created.”

* Frank McDonald is Environment Editor

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