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The Doha Climate Talks and Long Term Treaty Goals

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Many key countries—through choice, duress or lack of resources—have sidestepped any substantial domestic commitments to reduce greenhouse gases over the past decade. As such, there remains a large gap between the level of ambition embedded in existing international agreements and the necessary steps for managing climate risks at reasonable levels. Against this backdrop, delegates will soon be meeting for another round of international climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar from Nov. 26 to Dec. 7, 2012. While this meeting is not intended to produce any major new treaty or agreement, the central goal is to begin discussions for a new legal structure that will conclude by 2015. Naturally, the imminent nature of this deadline is focusing the attention of interested stakeholders and countries, with many saying that the time for bolder action is upon us. The Doha negotiations will help lay foundations for bolder action, but the level of ambition for a new approach to international climate policy will depend on avoiding problems that have plagued previous discussions—particularly those surrounding unequal obligations for different groups of key emitters.

Before discussing the specifics of this Doha agenda, it is worth reviewing several existing climate agreements: the Framework Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord.[1] The longest standing treaty is the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was negotiated at the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The UNFCCC contains some basic principles for how the international community should address the risks of climate (see Analyzing the Scene at Copenhagen) and establishes a regular meeting schedule—Doha will constitute the 18th such meeting. Several years after the UNFCCC entered into force, delegates sought to take the first step in “solving” the problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions via the Kyoto Protocol (1997). At Kyoto, there was a choice between an approach that would encourage specific policies at the national level and an approach that would negotiate specific deadlines for emissions reductions at the national level (not unlike arms control). Delegates chose the latter, combined with a market-based approach allowing emissions trading, modeled on the largely successful sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade program in the United States. In addition, the Kyoto Protocol divided the world into two categories; only developed countries were expected to take on emissions reduction targets.

That fundamental division of obligations critically led to the U.S. leaving the Kyoto process. The division of developed and developing countries is a long-standing element in climate negotiations and one that has become increasingly fraught, particularly as many countries are making great strides in economic development and poverty alleviation. A different approach emerged at the Copenhagen meeting of 2009, where, with U.S. backing, countries agreed to a “pledge and review” procedure whereby they could publicly state their emissions reduction goals, however construed, and then allow progress toward those claims to be periodically evaluated by the international community. (This Copenhagen approach was not officially endorsed by the U.N. until the 2010 Cancun meeting, so is sometimes referred to as the Cancun Agreements.)

Some countries remain unsatisfied with the pledge-and-review process under the Copenhagen/Cancun agreements, arguing that it does not push countries enough to reduce their emissions. So last year, delegates in Durban, South Africa initiated a process to conclude this new “legal outcome” by 2015 (see The Durban Platform). Doha will present the first opportunity to open those discussions. Nevertheless, there are a few potential stumbling points. On the one hand, any serious agreement really must include the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases—including the U.S., China, and India. Moreover, pragmatically speaking, the U.S. cannot politically accept an agreement that does not include—on some reasonable timeline— the large and fast-growing emerging economies. Consequently, this means that dividing the world into two categories, of which only one has obligations, will be a non-starter in terms of solving any actual emissions problem. The Montreal Protocol, which governs ozone depleting substances, provides a model for reasonable compromise: All countries have the same obligations, but some are allowed a delay (in the case of the Montreal Protocol, it was 10 years).

In this context, one of the major questions to be addressed in the UNFCCC is the longstanding principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” or CBDR. This principle basically holds that all countries have some obligation to protect the climate but the exact level of obligation and form of action is different depending on the country (see International Climate Governance: Will Redefining "Insiders" Enable Global Progress?). Many countries have extended the legal reality of this idea to mean different things—for example, that developing countries ought to have collectively a different set of obligations that developed countries. The principle appears in the original FCCC and in theory covers all subsequent negotiations, but there is already some disagreement about re-introducing it during this next round of negotiations, in part because it could lead to a similar deadlock should it lead to a system that fixes countries in specific categories. The most fruitful approach will likely be to focus on negotiating vigorous but attainable goals that all major emitters would find palatable on some reasonable timescale.

A final note concerns the position of the U.S. Of course, Barack Obama was recently re-elected and therefore the overall U.S. negotiating position is unlikely to change substantially at Doha. However, the more interesting question is what will be happening in U.S. domestic politics over the coming year and how that might influence international negotiations on the 2015 legal outcome. The U.S. is a country of great importance to this debate, in that U.S. involvement in reducing emissions will be essential for reaching global emissions goals. But U.S. involvement can take many forms, and it appears that the U.S. domestic perspective on climate policy may again be shifting. Four years ago, both U.S. presidential candidates agreed that climate change was a serious risk to be addressed, and even broadly agreed on a policy approach to tackle it (a form of carbon pricing). Two years ago, the two U.S. political parties were so antipathetic that they could scarcely agree on anything, but clearly they did agree that addressing climate change was “off the table.” Hurricane Sandy recently reminded residents in the eastern United States—including in Washington D.C. and, of course, New York—about our own dependence on climate and weather and our potential vulnerabilities should such events threaten more frequently or with more severity. Political trends rise and fall, but climate change continues to loom as a risk to global and national security. While it is too early to tell what direction the U.S. domestic policy is heading, there are indications that the topic of climate change may once again be open for discussion, including the outside possibility of carbon pricing or a carbon tax as part of an approach to solving the country’s large fiscal imbalance. The outcomes of such discussions could be a key driver of success in reaching global agreements—but only if the negotiations remain on track to deliver an agreement viewed as workable by all major emitters.


[1] The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987 with subsequent amendments) also happens to address, by accident, some greenhouse gases.

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