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The Final Stretch of the Doha Climate Talks

South African counterpart Maite Nkoana-Mashabane speaks at the opening session of the United Nations Climate Change in Doha (REUTERS/Mohamad Dabbouss).

Delegates to the 18th Annual United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) on climate change have so far spent over a week in Doha, Qatar but have made only slow and small progress. This inching result contrasts disconcertingly with recent reports indicating, on the one hand, that our earlier estimates of the severity of climate change may have been overly sanguine (as outlined by the World Bank in its Turn Down the Heat report); and, on the other, that global greenhouse gas emissions have continued increasing—seemingly inexorably (shown in analysis by the Global Carbon Project).

Negotiations have focused on a number of distinct tracks (see Doha Climate Conference: Key Issues Up for Negotiation), though none of them have been resolved over the first week. As ministers arrive toward the end of the session, pressure may build for conclusion on a few items. Three items, in particular, have attracted attention:

  1. The Green Climate Fund (GCF) was established in earlier agreements but the initial seed funding from the GCF has been obligated. As such, there is considerable interest to replenish funds in the GCF, particularly from both developing countries most likely to benefit from this structure and from environmental NGOs. Donor countries have expressed their support for the GCF but have held their cards close for the first week: While funding is not explicitly linked to progress on other topics, it is always part of the bargaining process. It is likely that the ministerial segment of the COP will see some announcements of funding levels, but whether they amount to much may remain indeterminate if there is not sufficient reporting on those commitments. Our colleague Timmons Roberts examines these issues in more detail in Climate Finance and Global Development Post-2012: Clearing the Fog at Doha.

  2. The obligations under a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol are also unclear. These discussions are highly visible but occur parallel to other negotiations. The U.S. remains outside of the Kyoto Protocol, and will continue to do so, while the large emerging economies have no emissions reductions obligations under it. As such, the Kyoto Protocol covers less than 20 percent of global emissions. Delegates decided to extend the Kyoto Protocol by instating a second commitment period at last year’s meeting in Durban, but have not yet settled the terms of the extension. (For example, should it be a five- or eight-year period? Should unused emissions allowances from the first period carry over into the second period?). A main argument for extending the Protocol is to allow the continuation of its mechanisms, such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM allows emission-reducing projects in developing countries to tap into additional financing and has been a moderately successful element of the Kyoto Protocol.

  3. Discussions on a new global climate agreement have begun in Doha, but, given the three-year negotiating timetable, much of the activity so far has taken the form of opening gambits. The Durban outcome last year set the deadline of 2015 to conclude negotiations on an agreement that would take effect by 2020. Failure to reach agreement on this timetable would mean that countries would still operate under the Copenhagen/Cancún agreements (see Figure 1), but questions do remain about whether the international community can do more than the simple pledging process that these agreements established.

Other areas currently under discussion are the overall “level of ambition” of mitigation targets, future financing contributions, and more technical negotiations on GCF governance, technology instruments and approaches to allow for the linking of national carbon market mechanisms.

 

Given the almost comically languid pace of negotiations at the COP, major breakthroughs seem unlikely. However, there are four key areas where a minimum amount of progress can still occur:

  1. Parties should agree on the parameters for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. While extending the Kyoto Protocol has a limited long-term value, it is an important issue of trust and legacy of cross-Party cooperation for many developing countries. As such, deadlock on this topic has stalled progress on the other elements on the agenda. The first commitment period therefore should be brought to a close and the second commitment period could include an ambition clause, for instance, a midterm review to ensure future pledges are adequately in line with the latest scientific projections.

  2. Parties should also close the discussions on the Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) track, which is another holdover from earlier negotiations and is diverting attention from the 2015 agreement. It is essential that any outstanding key foundational elements from the Bali Action Plan (i.e., mitigation, finance, adaptation, technology transfer and capacity building) be taken up by another body in the UNFCCC if they cannot be fully addressed before the closure of this track.

  3. Parties should agree to a timetable to start work on the new 2015 agreement, with a concrete work plan in place to ensure negotiations are ready to begin in earnest with the next major meeting in Bonn in June.

  4. Donor countries should provide commitment for midterm financing to bridge the gap between 2013 and 2020. The U.K. has already offered new support beyond its 2010-2012 "Fast Start Finance" contributions, and other EU member states are expected to make similar announcements as the conference progresses (e.g., Germany and Sweden). Developing countries have signaled finance as a crosscutting issue in Doha and have highlighted compensation for loss and damage as a key demand, standing at odds with developed countries. Pledges to bridge the financing gap may help to temper these demands and build trust toward negotiating a new agreement.

While the Doha negotiations lumber along, one might hope that two new pieces of information might cause countries to reflect on the inadequacy of this pace. First, a number of studies in the past few months have indicated that our estimates of the climate impacts from our emissions may have been overly conservative. In other words, the climate may be more sensitive to changes in the atmosphere than we have been assuming for our policy planning. As just one example, recent rates of sea level rise have been accelerating at the upper end of the previous estimates, and the World Bank study mentioned above indicates a wide suite of impacts can be expected from warming even slightly above our (ambitious) 2°C warming target.

Secondly, the global emissions rate (tons per year) continues to increase rapidly. While some countries have been able to temper growth with fuel switching or increased deployment of renewables and efficiency, those reductions have been swamped by rapid rises in the past two years from China and other emerging economies. China, which only in 2007 drew even with the U.S. in terms of largest annual emissions, has now left the U.S. far behind, increasing its emissions by roughly 10 percent in 2010 and another 10 percent in 2011—giving China an annual emissions rate of roughly 10 billion tons of carbon per year, versus roughly 6 billion tons for the U.S.  This is a remarkable rate of increase in just the past half-decade. Those increases, already for the largest single emitter globally, now mean that China’s per capita emissions are close to the EU-27 average, and the clip shows no sign of moderating. Other emerging economies are also growing quickly, particularly India, which is also rapidly deploying coal-fired electricity generation.

Taken together, these observations should underscore the fact that we most likely have less time to take significant steps—both internationally and domestically— than previously believed. Basically the climate is more sensitive to emissions than we thought, and we are increasing our emissions at a faster rate than we expected. Domestic policy to encourage the best from dynamic markets will be essential in this task, and internationally the negotiators in Doha should recognize that the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" is of a substantially different character now, in 2012, than it was when the Convention was first negotiated in 1992. At this stage, the international negotiations should seek to stem losses first by streamlining the process for future meetings and then by setting a focus on achievable near-term actions combined with long-term ambition that matches the magnitude of the challenge.

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