Doha Climate Conference: Key Issues Up for Negotiation

For the next two weeks, delegates will meet in Doha, Qatar to attend the annual round of negotiations on the climate change agreements under the United Nations Framework Agreement on Climate Change (UNFCCC). While there are a number of issues under discussion, the primary objective of the Doha meeting is to wrap up discussions on the future of the Kyoto Protocol and to consolidate talks on a new post-2020 global climate treaty under the Durban Platform process launched last year.

Moderate progress across these tracks is expected at Doha, but with contentious political issues unresolved and major negotiating Parties (i.e., China and the U.S.) unprepared to enter into serious negotiations, no major breakthroughs are expected. Given recent indications that the world is on a trajectory to reach temperature increases from 4°C to above 6°C with current emission reduction pledges, observers are arguing that filling this “mitigation gap” by raising the level of ambition between 2013 and 2020 is crucial. Another key issue at Doha is addressing the difference between the level of new and additional finance for climate mitigation and adaptation for the post-2020 regime. The so-called “Fast Start Finance” will finish at the end of this year, and countries have so far contributed or committed about 80 percent of the pledged $30 billion by 2013. At the same time, long term finance pledges of $100 billion by 2020 have yet to materialize, and the new Green Climate Fund remains an empty pot. Finally, measuring, reporting and verifying (MRV) both emissions and funding contributions for developed and developing countries remains a contentious issue as well, with technical negotiations ongoing.

The negotiating context: Interest, but lack of priority
In the wake of the economic crisis, the focus on sovereign debt and austerity measures has resulted in a lack of engagement on climate by political elites accompanied by a political vacuum at the international level. As such, constructing an international “grand bargain” in the near future is unlikely. The current political cycle means that it will take several years to build towards an agreement whereby global ambition can be increased to a level consistent with a below 2oC trajectory. The agreement of the Durban Platform in 2011 has instituted a pathway toward a new agreement in 2015, but its success will be contingent on politics and domestic conditions in key countries.

Given the dynamics of its domestic politics, the U.S. is unlikely to show leadership on a legally binding international climate agreement, even with the re-election of President Obama. A moderatly growing economy accompanied by squeezed budgets will limit U.S. political engagement in the negotiations. Moreover, the U.S. favors a country-level approach that captures domestic efforts that can be brought into an international mechanism. This approach was embedded in the recent the Copenhagen/Cancun agreements, and the U.S. is unlikely to endorse a new approach that does not contain obligations for all countries. Domestic actions such as further clean energy and pollution standards and discussions on a carbon tax within wider fiscal reform may take place, but the U.S. is increasingly looking toward external fora, such as the Major Economies Forum (MEF), as a venue for agreeing climate goals.

Chinese leadership is also changing this year, limiting the operating capacity of a new administration to offer substantial new concessions Doha. The Chinese government is unlikely to revise low carbon ambition in its 12th Five Year Plan in the short-term, however there is speculation that the new Chairman of the Energy Commission, Li Keqiang, may be more ambitious on clean energy and climate change. Changes will not take place until at least March 2013, therefore a more realistic prospect would be to build greater ambition into discussions on the development of energy policies feeding into the 13th Five Year Plan, which would commence in 2016.

Other key international events leading up to 2015 increase pressure on negotiators to come to an agreement and will mean that 2013-15 is the likely medium-term window to build towards a review of adequacy and increase levels of ambition. These include the IPCC fifth assessment report scheduled to be released in 2013/14; the expiration of Fast Start Finance flows on December 31, 2012; and the expiration of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol on the same day.

Outcomes from Cancun (COP16) and Durban (COP17) set the stage for negotiations at Doha
The 2010 negotiations at Cancun secured a lifeline for the UNFCCC and were able to deliver agreement on a “balanced package” (the Cancun Agreements) by managing expectations around outcomes and effective climate diplomacy. The Cancun Agreements are an interim deal which resulted in a few key outcomes: They brought the Copenhagen mitigation pledges under the formal UNFCCC system, agreed to a system on MRV, established the Green Climate Fund, and set up the technology and adpatation mechanisms (see The Cancun Agreements on Climate Change).

The 2011 meeting in Durban resulted in key outcomes from the two main tracks of the negotiations: the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperation (LCA) and the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol (KP). Only some countries agreed to participate in binding emissions limits during a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol to begin in 2013 with the expiration of the first commitment period, but all agreed to complete the work of the LCA by the end of 2012. Durban also concluded with the establishment of a new third track to negotiate a global agreement with “legal force” to replace Kyoto and covering all countries (the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action), effectively providing a roadmap for a legally binding instrument to be agreed by 2015 and implemented in 2020. Other important elements were agreed; the new Green Climate Fund and the Technology Mechanism were both officially launched.

Doha expectations (COP18) and key elements on the table
Political issues and disagreements on process and priorities remain the largest obstacles to progress going into Doha. There is tension between focusing on “new” negotiation issues (i.e., the Durban Platform, which developed countries are championing), and “old” issues such as the Kyoto Protocol, key elements under the LCA, and Convention principles (the “BASIC” bloc—Brazil, South Africa, India and China—recently issued a statement outlining their position on this). The agenda for Doha is long, with seven different tracks open and resolution needed across several. The LCA is expected to close by 2013. The parameters of a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol need to be defined. There is not yet an agenda or timeline on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP). There are major gaps in terms of mitigation reduction targets and financing commitments between 2013 and 2020.

  • Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) track: Before this track closes at the end of 2012, it must agree to launch a scientific review of the mitigation pledges to allow for scaled up ambition. A signal for this should be indicated at Doha. There is some disagreement on the sequencing of negotiations, with some Parties arguing work on the ADP cannot begin until this track has been successfully closed. However, without clarity on the full agenda of the ADP, other Parties do not want to close discussions under the LCA in the fear that key issues will not be carried over. There is a risk in Doha for these talks to stall, for key issues to be lost (as part of the “pre-Durban world”) or for duplication of efforts on issues that have taken years to negotiate.
  • Kyoto Protocol (KP) track: The negotiation of the second commitment period (now in its seventh year) is largely about agreeing a new set of emission reduction targets for developed countries before the period begins in 2013. The issues on the table at Doha involve the length of the commitment period—an eight year period (championed by developed countries led by the EU), or a five year period (championed by developing countries on the grounds of avoiding locked in low ambition). In past climate talks this year held in Bangkok (September 2012), the EU and Australia proposed a compromise mechanism to establish a midterm review designed to increase ambition. Some countries are of the position that the KP must be prioritized in Doha before the ADP can be discussed, and tensions remain around recent announcements to leave the Protocol by Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand—other economies in transition are on the fence and more announcements may be imminent.
  • Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) track: Questions remain about the scope and role of the ADP going forward, and an agenda needs to be set at Doha to ensure adequate progress on negotiating the legal form of the new agreement that will begin in 2015 and be implemented in 2020. There is a lack of agreement on the outcome of the ADP, and the timeline and relationship with the LCA (see above). The main issues present in this track are the mitigation gap, raising ambition, and the form of the legal framework. Deep divisions remain between Parties on the form of the agreement under the ADP with different interpretations of the Durban Package (i.e., will it be a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force?).

Doha is expected to be a relatively low-key meeting with no new initiatives or processes launched. Much is at stake however, with current ambition levels low, uncertainty on future financing for climate action, and disagreement on negotiating priorities between the major blocs. The key contributions from Doha would be to wrap up efficiently the outstanding negotiating tracks; to secure reasonable commitments for funding for the GCF; to establish helpful modalities for the Technology Mechanism; and, by avoiding opening and re-negotiating old issues, to establish a solid foundation for the next two years of negotiations—one that presents the most constructive pathway for all major emitters—to embrace an ambitious and effective future regime.