COP 18 in Doha: what can we expect?

Dan Hamza-Goodacre previews the UN Climate Summit in Doha.

The 18th meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Conference of the Parties (aka COP18) starts on Monday. Approximately 200 nations will head to Doha, Qatar, for two weeks of talks about how to save the planet from dangerous climate change. Or will they? Last year's talks in Durban were hailed as a success, at least for saving the UNFCCC process itself. Parties agreed to agree to a 'legally binding' deal by 2015 that would take effect by 2020. So what can we expect from this year's talks and what would we like to see?

Committing to Kyoto

First up is the Kyoto Protocol. This was agreed in 1997, came into force in 2005 and has been the main UN mechanism through which 37 industrialised countries plus the European Community have reduced emissions – by an average of 5% on 1990 levels between 2008-2012. On the table in Doha is the need to agree the second commitment period. So far only European countries and Australia have sent a clear signal they will commit. Others, notably Canada, have already 'jumped ship', having failed to meet pledged Kyoto emissions reduction targets. Others, e.g. Japan and New Zealand, haven't jumped ship yet but don't appear ready to commit to another period. The Doha talks will focus on the length of the commitment period and the carryover of surplus allowances for those opting in. Will it be 5 years with high ambition (as most developing countries are calling for) or 8 years and lower ambition (as the EU and Australia are advocating).

What would we like to see? Simple - as many Annex I countries as possible signing up to a second commitment period with ambition commensurate with a maximum warming of 2 degrees. In addition, high emitting countries not making Kyoto commitments also need to act. Voluntary pledges were made in Copenhagen and confirmed in Cancun but approximately 15 countries have yet to make such emissions reduction commitments, including some of the richest and highest emitting countries in the world. 

Durban to the rescue?

Second key issue – the Durban Platform. This is the negotiating track that is supposed to take the world to a legally binding deal. What is at stake is the level of emissions reductions and how they will be shared (ie ambition and equity). The problem is that it is hard to know what to aim for if you don't know how to share it. And it is hard to know how to share something if you don't know what you are aiming for. Parties will air their positions. A timetable for agreeing specific points is likely to emerge rather than an actual agreement on ambition and equity, which is not expected until 2015.

So what would we like to see? Three recent reports have highlighted the extent of the climate problem we face. The World Bank's ‘Turn down the heat’ report showed us why we need more ambition - because a 4 degree world would be a ‘doomsday scenario’. PwC's Low Carbon Economy Index showed us that the rate of decarbonisation needed to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees is unprecedented and 'highly unlikely'. And UNEP’s latest ‘Emissions Gap’ report revealed that global emissions in 2011 were the highest ever and are 14% above where they need to be in 2020 to avoid  dangerous climate change. All three report stress that ambition is possible and the most desirable future pathway. What we need to see in Doha in the context of the Durban Platform talks is ambition across the spectrum. Higher emitting and richer countries need to lead the way, but lower emitting and poorer countries should also think about what they can do. A high emission outcome will hurt us all, but it is likely to hurt the poorest and most climate vulnerable the most.

Institutional rationalisation

Discussion will also focus on a wide variety of institutional issues including technology (where will the Technology Centre be located) and the Green Climate Fund (including endorsing the selection of South Korea as host country"). Parties will talk about: the importance of agriculture; the meaning of ‘loss and damage’; how to measure REDD+; how to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change; and how to reform the CDM. Parties will decide if they have done enough on the Bali Action Plan to warrant closing discussions in the LCA negotiating track or if discussions (including on mitigation, adaptation and finance) need to be carried over into the Durban Platform. Closing the LCA track and the Kyoto Protocol track and making them just one track (the Durban platform) is a welcome move. The UNFCCC talks are the most complex international negotiations and at times are at risk of being overtaken by process rather than substance. Rationalising the talks into fewer tracks should help.

Who’s paying?

Finance does not seem to feature prominently in expectations for Doha, even though the ‘Fast Start’ pledges made at Copenhagen are set to run out at the end of this year. The majority of the $30billion 2010-2012 funds appear to have been committed, for which donors should be applauded. But what now? The Green Climate Fund has been set up but as yet has no money. Discussions on mid-term finance are part of the LCA negotiation track to be wrapped up in Doha. However it is not clear what this will amount to. Some warm words about the GCF perhaps? Will we see some voluntary announcements for further climate finance? We may, although these are likely to fall well short of the ambition of the original Fast Start.

So what would we like to see? A sense of urgency on the GCF. Hosting the fund will be a challenging task for South Korea, but also a privilege. It will require strong leadership of the like South Korea has already shown in making green growth a pillar of their economy and society. They now need to make bold moves to capitalise the GCF and bring others along with them. The old divide of developed and developing should not get in the way. Richer and high emitting countries should help poorer low emitting countries to address climate change, especially adaptation to the impacts that are increasingly being felt.  Such concessional finance needs to leverage private sector investment if the scale of overall finance is to be achieved. This task would be greatly helped by a robust carbon market. Reform of the CDM and interventions to increase demand would thus be welcomed.

How to build consensus

Overall the talks are likely to be polarised. Only a few days ago the BASIC countries called for developed countries to ‘scale up ambition’ and made it clear that the traditional divide of Annex I and non Annex I (developed and developing) is not up for negotiation in the Durban Platform. This position has been opposed by some developed countries, such as the US, who think that emerging economies also need to do more. For the climate talks to save the planet progress is needed on a number of levels – in the substance of the negotiations themselves, in the relationships of the groups doing the negotiating and in the enabling environment within which the talks take place. Currently there is no shortage of substance, although some argue that the focus of the talks should be more on opportunities and technology rather than burdens and costs.

When it comes to the UNFCCC groups, these are currently configured mostly along geographical and political lines rather than on ambition, however this appears to be shifting (note the newly formed ‘Like Minded Developing Country Group’ and the alliance between the EU, least developed countries, small islands and progressive Latins). Regarding the enabling environment, there is currently a lack of societal and political will to create pressure for a deal within the UNFCCC. This needs to change. Without such will, groups within the UNFCCC will continue to be configured on traditional lines and negotiating Parties will have weak mandates from back home which prevent them from tabling the ambitious commitments needed to create a meaningful global deal. 

Saving the planet?

A good outcome from Doha would include firstly, ambition in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and from the higher emitting richer countries not covered by Kyoto (especially those that never formalised pledges in Cancun). Secondly, a sense of urgency is needed with regards climate finance, so as to give impetus to the capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund. Thirdly, discussions about which countries need to take ambitious action in the context of the Durban Platform need to transcend the Annex I / non-Annex I divide, so that 2015 can be a success. Fourthly, action at the national level must be integrated into the COP process. Countries across the world, rich and poor, are making progress on climate compatible development. They must share lessons and opportunities to engender a sense of positivity and trust in the negotiations. This year it is most likely that UNFCCC success will mean saving the Kyoto Protocol. International climate change talks need to focus on what scientists say is needed to save the planet from dangerous climate change and the opportunities that can be created in doing so.