Climate Summit in Doha characterized by lack of ambition

Analysis by: Jeremy Hance
December 09, 2012

Coal-powered Castle Gate Power Plant in Ohio. Photo by: David Jolley.
Coal-powered Castle Gate Power Plant in Ohio. Photo by: David Jolley.

Ahead of the 18th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha, Qatar a variety of reports warned that the world was running out of time to avoid dangerous climate change, and that there was a widening gap between what nations have pledged to do and what the science demanded. A landmark report by the World Bank painted an almost apocalyptic picture of a world in which global temperatures have risen 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, including unprecedented heatwaves and droughts, rising sea levels, global agriculture crises, and a stunning loss of species. In addition, scientific studies released near the two week conference found that sea levels were rising 60 percent faster than predicted, forests around the world were imperiled by increasing drought, marine snails were dissolving in the Southern Ocean due to ocean acidification, and ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica was on the rise. The meeting kicked off after the Arctic sea ice hit its lowest extent yet recorded and just over a month since Hurricane Sandy devastated a number of Caribbean Islands before striking the U.S., flooding New York City and the New Jersey coast. Despite such devastation, rising physical evidence worldwide, and increasing warnings (from the UN, the World Meteorological Organization, the International Energy Agency, as well as the World Bank), the meeting in Doha was largely characterized by finger-pointing, specious grandstanding, pettifogging, and a total lack of ambition.

In truth, there was little expectation that this year's summit would be groundbreaking. Many of the issues on the docket had been long-discussed in previous meetings and the conference was repeatedly described as transitional before, assumedly, the real work gets under to set up a global treaty by 2015 to go into place by 2020 (a year some scientists say will be too late to avoid a global rise above 2 degrees Celsius).

Given this, many observers were also surprised as how acrimonious and contentious the conference was—and many hoped for a stronger, even in it limited capacity, agreement.

"This outcome represents a failure of ambition and yet another failure of political will—the latest in a long line of pledges to take real action someday, but not today," said the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) President Carroll Muffett. "Governments have now squandered decades that could have been spent averting climate disaster."

This doesn't mean that nothing was achieved. The agreement reached on Saturday allows the landmark Kyoto Protocol to limp along for another 8 years and, perhaps most intriguingly, adds new language about "Loss and Damages," that could make open a space for vulnerable countries to seek some redress from the world's biggest polluters.

The agreement

According to the Department of Energy's (DOE) Energy Information Administration (EIA), after China and the United States, among major polluters only India is expected to have significant growth of emissions over the next 20 years. Click to enlarge.

The conference ended with the survival of the Kyoto Protocol, though its continuation has become largely symbolic, as it will cover less than 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Those signed onto the Kyoto Protocol include the EU, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Australia. The U.S. was never a member; Canada backed out last year amid much criticism; and New Zealand, Russia, Japan refused to join the second commitment period. Adopted in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol only applies to wealthy countries, so it does not include many rising high carbon emitters such as China (now the largest carbon emitter in the world) and India (estimated as the third largest emitter after China and the U.S), however these will be included in the global agreement set to be forged by 2015.

What the conference did do, by settling the issue of Kyoto, is allow nations to now focus on setting-up the world's first global agreement on climate change (i.e. covering both developed and developing nations) by 2015 to come into force on 2020.

"Countries can now face forward and concentrate on crafting the robust new agreement that we so urgently need," Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) International Climate Program Director Jennifer Haverkamp said in a statement.

However, the conference failed to get any new pledges for cutting emissions between now and then. Despite tremendous pressures and pleas from vulnerable nations, the EU did not budge on its commitment to cut emissions by 20 percent by 2020, nor did the U.S. raise its ambition in cutting emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, a pledge regarded by many as extremely weak for the world's largest historical emitter.

Funding pleas also fell on deaf ears. Although climate financing was considered one of the most important issues when the conference started, the big decisions were kicked down the road.

Wealthy countries have already agreed to provide $100 billion annually—starting in 2020—to poorer countries for helping them both cut greenhouse gas emissions and to mitigate the impacts of climate change. But, before the meeting started there was little detail as to how the money would be raised. Despite calls by developing nations for a plan, this was postponed like so many other issues for another year.

Discussion on funding between now and 2020—described as mid-term funding—was also put off for until next year as wealthy nations balked at having to put any new money on the table in the midst of a global economic crisis.

Little movement was also made on the effort to pay developing nations to keep forests standing as a novel way to decrease carbon emissions. The program, known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), became stymied in a debate over how to verify emissions reductions. A decision was also postponed until next year, meaning that REDD+ programs would go another year with little-to-no funding.

Still, not everything was bleak.

When future generations look back at the Doha summit, the most notable fateful words in the agreement may be the the addition of "loss and damages." For the first time the agreement sets out a mechanism by which vulnerable nations may receive funds from carbon polluters for loss and damages. At the behest of the U.S. and the EU, the language was watered down and added under the already-established $100 billion fund—to avoid claims of unlimited money—but it opens the door, however slight, for countries racked by climate change impacts to seek compensation.


Hurricane Sandy on October 25th in the Caribbean. Scientists say that climate change may have intensified Hurricane Sandy with its impact worsened by rising sea levels and increased evaporation from hotter marine waters. Recent studies predict that worsening climate change will bring more intense hurricanes. Photo by: NASA.
Hurricane Sandy on October 25th in the Caribbean. Scientists say that climate change may have intensified Hurricane Sandy with its impact worsened by rising sea levels and increased evaporation from hotter marine waters. Recent studies predict that worsening climate change will bring more intense hurricanes. Photo by: NASA.

Vulnerable states, poor countries, and NGOs blamed wealthy nations for the lack of ambition, endless stalling, and widely perceived weak agreement.

"Instead of moving aggressively to increase the ambition of actions to reduce emissions and ramp up climate finance for developing country actions, all too many countries dithered and delayed in Doha," Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists' director of strategy and policy said in a statement. "The U.S. and many other developed countries spent most of their time and energy laying out what they couldn't do, rather than offering constructive solutions on these issues."

Many observers had hoped that the U.S.—after the re-election of Barack Obama and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy—would act more urgently and ambitiously at the talks. But these hopes were dashed, perhaps predictably, as the U.S. added no new pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions, failed to put any new finance down, attempted to derail inclusion of Loss and Damages, and, according to observers, played a mostly obstructive role during the talks, even on less contentious issues such as transparency.

The U.S. wasn't alone in being lambasted by observers. Canada, which has become a climate pariah, was largely panned for its tar sands; New Zealand was criticized for pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol; and Russia came under fire at the end for stalling negotiations that had already run into overtime. The "Colossal Fossil" award—given to the nation or bloc of nations that is seen as most obstructive during the talks—was given to both Canada and New Zealand by activists.

"It was only a handful of countries—such as Poland, Russia, Canada, the U.S. and Japan—who held the negotiations to ransom," Samantha Smith, the head of WWF's Global Climate and Energy Initiative, said.

About half-way through the conference a massive typhoon swept through the Philippines killing nearly a thousand people. The typhoon was surprising in many ways: its intensity, the region it struck, and the time of year. After news of the disaster reached Doha, Filipino negotiator at the conference, Naderev Sano, gave what has been described as the most impassioned speech of the two weeks.

"We have never had a typhoon like Bopha, which has wreaked havoc in a part of the country that has never seen a storm like this in half a century. And heartbreaking tragedies like this is not unique to the Philippines, because the whole world, especially developing countries struggling to address poverty and achieve social and human development, confront these same realities," Naderev Sano, said, adding, "I appeal to the whole world. I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people. I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around."

There's always next year.

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Analysis by: Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (December 09, 2012).

Climate Summit in Doha characterized by lack of ambition.