Doha: Vague words & fuzzy numbers

The 2012 climate negotiations under the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol did not quite die in the desert sands of Doha.  But they hardly took the big steps forward that are urgently needed. This kind of reflection, of incremental progress in political terms, but falling far short of what is needed, has now been the my sense for several years running.

Also similar to past meetings, COP18 and CMP8 ran over time, as did Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban.  The heart of the bargain remains around mitigation and finance, with adaptation – now in terms of ‘loss and damage’ (L&D) – just sneaking into a place in the outcome. But on all fronts, progress is formal, perhaps institutional and at times rules-based (though those are watered down). In substance, there are no deeper cuts in emissions, very little new money and wide divergence on what loss and damage really means.

Movement was more like a slow, tectonic shift as in Durban last year.  Political will among the major players, including the US, China and India, does not seem to allow for anything quicker. This produces dramatic ends to conferences, but with Hobbesian choice:  “At the end of the day, ministers were left with two unpalatable choices: accept an abysmally weak deal, or see the talks collapse in acrimony and despair – with no clear path forward”, as Alden Meyer said in this piece.

Kyoto2, hot air and reviewing ambition

The key outcome of Doha illustrates the achievement, but also weaknesses in the outcome. The second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol had been agreed politically agreed in Durban, but until legal text is pinned down, many issues remain open. With 23 days left before the end of the first period, the formal amendment was passed. Kyoto has another 8 years, with the main participants from the EU joined by other smaller countries, notably Australia. In total, they account for 15% of global emissions. There was no movement now to higher ends of pledged ranges, with the EU staying at 20% below 1990 levels (for which it is already on track). In a welcome move, Australia did not stick with those moving out of Kyoto – Canada, Japan, Russia and New Zealand all joining the US which has never joined.

At least Kyoto rules allowed for the definition of a review mechanism to increase ambition. This was crucial to make the deal acceptable especially to the small islanders. The review mechanism allows increases in the QELRO through amendment without ratification, together with a provision to cancel units. Parties must consider this in 2014, and a high-level Ministerial meeting will give some political weight to the consideration.

The devil is in the detail: Staying at 5% below 2000, Australia’s QELROs is 99.5, or -0.5% below 1990. And that with existing rules on land use change and forestry (LUCF) and carrying over ‘hot air’.

The possibility of ‘carrying over’ emissions not used in the 1st period – so-called hot air, is a prime example of attempts to weaken rules at the last moment. For some time, the notion of a reserve account for these “surplus AAUs” had been negotiated. In the last round, the idea emerged that this might be traded – bizarrely even for those with no target for the 2nd period. You thought carbon markets were about cap-and-trade? Welcome to trade without a cap.  In the end, some technical fixes do limit this carry-over to 2%, and in an unusual move, pretty much all buyers indicated they would not buy ‘hot air’ from those wishing to sell.  That is externally – watchful eyes will be needed to ensure it does not happen within the EU bubble.

So it’s complicated, and the full political debate erupted on the last day. The Qatari COP President overruled Russia’s last-minute objection by Russia.

Fuzzy finance

South African Environment Minister, Edna Molewa, said that the Doha talks ”revolved around the level of finance the developing world got” for adaptation and mitigation. Finance was one of the key focus areas, with several agenda items across different negotiating bodies. Yet in the end, the Doha decision deferred for another year a firm decision on long-term finance – the $100 billion per year the developed countries pledged back in Copenhagen (2009) to mobilize.

Given that fast-start funding – on average $10 billion per year over the past three years – ends in 2012, the notion of ‘medium-term finance’ emerged. On this, no clear pathway could be defined to get from 10 to 100. Not rocket science, you might think? Well, the numbers are very simple to calculate. But with the backdrop of financial crises and fiscal cliffs, little specific was done. EU countries pledged €7 billion over the next two years  – with few others willing to name specific numbers.

Contrast that to highly specific expenditure: US President Obama asked Congress to provide federal aid worth $60.4 billion (€46.1 billion) to  states hit by Storm Sandy.  That was last Friday. On Saturday, PhilippinesPresident Aquino declared a “state of national calamity” in the wake of Typhoon Bopha. But as the story points out, he will be unlikely to be able to mobilize similar resources available to US states.

Loss and damage

Such impacts, together with the lack of progress on mitigation (in the KP, and elsewhere, see below) put adaptation in sharper focus in Doha. Particularly in relation to a mechanism for loss and damage.  The much was lost almost before this negotiation could fully mature.  The views diverge sharply, with rich countries fearing they would be sued for damages. Any hint of liability or compensation brought sharp reactions. The US climate envoy, Todd Stern, was overheard saying: “I will block this. I will shut this down.”  The outcome in Doha was to consider an institutional arrangements next year  – while funding for adaptation as uncertain as ever. Yet even this limited agreement was hailed a “huge breakthrough,” by Martin Khor of South Center.

Mitigation – lost and damaged?

Meanwhile, back in the work on mitigation under the Convention, progress was limited to technical issues. A prototype of a registry for mitigation actions – with support again noticeable by its absence; and, oh, it’s just a web-based platform.  Work on transparency continued, but was deferred in some parts. Useful tables for reporting by developed countries on both mitigation and finance were finally agreed – although even here, the issue of market mechanisms, particularly those outside of the Convention, made seemingly technical issues political. The bon mot that climate change is “too political for the technicians, and too technical for the politicians” once again seemed apt.  Under ‘long-term cooperative action’, all that could be agreed were two work programmes.  At the last minute, the US insisted on further diluting the one on its side, finding not common accounting rules, but even a “common basis” too strong for its liking.  All major players seemed to be waiting for negotiation of mitigation under the Durban Platform – and that is to be agreed only in 2015.

The “technology mechanism” of the Convention did take a step forward, with UNEP now to host the Climate Technology Centre and Network.


The Ad hoc working group on the Durban Platform (ADP) is in a ‘conceptual phase’.  The main outcomes expected of Doha were work plans for two streams – the first for the overall agreement in 2015, the other on ambition.  If it’s not clear by now, there was not much to be had in Doha on ambition. “These talks have failed the climate and they have failed developing nations… The Doha decision has delivered no real cuts in emissions, it has delivered no concrete finance, and it has not delivered on equity,” said Tasneem Essop of WWF. The ADP has identified a schedule of events, not a detailed work plan. Broad themes have been identified, appropriate if one thinks in terms of four-year negotiating cycles.

Back to BAU? and back to Poland

The two working groups that have been at the centre of the political discussion, that on the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) and on long-term cooperative action (AWG-LCA) both closed.  Even this was contested for a while, but the move has been made. From 2013, the more political negotiations about the future will be in a single group, the ADP, with technical work continuing in the permanent subsidiary bodies.

And certainly talks are returning to Poland. Only five years after COP-14 in Poznan, the 2013 meeting will be held in Warsaw. This despite Poland being a major internal stumbling block for the EU to enter Kyoto2, along with Hungary. It is hard to escape the impression that insisting on having your hot air even without a target is not punished, but rather rewarded.  Roger Harrabin asked sharp questions about this year’s hosts: “So who is winning the climate battle? Well, this year’s talks were hosted by Qatar, which has the highest per capita emissions in the world. Did it pledge to cut emissions? No. Offer financial help to the poor? No.”

Geopolitics of climate change

Climate change has become a significant geopolitical issue, and negotiations are not pretty.  Fundamentally, the very limited progress in Doha is due to lack of political willingness among the major players to make a move.

The US is not moving on mitigation or finance, strongly opposed to loss & damage having any sense of liability or compensation – or even financial payments. Much may hinge on whether US President makes climate change a legacy of Barack Obama’s 2nd term – as he should. He will have to spend political capital to do so, given a divided US, and may need a stronger team on climate change – abroad and at home. In a recent press statement, Obama sent mixed signals – saying he would act on climate, but not if it cost jobs at home. A more positive agenda by Obama might change the game: “If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.”

Minister Xie Zhenhua of China was reportedly satisfied with the outcome , saying that  “the Doha conference has met Chinese delegate’s expectations,

and we are satisfied with the outcome”. What precisely the Chinese delegation saw as satisfactory remains inscrutable. China has always taken the long-term view – but meanwhile the climate is changing rapidly. Will it be when China makes its big geopolitical move that things will shift on climate too? Or will major climate disasters come first?

India was perhaps less vocal then last year, when Minister Natarajan’s insistence on equity brought her into direct conflict with the EU – and forced the famous ‘huddle’ that produced the Durban Platform. Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Action, put a brave face on the Doha outcome, saying “we have crossed the bridge from the old climate regime to the new system”, noting it was a bumpy, slow ride and urging  that “what we need now is more ambition and more speed.”

With three major players not willing to move with high ambition or particularly fast, the political will required for a big step forward was lacking – again – in Doha.

How do we get beyond inaction ?

Doha was characterized by “vague word and no numbers”, as Tim Gore of Oxfam aptly summarized. He also used stronger language of “betrayal” in relation to developing country needs. Is that the final word on climate action?  How can more be done – something a little closer to adequate to the task?

It may be that a greater focus on action, not only targets, would take us further.  We need to get right the link between local and national action and international setting of targets and norms right. The UNFCCC needs internal change. The Convention remains the only credible central forum, but delivers much too little, too slowly. Post-Copenhagen, many wrote about possible changes within the process – and it seems high time to reform the negotiating process itself.  Much is being done outside of the Convention – but it is hard to know what that adds up to. Even stronger, it seems likely that action at local, national, subnational scale, by actors beyond governments, including the private sector, NGOs, social movements – all this would add up to more, if coordinated.  The “catalytic role of the Convention” that was referenced in the Bali Action Plan, is yet to be realized.