Doha climate talks: history

3 December 2012

Representatives are gathering in Doha, Qatar for the second week of the 18th Conference of Parties (COP18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – global climate talks to us laypeople. As the world’s highest per capita emitter, Qatar seems a strange place to hold a climate conference, but that is where it is. Here’s what you need to know about Doha.

I apologize for the length and complexity of the following. The climate talks are highly technical and difficult to understand without a large volume of background knowledge – sometimes I think governments are trying to bore their citizens into being unconcerned about climate change. But as tedious as the details can seem, ultimately they will determine the extent of future climate change, so it is important to know how they fit together.

I have split this blog post into three parts which I am publishing on the same day: this one recaps the history of the negotiations up to 2011; the second covers this year’s battlelines; and the third outlines my opinion on what should happen in Doha and why it matters. If you are broadly familiar with the background you may choose to skip or skim the first and/or second parts. I intend to post further commentary and updates over the coming days.

Fossil fuels formed from fossilized plants, so they contain carbon which has been out of circulation for millions of years. Yet humans are digging up that fossil carbon and burning it in the space of a few centuries. When you burn carbon you get carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping “greenhouse gas”. This, among other human activities, now far outweighs natural influences on climate, causing global warming which poses an urgent threat to human civilization. If we want to be sure of preserving a stable, habitable climate, avoiding tipping points, humanity must leave the vast majority of the planet’s fossil carbon in the ground. We must rapidly phase out fossil fuels to cut emissions to near-zero. The extent of future climate change will depend on decisions made in this decade.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit resulted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to prevent “dangerous human interference with the climate”. It also established the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR): rich countries are responsible for the majority of carbon already in the atmosphere, and the per capita emissions of poor countries are relatively low. That obliges rich countries to cut emissions first and fastest, and help poor countries follow in their footsteps. Parties to the Convention have met annually since 1995.

Countries have tended to negotiate as blocs, which currently include:

  • Developed countries
    • Umbrella Group (United States (US), Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, and Ukraine)
    • European Union (EU, 27 members)
  • Developing countries: G77+China (which actually has 133 members)
    • BASIC (major emerging emitters Brazil, South Africa, India, and China)
    • Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS, 43 members)
    • Least Developed Countries (LDCs, 50 members)

At COP1 in 1995, the Berlin Mandate called for “a protocol or another legal instrument” imposing targets on rich countries by 1997. In 1996, the unofficial Geneva Ministerial Declaration decided those targets would be legally binding and have specified timeframes. At both conferences, Australia opposed the outcome until the last minute. In 1997, the US Senate unanimously passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, stating it would not sign any climate treaty unless it also imposed emissions targets on poor countries. At Kyoto in 1997, whereas the EU argued all rich countries should cut emissions by 15%, the Umbrella Group advocated different targets for each country (Australia perversely argued it should be considered a special case because it is highly dependent on fossil fuels). Australia insisted it should be allowed to increase its emissions, and further demanded a special provision, dubbed the “Australia clause”, allowing it to use creative accounting of land sector emissions to meet its target. This time Australia got its way on everything. The result was the Kyoto Protocol, which bound rich countries to cut their emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 by 2008-2012. The US signed but never ratified Kyoto.

Subsequent COPs continued to negotiate the fine print of Kyoto, culminating in the Bonn Agreements and Marrakech Accords in 2001. These included various market mechanisms allowing rich countries to buy unlimited international offsets to meet their targets (as advocated by the US and Australia); a land carbon offset scheme; accounting rules; and ostensible penalties for non-compliance. Kyoto finally entered into force in 2005, when enough countries had ratified.

In 2005, the Montreal Action Plan launched negotiations on a second commitment period of Kyoto (the first period ends this year). In 2007, the Bali Action Plan launched negotiations toward a global “agreed outcome” by 2009, in which rich countries would accept binding emissions cuts via the continuation of Kyoto, and provide finance and technology for poor countries to start taking action. But that didn’t eventuate, as rich countries increasingly wanted any new agreement to replace Kyoto.

Instead in 2009, the EU, the US, and BASIC created an unofficial Copenhagen Accord, later officially approved by all parties through the Cancun Agreements in 2010. The stated aim was urgent action to limit global warming to <2°C (unfortunately climatologists now realize this target is itself quite dangerous, and small island states continue to argue for <1.5°C). But in contrast to the top-down binding Kyoto, the Copenhagen Accord instituted a bottom-up system of voluntary pledges advocated by the US, in which each country chose a non-binding national emissions target for 2020 with no requirement they add up to that global objective. Surprise, surprise: the pledges put on the table were utterly inadequate.

In Durban in 2011, the traditional rich-versus-poor divide broke down. The Umbrella Group and BASIC, although diametrically opposed on the responsibilities of developed and developing countries, in practice allied against the European Union, AOSIS, and LDCs to delay ambitious action indefinitely. The US argued against raising the ambition of countries’ 2020 pledges or even beginning negotiations on a binding global treaty. India talked the talk of justice but walked the same walk of delay as the US. (Although the emerging economies have legitimate grievances, the situation is so urgent that all countries’ emissions must peak and decline as soon as possible.) The EU wanted a binding global agreement by 2015, and pledges increased to meet the agreed goal of <2°C. AOSIS and the LDCs wanted a global treaty within 12 months and a process to quickly raise ambition to limit warming to <1.5°C. Grenada memorably said about India: “if they develop, we die”.

The headline result, the Durban Platform, “launches a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” to be negotiated by 2015 and implemented from 2020. Unfortunately we can’t afford to wait another decade for serious action, unless the final agreement is to invent a time machine. In any case, despite the Durban Platform being widely interpreted as an agreement all countries must accept binding targets, it doesn’t specify how much legal force the outcome will have, or whether all countries will be equally bound, or how it will apply differently to rich and poor countries, or even whether it will include emissions targets. (India would have accepted the Berlin Mandate’s stricter language “a protocol or another legal instrument” if the decision had mentioned CBDR, but the US refused to countenance that.) There was a silver lining: the Durban Platform included a “workplan” to “explore options” to “close the ambition gap” between current pledges and pathways to 1.5-2°C, though it is not required to succeed and any resulting ambition will remain voluntary.

Durban also decided a second commitment period of Kyoto would begin next year (though it is not legal yet), with all details to be negotiated in Doha. But Kyoto 2 looks like it will be a shadow of its former self. It is not even clear that it will be legally binding. Despite its stated aim to cut rich countries’ emissions at least 25-40% below 1990 by 2020, it will merely add up the cuts countries are willing to commit to, which so far have been the same old pledges made in Copenhagen. Many of the original Kyoto parties refuse to participate. Australia was accused of creative accounting again, by proposing a land use baseline it cannot exceed. Finally, Durban agreed to set up a Green Climate Fund for mitigation and adaptation in poor countries, which sounds good until you realize it contains no funding.

Post-Durban there are now three tracks of negotiations, effectively four because the third has two quite different components:

  • The Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP), which was launched in 2005 and is negotiating Kyoto 2.
  • The Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA), which was launched in 2007 and covers a broad range of topics including voluntary pledges for 2020.
  • The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP – don’t ask me why the acronym is inconsistent with the other two), which was launched in 2011 and comprises the workplan to raise ambition and negotiations toward a post-2020 regime.

The seemingly endless complexities can be bewildering, but the take-home message is our so-called leaders are utterly failing to engage with the greatest threat that humanity faces. These talks have gone on my entire life, yet far from the negotiators’ constant claims they are making progress, the situation has deteriorated at an accelerating rate. Global fossil fuel CO2 emissions have risen by 58% since 1990 and 2.6% this year (with most of the recent growth in China), and the Earth is headed for a catastrophic 4-6°C global warming by 2100, plus potentially large feedbacks and post-2100 warming. If we allow anywhere near that level of warming, humanity faces a very uncertain future.

In Part 2, I outline the battlelines in Doha.

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