Politics and diplomacy of climate

The Doha conference has failed to quell doubts whether an agreement based on equity can be reached
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First Published: Mon, Dec 17 2012. 07 20 PM IST
A file photo of local and international activists in Doha. Photo: AP
A file photo of local and international activists in Doha. Photo: AP
An element of inevitability has crept into the multilateral negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Unlike in the past, the 18th meeting of the conference of parties (COP), which concluded in Doha less than two weeks ago, evoked little interest as nothing but a stalemate was expected. Collectively, the countries under UNFCCC have yet again ignored the repeated warnings by scientists about climate-related catastrophes. The latter have warned that these episodes will become regular if emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are not controlled. Only one outcome of COP18 has any real significance—the countries took some decisions that gave this multilateral forum a further lease of life. Thus, hope persists that the comity of nations will someday agree and deliver the elusive global public good.
At stake in Doha was the survival of UNFCCC. Countries had to take a call on the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding arrangement in UNFCCC for reducing GHG emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the so-called Annex I countries—which included the industrialized countries, sans the US and the former socialist bloc economies—undertook commitments to reduce emissions during the period 2008-12. For most countries, the base period for the reduction commitments was 1990. According to the Kyoto Protocol, 2008-12 was the first commitment period, upon expiry of which a second commitment period commences.
The inability to extend the Kyoto Protocol would have dealt a body blow to UNFCCC, even though the protocol had several inherent weaknesses. The most significant of these was that the US, until recently the largest emitter of GHGs, never acceded to it. Last year, two countries—Canada and Russia—formally announced their withdrawal from the protocol. This was after Japan and New Zealand had indicated that they would make no further commitments under the protocol; in other words, they too withdrew. Besides, the first commitment period was marked by tardy implementation by the annex I countries.
In what seems to be a face-saver, the “Doha Climate Gateway” agreed to in COP18, decided to extend the Protocol implementation by a further eight years until 2020. The countries that had agreed to reduce their GHG emissions by 5% over the 1990 levels in the first commitment period, have now made commitments to reduce their overall emissions of such gases by at least 18% measured from the same base period. But with several of the major emitters from among the Annex I countries having refused to reduce their emissions, the second commitment period appears to be a non-starter right at the outset.
The more important component of the “Doha climate gateway” is the decision at the “Durban platform” established just before COP “to adopt a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the convention applicable to all parties” in 2015 that will provide the road map for emissions reduction in the post-2020 period. Several observers have interpreted this decision as a move to force developing countries to make binding commitments on emissions reduction.
Has COP18 taken equally definite steps to ease access to finance and technology needed to undertake adaptation and mitigation actions by developing countries? The Doha decisions on these fronts, as in the past, are disappointing. Two years ago, COP16 at Cancun had established a Green Climate Fund to take care of the long-term funding requirements of developing countries. Industrialized countries had then made a commitment to provide, from a mix of public and private sources, funds amounting to $100 billion per year by 2020 to support concrete mitigation actions by developing countries that are implemented in a transparent way. This rather nebulous commitment to provide funding for mitigation and adaptation has acquired another level of ambiguity arising from the decision of COP18. The draft decision on long-term finance notes that countries have decided “to extend the work programme on long-term finance for one year to the end of 2013, with the aim of informing developed country parties in their efforts to identify pathways for mobilizing the scaling up of climate finance to $100 billion per year by 2020”. It was further agreed to “continue the existing processes…for assessing and reviewing the needs of developing country parties for financial resources to address climate change and its adverse effects, including the identification of options for the mobilization of these resources”. This is yet another example of “constructive ambiguity” that climate change negotiations are strewn with.
Development and transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries to support action on mitigation and adaptation remains an equally daunting task. Progress on this issue faces two challenges. First, most of the environment-friendly technologies are proprietary in nature and are, therefore, not easily accessible. Second, the institutional mechanisms for addressing the technology-related issues are only in their infancy, having been established by the decisions of COP16.
The Doha COP may have given climate diplomacy another chance, but it has failed to quell doubts whether an agreement can be reached on a global regime that is based on the principles of equity.
Biswajit Dhar is director general at Research and Information System for Developing Countries, New Delhi.
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First Published: Mon, Dec 17 2012. 07 20 PM IST
More Topics: climate change | Doha | diplomacy | Cancun | UNFCCC |