The Doha Climate Debate

The Doha Climate Debate

With the UN climate meeting in Doha under way, five experts discuss what needs to happen to advance a comprehensive global climate policy.

November 28, 2012 10:39 am (EST)

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

Editor’s note: This roundup is a feature of the Council of Councils initiative, gathering opinions from global experts on major international developments.

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Can the annual conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-18) – under way in Doha – be a forum for meaningful action? A global roundup of experts tackles some of the thorniest questions. Simon Dalby of Canada’s Balsillie School of International Affairs says steep challenges remain in reaching a global treaty, but better results could come from joint ventures among non-state actors. Susanne Droege of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs says Doha could be a venue for more bilateral and sector-related cooperation.

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Artur Gradziuk of the Polish Institute of International Affairs says negotiators should focus on creating a "smart work program" that lays the groundwork for future talks. At New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, Navroz K. Dubash also zeroes in on procedural issues and the importance of what he calls "incremental trust building." Yu Hongyuan of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies stresses the importance of reaching consensus on the second phase of the Kyoto treaty that mandates emissions cuts by wealthy countries.

Simon Dalby

As the delegates gather in Doha for this year’s climate change talks, circumstances have changed in many ways in the twenty years since the UNFCCC was initiated. Negotiators need to bear in mind both that climate change is now a reality, and that mechanisms to slow the process have had very limited success.

Arctic Ocean sea ice has receded far faster than most scientific projections had assumed. Summer heat waves in Asia in 2010 and North America this year, numerous typhoons in recent years in the Asia Pacific, and now superstorm Sandy in the United States have made it clear that climate change is a matter of the present, not a matter of the future.

Unless things change very soon, the commonly agreed target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius will not be met. The difficult but important truth is that twenty years of discussions, the Kyoto Protocol, and plans for a successor agreement have not stopped the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

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The focus on short-term economic costs and benefits in the negotiations between states has been to the detriment of any long-term collective action. These competitive stances–trying to avoid short-term relative costs in the economic calculations of emissions limits, offsets, and development mechanisms in a binding treaty–preclude either longer-term thinking or more cooperative ventures.

It is now crucial to stimulate cooperative ventures that work to reduce emissions rather than merely offsetting them.

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Assuming that states can sort out all the details in a single treaty hasn’t worked so far, although it remains the ideal arrangement. It is also clear that there is no magic formula that will break the many logjams in the negotiations.

Climate change touches so many facets of human activity that it may simply be too complex to be encapsulated in a single treaty arrangement between states. Governing climate change may better lie in the possibility for lots of cooperative initiatives by corporations, municipalities, and other actors.

Constraining the emissions of greenhouse gases is essential, but much new thinking is needed about how to build new forms of economy not dependent on fossil fuels. While a binding treaty remains an important goal, it is now crucial to stimulate cooperative ventures that work to reduce emissions rather than merely offsetting them. The issue is now simply too urgent to wait for a perfect treaty.

Navroz K. Dubash

A former Indian negotiator likes to say that the first rule of climate negotiations is that they can never fail. As the Doha COP gets underway, this perspective helps interpret the outcomes of the Durban meeting a year ago and set the stage for Doha. Agreeing to start a new round of talks by liberal deployment of creative ambiguity allowed everyone to declare success in Durban. But the discussions since suggest that old divisions never really went away. It falls to negotiators in Doha to re-address old debates in only minimally new guises.

The hardiest nut of the UNFCCC process is the issue of "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" (CBDRRC) and the associated division of countries into developed and developing. Some developed countries thought they had cracked this nut by excluding explicit reference to this principle in the Durban Platform. But, as many developing countries were quick to note, the platform states that future negotiations will take place under the convention, notably including the principle of equity and CBDRRC. To punctuate the point, a new grouping of "like-minded developing countries" has emerged over the last year, with protection of CBDRRC prominent in their position statements. Whether old positions are rehearsed or whether signs of a middle ground emerge at Doha is worth watching for.

At the end of the day, Doha is about keeping the game going.

At the core of the Durban deal was the promised rebirth of the Kyoto Protocol in a second commitment period. But developed countries have been dropping like flies–Canada, Japan, Russia, New Zealand, and, of course, the United States–at last count. Nonetheless, the Kyoto Protocol is the only legally robust deal in town, and rapid resolution of the remaining technical issues followed by quick ratification post-Doha is a necessary condition for further trust building. This is a minimal condition for success at Doha.

Perhaps most tricky are a set of procedural issues, the future of the Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action and its linkage to the Durban Platform process. Many industrialized countries seek a clean break (read: no more differentiation) and transfer to the Durban Platform process. Developing countries fear that the hard-won gains over the years to expand the agenda beyond mitigation to ensure attention to adaptation, finance, and technology will be lost. Indeed, prematurely terminating these discussions would make a mockery of the process. The procedural issue conceals a larger battle over whether differentiation continues to frame debate over these agenda items.

On the surface, Doha is a meeting about nuts and bolts. But long-standing political contention continues to shape the key decisions. These deep-rooted differences are unlikely to be resolved, but in the details are the scope to win tactical leverage on big strategic positions and opportunities for incremental trust building. At the end of the day, however, Doha is about keeping the game going; the first rule of climate negotiations is unlikely to be breached.

Susanne Droege

The COP in Durban 2011 re-launched international climate negotiations. A broader deal shall be set in force in 2020. This would end the times of dichotomy between developed and developing countries’ mitigation obligations established under the Kyoto Protocol. The "Durban Platform" is essentially the way forward proposed by many opponents of the Kyoto Protocol, including the United States. Still, this process lacks the support it needs to live up to the challenge. So how realistic is it that a new treaty draft will emerge until the 2015 deadline? Before these talks can get off the ground in Doha, the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol needs to be decided upon. Once a decision on Kyoto is out of the way, the newly established Durban Platform Working Group (ADP) will have enough leeway to sort out a new regime and—for the interim phase until 2020—an increase in mitigation ambition based on voluntary activities and pledges.

Before these talks can get off the ground in Doha, the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol needs to be decided upon.

So far, the UNFCCC talks are too process-related. If the ADP wants to keep the deadlines, it better gets itself organized. One year has passed with talks about ending and integrating the old process (known as the "long-term cooperative action" working group) into the new one. Considering the very tight time budget, the urgency of the matter at hand, and the very reluctant attitude towards a stringent process so far, a clear structure, timetable, and mandate should be decided upon in Doha. This will not happen without the support of major interest groups and single players. The developing and the emerging countries take different stances on this. While the least developed countries and small island states, together with the EU, want to keep up the political pressure, countries like Brazil or China prefer to keep it low.

With or without progress at the Doha talks, parallel action on the ground is needed. The Europeans—who failed on the promise to unilaterally raise their climate target to 30 percent emissions reductions by 2020—are looking for allies beyond the group of poor countries known as the Durban Alliance. Amongst the potential partners are not only the usual suspects, such as China. Fast developing middle-income countries, such as Indonesia or Mexico, also qualify for short-term low-carbon initiatives. Doha could be a good time to test the readiness for more bilateral and sector-related cooperation.

Yu Hongyuan

The Eighteenth Session of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties is aimed at bringing new insights to global climate change discussion through innovative methods. It sets out to produce balanced, reasonable, feasible solutions to support the Durban outcome, and will conclude the negotiation on AWG-LCA (Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention) and AWG-KP (Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol). Among all these critical objectives, the most important one is to achieve the linkage between ADP (Durban Platform for Enhanced Action) and the outcomes of both working groups.

ADP and KP2 (the second commitment period for developed states under the Kyoto Protocol) should be correlated. As the precondition for a legally binding global climate treaty, the most "doable" thing in Doha is to achieve the political consensus on KP2 among all the parties. By so doing, the international community will make the ADP and KP2 move toward a balanced outcome. The Doha conference should also make the LCA and its key elements embedded, refined, and transferred to the ADP.

The principle of equity will be one of the core pillars of Doha Outcome, and the revision of equity principle should be a high priority. For the past twenty years, the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility" protected and will continue to protect the development rights for the developing countries, and will have developed countries take a main role on climate mitigation and adaptation. According to this principle, the developed countries are the main actors for addressing the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. However, this does not mean that developing countries do not have the responsibility for climate change while achieving their own development. China, along with other BASIC group countries (India, South Africa, and Brazil), is now working with the international community to fulfill the principle of "Equitable Access to Sustainable Development."

The Doha Conference should be seen as an opportunity for enhancing economic sectors during crises by linking climate-resilient economy and low-carbon development.

Climate change, in its core, is a kind of economic challenge. The Doha Conference should be seen as an opportunity for enhancing economic sectors during crises by linking climate-resilient economy and low-carbon development. The Green Climate Fund and its permanent secretariat should be strengthened to provide more finance and technology assistances to developing countries.

All the parties should understand that it is in their national interests to stop waiting and move ahead in putting more concrete and balanced proposals on the table in Doha. As the 2012 UN Rio+20 Outcome Document mentioned, multi-level governance has played an increasingly important role in sustainable development. In Doha, all parties should explore multi-stakeholders and multi-priority areas in climate mitigation and adaptation.

Doha is just a place to formulate political consensus over climate and development among governments, businesses and civil society, enhance mutual understanding, and promote understanding of climate change’s challenges. All the parties to Doha should deal with all kinds of climate challenges, whether they are traditional or urban, regional or global, but the list should be set on the basis of different countries’ priorities.

Artur Gradziuk

It’s too early to expect any significant progress at Doha. This is the first year of negotiation on a new climate treaty within a new Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform of Enhanced Action (ADP). It would replace two-track negotiation on future mitigation actions (AWG-LCA and AWG-KP), which didn’t meet expectations. Prospects for the new track at this point of negotiation are uneven. It must be remembered that in Durban last year, countries promised to promise something (in terms of mitigation action objectives) in the following years in the form of some kind of document, which is now hard to be defined.

The critical thing to move constructively into a globally binding agreement is the political will of major parties, which is not seen on the horizon.

The critical thing needed to move constructively into a globally binding agreement is the political will of major parties, which is not seen on the horizon. Two major emitters are currently not in a position to present such political will: the United States after its presidential election and China in a leadership transition period. It is hard to expect that negotiators from those countries would receive a more flexible mandate for Doha. In this context, the EU itself is in a difficult position. It leads by example, at home adopting and implementing legislation that is more ambitious than in other parts of the world, but at the UNFCCC level, it has not pursued climate diplomacy taking on the top global emitters.

To move the process forward, negotiators in Doha should focus on adopting a smart work program of the ADP for 2013 that would prepare the ground for tough negotiations in 2014 and 2015. That program needs to assume discussion on domestic policy and legislative actions to be taken by major emitters, which are preconditions to conclude a globally binding agreement by 2015. If such homework would start, it’s also advisable to consider holding a special summit on climate change on the level of heads of state before COP-20 in 2014.

A summit would facilitate stocktaking exercises by decision-makers, identifying gaps to be narrowed, and could answer the question of whether concluding a new global climate treaty acceptable for major parties is a feasible task. If, in the end, there will be no globally binding agreement in 2015, we can expect climate actions on individual countries’ basis, which should not be underestimated, but collectively could not contribute to meet the stated goal of keeping global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.


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