Climate Change
Thursday, 07 February 2013 15:05

UN climate change negotiations: commitment or cop out?

WEBSITE: Was the 18th session of the Conference of Parties (COP18)  to the United Nations  Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which took place in Doha, Qatar, from 26 November to 8 December 2012, a colossal failure? Or did it provide a pathway towards a more sustainable future? Karien Slabbert investigates.

The earth  is heating up at an alarming rate. And so are the debates surrounding the effects and mitigating measures to help tackle climate change. Karien Slabbert looks at the highs and lows – and wins and losses – at the 18th session of the Conference of Parties (COP18)  to the United Nations  Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which took place in Doha, Qatar, from 26 November to 8 December 2012.

The annual parlay, an arena set up 20 years ago at the Earth Summit, set out to discuss pressing issues surrounding the Kyoto Protocol and associated climate change and finance debates. It concluded with a historic shift in principle, but few genuine pledges to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For the first time, however, the summit established that rich nations should move towards compensating poor nations for climate change-related losses, according to the BBC. But this was by no means an easy feat.

As delegates were unable to reach an agreement within the set time, talks dragged on overtime. According to IRIN News, like COP17 in Durban, the Doha climate change talks culminated in an all-night session to hammer out a deal to prevent further global warming and to protect people – especially vulnerable populations– from the effects of climate change.

After heated negotiations were extended by a day, 200 nations agreed to lengthen the Kyoto Protocol to 2020. This interim measure aims to rein-in climate change and smooth the way for a new, global pact due to take effect in 2020. The conference also cleared the way for the Kyoto Protocol to be replaced by a new treaty binding all rich and poor nations by 2015 to tackle climate change.
The future or déjà vu?

Although many believe COP18 to be a colossal failure, some view the addition of the loss and damage clause, calling for developed nations to stockpile up to US$10-billion per year up to 2020, as a watershed moment for climate talks.

Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, president of COP18/CMP8, hailed the agreement as a “gateway to the future”. He said  the final extra day of the conference was  historic, as all parties had reached consensus – despite complications and many hours of extra consultation. According to Al-Attiyah, the Doha Climate Gateway,  as he dubbed it, marked the beginning of discussions on a universal, legally-binding international agreement on cutting GHG emissions, which should be ratified in 2015 and come into force by 2020.

A mixed pot

Speaking with Al-Attiyah at a press conference at the wrap-up of the conference, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary  of the UNFCCC,  said the  Doha agreement was a bridge between the original Kyoto Protocol that was drawn up in 1997 and the next protocol, which was agreed on in principle at COP17  and is due to be signed in 2015.

Asked whether it was realistic to feel optimistic when nations such as the United States, Canada and Japan were not part of the Kyoto Protocol, she said it  was not a hindrance, as there is  now 100% agreement  by nations on the need to cut emissions. In Doha, she said, all countries had agreed to produce a document detailing their reduced carbon emissions six months in advance of the 2015 COP.

“When the Kyoto Protocol was drawn up, the target was for reducing carbon emissions by 5%. In Doha the participating countries had raised that figure to 18%,” she said. “Current pledges are clearly not enough to guarantee that the temperature will stay below the 2ºC  increase,” she acknowledged, and went on to stress the importance of the Doha Gateway.  Figueres said: “It had ensured environmental integrity and a robust accounting system. No country has said it will not take part, even if it has left the Kyoto Protocol.”

Figueres also praised the conference for starting to build  up the Green Climate Fund, which will be used to help developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. “Here in Doha countries have begun to make commitments totalling  over US$6-billion, mostly from European countries and the European Union (EU). We expect that funding will be bolstered by fresh pledges,” she added.

A vested interest

Although the UN has endorsed a target of restricting global temperature rises to less than 2ºC, Figueres said: “The  window is closing in on us.”  She stressed that the world had the finance and the technical knowledge to tackle the issue, but governments needed to take decisive action. She noted that what was needed now was greater “political will” by all governments. However, she stressed that governments alone could not be expected to solve the climate change crisis. She added: “We need the corporate sector to play a part and to contribute.”

The downside

But not everyone shared this optimism. Many countries and organisations felt that discussions and commitments were mere lip service. “Poor countries came to Doha facing a climate ‘fiscal cliff’,  and at the end of these talks they are now left hanging by their fingertips off the edge,” Celine Charveriat, the director of campaigns and advocacy at Oxfam International, said.
“There is nothing in the Doha agreement that guarantees GHG emissions will actually fall. There was barely any discussion of increasing mitigation targets, despite the clear recognition over the past two UN climate conferences that the current targets fall far short of levels needed to avoid warming of more than the 2ºC limit governments have set,” says  a statement by Oxfam.

A shift in focus

Traditionally, the global north and south have faced off on a number of issues from finance to who should take responsibility to reduce emissions. However, as urgency for ambitious climate action grows, traditional alliances have been eroded, particularly in the developing world.
Monica Araya, a negotiator with the Costa Rican delegation, provided valuable insight into the climate change dichotomy and tradition. She stated:  “The traditional story that you usually hear from the mainstream media is that the big fight is between the rich and the poor. Ultimately it is a discussion about climate makers and climate takers, climate  champions and climate laggards. The division of these categories is no longer north-south. In short this means those with the greatest capacity to act and the most at blame for climate change carry  the greater burden.”

Key facts
•    With Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the United States opting out of the Kyoto Protocol, it applies to only 15% of the current global greenhouse gas emissions, according to IRIN News.
•    The United States, historically the world’s biggest carbon emitter, signed the Kyoto Protocol as a framework agreement in 1997, but refused to ratify it after its rulebook had been agreed.
•    While no developed country fought for a collective commitment in Doha to ensure public finance levels would continue to rise, the US bore particular responsibility for blocking progress on finance, loss and damage and other issues.
•    The EU has offered to reduce its emissions by up to 30% below the 1990 levels by 2020, but only if others sign up for  the agreement. The EU has also been under fire for failing to raise its promised cuts from 20%, which it is reaching easily, to 30%. (Scientists say it should be 40 %.) The EU has been held back by Poland, which insists on its right to burn its huge reserves of coal.

Full acknowledgement and thanks are given to www.rtcc.org, www.irinnews.org, Oxfam International, www.faststartfinance.org and BBC News for providing the information  to write this  article.

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