Bureaucracy Weighs Down Climate Talks


With only three days left, we’re getting to the pointy end of COP18. Ministers from all over the world arrived in Doha over the weekend, ready to provide advice on outstanding issues, of which there are quite a few. Yesterday was dominated by speeches to open the high-level segment of COP18 and calls for ministers to make progress on the talks.

Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, opened the high-level segment with a speech describing the Sidra tree, an icon of Qatar. She described the way travelers and scholars would meet in its shade, and how it came to symbolise perseverance, solidarity, and determination. She asked ministers to embody those traits as they exercised their "unequivocal guidance" to ensure decisive action takes place in Doha, and listed key areas that will need to be resolved by Friday.

Alongside a general call from developing countries for increased ambition on targets, the precise length of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (five or eight years) and the issue of "hot air" remains unresolved. The so-called "hot air" issue refers to a number of European countries who experienced a reduction in emissions due to changes in economic conditions and want to carry over these surpluses into the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period.

This conflicts with the demands of scientists: new and greater cuts to emissions if we are to stay within the safe 1.5-2 degree warming threshold. Environmental group Tck Tck Tck spelled out the finer details of hot air to delegates today in an amusing skit in the conference centre.

Climate finance is easily the most contentious issue at this year’s COP. The Green Climate Fund has been dubbed the "empty shell" because, to date, the US$100 billion promised is yet to be put on the table. It’s unlikely that money will be put in the bank this COP, and verbal guarantees are not cutting it with the world’s poorest who are already experiencing the impacts of a warming world. Progress on climate funding is critical to reaching an agreement in Doha and moving towards the highly anticipated 2015 legally binding treaty.

Figueres urges delegates to remember the ultimate objective of keeping warming within a 2 degree increase and calls for an "urgent response to the widening emissions gap". With reports emerging in the last week of melting permafrost, and the UN Environment Program’s "Emissions Gap Report 2012"; global progress is out of step with the science that has us heading for a 4 degree warmed world. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the European Union have both been vocal about the need for increased ambition.

In Durban, parties agreed to work towards a legally binding treaty that would apply equitably to all countries. In Doha, discussions are taking place under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) to formulate a clear plan of attack. Talks thus far have been constructive and positive but momentum is essential to maintain the trust of the developing world.

Whilst Figueres’ speech was the most comprehensive, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, the Emir of Kuwait, the Amir of Qatar and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon all addressed the conference. Their rhetoric was similar; international co-operation is required to achieve a speedy outcome.

Notably, in the context of negotiations that have largely been characterised by finger-pointing and debate over historic responsibility, H.E. Vuk Jeremic (UN President of the General Assembly) acknowledged generational responsibility for the climate crisis of today. "I’m afraid we cannot say as those who came before us could, that we did not know the extent of the damage we were causing," he said.

The role of Qatar as host has also come under close scrutiny. The irony of a country whose wealth is built on oil has not escaped the attention of the media, civil society or the disgruntled Global South at the Climate Talks.

In his speech, the Amir of Qatar confirms Qatar’s commitment as "partners on this planet" to cutting greenhouse gases. He announced Qatar’s commitment to have 2 per cent of Qatar’s energy needs provided for by solar, by 2020, which seemed somewhat of a defence against the barrage of hostility Qatar has faced throughout the conference.

For example, yesterday the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, was asked whether he thought it was "ironic" that Qatar was hosting the conference. Stern replied he was "not one that is going to throw stones" at countries that have contributed to the world economy and are now moving towards more sustainable forms of energy production. Blame and culpability are backdrops to this year’s COP and make already charged issues particularly volatile.

The role of the US under the Obama administration has been another hot topic. In a press conference held today by the WWF, Oxfam International and Greenpeace, Obama was called on to deliver a legacy "not only to the citizens of the US but for the rest of us". In light of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy, the WWF urged Obama to deliver on his promise to protect US citizens from the destruction caused by a warming world.

The US’s emissions reduction commitment of 17 per cent was criticised for not only being out of sync with science but for lacking a clear process for its achievement. While it was acknowledged that Obama faces genuine congressional barriers to strong action, the case was levied that even so he was not doing enough. Obama’s recent decision to pass legislation excluding US airlines from the European Union’s carbon trading scheme was a point of particular criticism.

David Waskow from Oxfam spoke of the need for US negotiators to "demonstrate an openness and creativity on issues of equity far beyond what has been seen so far, and that’s the key to unlocking ambition from all countries." The problem of staleness and lack of innovation is not particular to the US. Indeed, it could simply be symptomatic of the slow and bureaucratic nature of the negotiation process as a whole.

The solution however, is not a rejection of the UNFCCC process, Figueres said, but domestic action. Supporting scientific research and implementing domestic legislation "is critical because it is the linchpin between action on the ground and the international agreement." For now, Ministers will be undoubtedly working late into the night trying to close up procedural gaps and reach consensus on questions of ambition, finance and the steps toward an eventual global deal.

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