The UNFCCC negotiations in Doha, Qatar. Photo: Alexander Vlad.
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Disappointment in Doha

Nobody expected much from the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations in Doha. And they appeared to have met those expectations by delivering, well, not much.

The Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC happens in December each year and sometimes these international negotiations can feel like a bad case of deja vu. Nations from around the world come together and argue, there are conflicts between rich and poor nations over ambition and financing that remain unresolved, negotiators stay up all night and manage to pull a few small steps forward out of the bag, and those who care about climate action hail those small steps forward while decrying the failure to deliver the ambitious response that is needed. There is lots of noise and discussion but the ultimate goal of avoiding dangerous climate change continues to seem very distant.

The 18th Conference of the Parties (COP-18) took place in Doha, Qatar. Doha always struck me as a particularly unlikely place to achieve any sort of breakthrough on climate change. I spent two weeks there in 1999 and they were two of the worst weeks of my life. I was in the middle of a world backpacking adventure, but my funds were running low, so I took up some work with an environmental consulting firm in London. They sent me to Doha to work on developing a waste management plan for a natural gas processing facility. I arrived in what felt like hell on Earth.

The heat was terrible – maximums above 40 degrees Celsius most days. The gas processing plant was one of many human blights on what was already a desolate desert landscape. I was put up in luxurious ‘fly in, fly out’ accommodation but felt completely disconnected from the local culture and from the predominantly Indian workforce that did all the hard labour on the plant. The place was full of Westerners out to make a buck as quick as they could by pumping out whatever fossil fuel they could find.

I felt guilty that my work was legitimising the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and contributing to climate change. I felt ashamed that I was living in air-conditioned luxury while migrant workers did hard labour in blistering heat. It became a pivotal moment in my life, where I decided to dedicate my career to work on sustainability. I wanted to stop the expansion of the fossil fuel industry and work for social justice. When I got back to London, I quit my job and began to make my way home, earlier than planned, to start a PhD at the Institute for Sustainable Futures on what Australia could to respond to climate change. I’ve been working there ever since.

When I heard that COP-18 would be held in Doha, my thoughts immediately turned to this experience. I thought about the vast sums of fossil fuel money pouring into Qatar. I thought about the crazy plans to air-condition the stadiums being built for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022, and the crazy amounts of energy that would require. And I mentally filed away COP-18 as another lost opportunity for international climate action.

So, what was actually achieved? There was an agreement to a Second Commitment Period under the Kyoto Protocol, running from 2013 to 2020. Although the Kyoto Protocol includes only a subset of the rich nations and will do little to dent growth in emissions, the agreement is important for ensuring continuity of accounting systems and the Clean Development Mechanism. Australia’s target of reducing emissions by 5% between 2000 and 2020 is now part of the Kyoto Protocol and there is scope to revisit the target in 2014 and hopefully increase its ambition.

Other processes were also established to increase the ambition of targets pledged by all countries. The Secretary-General of the UN will convene a meeting of world leaders on climate change in 2014 to focus specifically on this question.

There was less progress on other important items. At COP-17 in Durban in 2011, nations agreed to a timeline in which a new legally binding agreement on climate change would be established by 2015, to come into force in 2020. The difficult negotiations over what different countries will commit to as part of this agreement were left for future meetings.

There was also no agreement on how to implement commitments from wealthy nations to provide financing to help poorer nations to respond to climate change. Wealthy nations have pledged to secure $100 billion a year by 2020 in public and private financing to help poor countries cope with climate change, but have been vague about what they plan to do before then, according to The New York Times.

If you would like to read more about the detail of what was agreed in Doha, I would recommend the excellent analysis by the Climate Institute at its COP18 mini site.

The last few weeks delivered lots of bad news on climate change. The Global Carbon Project released its Global Carbon Budget 2012, showing that global emissions are continuing to grow. A report by the United Nations Environment Programme warned that permafrost is beginning to melt, potentially triggering feedback loops that could lead to runaway climate change. It seems that every week brings more warnings from climate scientists. Yet the negotiations in Doha seem completely out of sync with these urgent warnings. I can only hope that the urgency will ramp up again as the deadline for a new legal agreement in 2015 approaches.

In the meantime, I find hope in the action that I see on the ground from governments, businesses and communities around the world who aren’t waiting around for an international agreement. Climate action doesn’t have to wait for the United Nations to agree, and it looks like we can’t afford to wait.

Filed under: Articles, Reflection

About the Author

Posted by

I am an Associate Professor at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney, where I work to create change towards sustainable futures. I live in Thirroul, Australia with my wife Danielle and kids Euan and Nina.

25 Comments

  1. Climate action doesn’t have to wait for the United Nations to agree, and it looks like we can’t afford to wait. <—Agreed! If we waited around for governing bodies to come to a consensus, we would be waiting around indefinitely (b/c every country has differing needs and often times these needs are based on their own vested interests).

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  2. Perhaps they should hold the next event in tents staked into the retreating end of Alaska’s Muir glacier. Listening to glacial melt all day and night while having chunks of ice break off beneath their feet might help move things along. “You have until this tent topples backward into the ocean to come to an agreement.”

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  3. Interesting. Unfortunately I’m finding in my young age that these types of conventions rarely lead to any type of real change. The truth is that they in fact have little impact. The true economic incentives will lead the day. If people, especially in the US, want to get this taken seriously, make clean energy a matter of National Security for the reason that we need to be energy self reliant. China is already spending double what we do on clean energy research, and Obama has shown he is not a very good picker of ”winners” in the energy sector, so some of the money the US has spent has been basically a waste. Not driving innovation or driving costs down. The second part to this is that you must the US citizens involved in this change to get their support. I believe this can come through infrastructure building. Where these technologies are implemented in a public visible way in communities. Thanks for the post.

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    • The signs so far are that business is going to lead the way by developing clean energy technologies and getting them to market. We’ve seen the cost of solar panels plummet in the last couple of years as China has moved into solar manufacturing in a big way. In Australia, we’ve already seen electricity demand start to fall now that we have a price on carbon. I’m starting to think the United Nations negotiations are going to be left behind as climate action goes ahead for other reasons.

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  4. over the years they were predicting a global warming saying stuff like its coming in the future and now as they look at all the data and put it together they find that it is already here its already hapening

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  5. Is it unreasonable to think that we’re screwed? I feel like we’re screwed. The pressure of influential lobbies in my own country alone is bad enough, although the U.S. government has apparently managed to do some good when it comes to climate change. Still, we have leaders who deny it even exists, or if it does that we can’t stop it.

    I want to be optimistic. I don’t work in a field where I can really make much of a difference in the climate, but thanks for doing this kind of work. It’s really vital to our future.

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    • Sometimes I feel like we’re screwed too. But then I hear a bit of positive news, or talk to some people who are doing great things in their home or community and I find hope again.

      One of my other posts is about a book called The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding (http://chrisriedy.me/2012/01/30/the-great-disruption-by-paul-gilding/). He thinks we’re headed towards an inevitable crisis, but once we hit it, we’ll act at a speed we can barely imagine right now. He thinks humans are at their best when faced with an immediate threat and can achieve amazing things once the crisis becomes clear. I tend to agree, and that’s cause for optimism. I just wish we could get our act together before there’s a crisis.

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  6. Reblogged this on LENSA ATIEHITUADA and commented:
    Climate change is one of the challenges of the various countries in the world. I never wrote this article for a PR campaign strategy dala anticipated climate change. I berpiir that breath of all living beings in this world is our shared responsibility. Some things you need to realize early is how to cultivate awareness of msyarakat especially early on educational institutions to participate in the program mensosialisaikan anti climate change. Many of the changes can be done by tesrebut. I will post how the PR strategy can improve and change people’s behavior for the mutual love
    go green

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  7. People just don’t realise how thin our atmospheric envelope is, especially when compared to the size of the Earth.

    We live in an extremely small oasis, surrounded by hostile environments which are not life supporting.

    And our oasis is full of interlocking closed loop systems, which is fine until one of them is forced into open loop (or even worse, positive feedback).

    Human nature is such that it won’t accept facts until they’re actually threatened by them, and then it’s too bloody late.

    I’ve done several cartoons on the environment, and our carbon tax, which can be found here on my blog.

    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/editorial-political/

    Cheers

    Mick

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  8. In the sixties there was a movement that advocated zero zero population growth. They were the buzzwords of my time. Instead of talking cynically about what is being done or not done I suggest that we take action into our own hands.

    (Wikipedia) Zero population growth, is a condition of demographic balance where the number of people in a specified population neither grows nor declines. According to some, zero population growth is the ideal towards which countries and the whole world should aspire in the interests of accomplishing long-term environmental sustainability.

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  9. You said it well about Doha. I lived there for three years. While no one in their sane mind living there will ever agree with what you say fearing backlash from officials (and they will), one needs to think why such “inconsistency in thoughts and actions” takes place in Doha. There lies the culprit – money (vast sum of money).

    The locals are not stupid. They know the only way to buy whatever needed is with cash (and they will for that’s the only way to get international attention and manpower etc). And on the receiving end, you will have money hungry folks, companies and large organisations in every form trying to milk some of it out of Qatar which can be seen in these international forums and global events taking place in Doha. So there is a giver, and there is a taker. When will this ever stop? It won’t let me assure you this. Sad but true. There are however “higher conscious” level folks will never agree to being sold their soul for money. But far in between unfortunately.

    The only way to change all these hypocrisy for the good name of humanity and a better name for Doha will be the locals themselves. To be conscious on their efford (which they have been in many respectable ways) in doing good without ever using money as a weapon to coerce/influence the outcome they needed (and the world needed at large).

    Will they do it? I have my views on this, for sure.

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  10. I am currently working in Doha and would agree on all your description about this place. Social injustice exists here where moslty Indians, Filipinos and other asian nationalities are paid low doing the hard job for the company. In my personal opinion, Qatar has been busy advertising themselves by hosting a lot of international events, hence, COP-18, Arab Games and the FIFA 2022. good read by the way ;)

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  11. Pingback: Top 10 sustainability good news stories of 2012 | PlanetCentric

  12. Johnny

    May they should hold a conference about human rights, equality, freedom of expression, free thinking and bribery in Qatar.
    Because this country does not deserve a place as a global player in this world especially that Qatari leaderships embrace corruption and filth openly..

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