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.