Reflections on outcomes: COP18 wraps up.

La Trobe Institute for Social and Environmental Sustainability

Blog No.15 – Day 14, COP18. Doha, Qatar.  Sunday 9 December

By Professor Simon Molesworth 

Reflections on outcomes, small gains & deferred opportunities

This Sunday morning the Australian Government, through The Hon. Greg Combet AM MP, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and the Hon. Mark Dreyfus QC MP, the Parliamentary Secretary for that portfolio, released a joint media release announcing that at the conclusion of COP18, Australia has signed up to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. Prior to the arrival of the Australian delegation in Doha, Qatar, we knew that Australia had decided to sign up for the second period, so perhaps the end result for Australia was a forgone conclusion. However, it was never that simple as one of the key issues during COP18 was whether there would be anything to sign at all, given the determined withdrawal of key nations (Canada, Japan, Russia and our close ally, New Zealand). The other frequently expressed criticism was whether it was even worth signing up, given that it is calculated that the remaining signatory countries now only collectively emit 15% of the world’s total carbon emissions – that is, countries not bound by the KP are responsible for 85% of the emissions and include the US, all the developing nations, including the largest emitters from that category, China and India, and the departing developed countries, such as Russia and Japan.

Yet, despite its modest outcome, given that all could have been lost, I think it was a worthwhile decision for Australia to at least honour its word and show a degree of determination in face of criticism from all sides. This step is part of an incremental move forward, small and most probably insufficient as it may be. As the Ministers confirmed in this morning’s release: “The second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will commence on 1st January 2013 and end in 2020. Australia has agreed a Kyoto target to reduce its emissions in line with the bipartisan target of reducing emissions to 5% below 2000 levels by 2020. Australia retains the option of moving up its 2020 target range of 5% to 15%, or 25%, below 2000 levels if our target conditions relating to the extent of global action are met”. That means, if the greater body of the world’s major emitters decide to adopt more ambitious targets and are prepared to bind themselves to such greater commitments, then Australia is prepared to say it won’t lag behind, but rather will move forward towards 2020 with “greater ambition” – to commit to more ambitious carbon pollution reduction levels. Sadly, the likelihood of Australia’s precondition being met is rather unlikely, unless more cataclysmic climatic disasters, like Cyclone Bohpa, keep on coming until finally the terror of a likely future is confronted as reality.

The Ministers were also correct when they said: “.. it is important that the Doha conference also made progress towards a new global emissions reduction agreement. This was the first year of a four-year negotiation on the new agreement and progress was encouraging. The new agreement will be concluded in 2015 and take effect from 2020”. Whether the agreement eventuates as the Ministers confidently predict, will remain to be seen. They said: “It will be the first international climate change agreement to require action by all major emitters including the US, Japan, India and China. The Doha outcome makes clear that this will be an agreement with legal force and that all countries will be covered”.  
I don’t want to come across as some sort of soothsayer, but I believe we will reach a finalized global agreement in 2015, not so much because there is a current commitment of any strength now at the end of 2012, but rather because there are likely to be so many serious climatic disasters over the next two years and there will emerge so much confirmatory scientific meteorological evidence of the reality that we have just about missed the boat, that finally the unavoidable to will force the agreement we should have achieved well before this. Such is life.

Yet again, like the last three COPs, the final agreement, such as it was, was reached at this Doha COP some 26 hours after the summit should have concluded. The fact is there were still 190 countries still at the negotiating table and as unsatisfactory as it may be in its weakness, the KP is still the only binding UN climate framework agreement in place. As part of the Doha deal, an outline of a workplan was settled which will require nations to start reporting back during the first half of 2013 on the arrangements they are prepared to put in place.

To the critics I say, something is better than nothing as from something you can build up and strengthen. Surely it was better to have Australia and those nations who held similar views to sign up, rather than walk away? The fact is that the inevitability of the 2015 agreement means that inexorably efforts are moving forward. For instance, nations are taking steps: an obvious indicator being the number of countries at either national or regional level which will actually have new emission trading schemes or carbon taxes, akin to Australia’s approach, in place over the next couple of years. In 2013 we know that such schemes will come on line in China, more US States, Canada, South Africa and the Ukraine, joining existing schemes in the EU and other countries. By the time the global agreement comes in to effect in 2020, just on the basis of the schemes known to be in the pipeline, a carbon price will be operating in over 50 major countries, covering about three billion people.     

One of the biggest disappointments was with respect to the Green Climate Fund, although as I indicated in an earlier COP18 blog, in the context of the financial crisis in recent times in Europe, I didn’t come to Doha with high hopes in that regard. Limited financial pledges were made by the developed nations, although the rather controversial, but absolutely necessary work on a new loss and damage mechanism is to begin. The intent of this mechanism is to devise a way by which the hardest hit nations (by climate change disasters) will be compensated by those nations most culpable as the historically highest emitters. However, for the time being, no quantitative pledge on finance was received from the developed nations. (The Green Climate Fund has as its objective, inter alia, to garner sufficient funds from emitting developed nations so that projects can be put in place – such as by the distribution of “fast start finance” to the developing nations most in need of adopting practices that are aimed to mitigate climate change by lessening emissions).  Countries have promised to match the average pledges under the Fast Start Finance scheme, which only reached an average of $11 billion. That figure should be understood for what it is in the context of the Least Developed Countries group seeking $60 billion and the COP15 Copenhagen agreement to reach the figure of $100 billion per year by 2020. Many countries are calling for clarification as to how on Earth that figure will be reached – they seek, to use their term, a “roadmap” to 2020.
Commenting to RTCC Climate Change TV on the deficiencies of this process, a spokesman for Action Aid US, Brandon Wu said: “The Doha outcome completely fails to provide clarity on how these countries will meet this obligation. Lacking concrete numbers and dates, it lets rich countries off the hook and enables them to just kick the can further down the road. Developing countries have no idea whether climate finance will go up or down, or even whether it will reliably flow in the coming years.

The first paragraph of the (Doha Agreement) finance text is a good indication of how utterly weal it is: it urges developed “to announce climate finance pledges when their financial circumstances permit” . This is completely laughable as legal text – its written to be meaningless and is, unfortunately, representative of much of the rest of the finance text in the Doha outcome”.

I agree that in terms of international law, or any law for that matter, such a “best endeavours” clause is pretty weak, but the pragmatist in me asks whether we could have ever got more, without preparing illusionary obligations that might simply be honoured in the breach in the future. With the EU struggling with the bail out of Greece and concerns remaining in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, might it be best to rely on the best of intent. Last Wednesday, the EU climate negotiator Pete Betts, stating the obvious, told journalists: “these are tough financial times in Europe”. Of course, I would have wanted more, but international negotiations require diplomacy and consideration. Without such a stance prevailing, wars have been fought for less in the past.  

As a foot note, given the individual position of Germany and the UK, I think it is worth noting their commitments. Germany will raise to 1.8 billion euros its annual contribution to countries most seriously impacted by climate change. Indicating that Germany believes such financing is crucial for developing countries, it intends to increase its annual aid from 1.4 billion by 400 million euros each year over the next two, indicating that it will be partially financed by the trade in carbon emission rights.  Similarly, Britain has committed to spend around 1.8 billion GB pounds to finance climate change measures from 2013-15. It has unveiled new projects from Africa to Colombia, including a 98 million pound contribution to renewable power generation in Africa. The UK Energy & Environment Minister, Ed Davey, said: “If anything, the science is telling us its now getting warmer quicker than we previously expected”…. (but) “Our actions as a world are going slower than we had previously hoped”.           

More of Simon's blog can  be found at www.latrobe.edu.au/sustainability/news