Where is the leadership at COP18?

La Trobe Institutefor Social and Environmental Sustainability

Blog No.11 – Day 10, COP18. Doha, Qatar.  Wednesday 5 December

By Professor Simon Molesworth

Where is the leadership?

It is becoming increasingly evidence that true leadership is absent from the global UN negotiations regarding climate change. Despite young Arab groups calling on the Arab world to take the lead with banners stating “Arabs Time to Lead”, there is growing frustration within the UNFCCC processes that such leadership is absent. In some NGO commentary over the course of the last week the Qatari president of the COP, HE Abdullahbin Hamad al-Attiyah, has been accused of showing little leadership despite stating on the day he assumed the presidency: “This conference is a turning point in the climate change negotiations. A golden opportunity awaits us over the coming days, and we should not miss it”.

The incoming COP president raised expectations when he said on the opening day: “Our achievements here in Doha will draw upon past success, and I am optimistic about your readiness to work and co-operate with us during the next two weeks. We have to reach an agreement on the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol; build on our progress in Bali; and make progress on our agreement in Durban. We have therefore spared no effort in providing all possible facilities to create a work-friendly environment to achieve the desired results”.  A week later the COP President was then faced with criticism, which first emerged from the media in India, that he was pursuing his own agenda. It was said he was holding secret discussions and was not leading as he should. Obviously very sensitive to criticism of his chairmanship and determined to show that he was truly leading the process for all nations, he held a press conference on Monday of this week, saying that: “We have no hidden agenda, we never work behind the scene … we work transparently. We always talk to all participants; we always get everyone involved in the talks”

But leading by example – by truly taking the lead, separating out from the pack, does not seem to ever be likely. In one sense, one would have thought that this was a prime area of international affairs where a leader of a country might grab the initiative and prove that they have the guts to go in to the vanguard – sadly no. Numerous countries have repeatedly said at the COPs, including Australia, that they will commit to a reduction in carbon emission levels to a certain point, but if there is clear global agreement to go further, then they (these countries holding back) will commit to reductions at a greater level. It seems that everyone is waiting for one or other country, or block of countries, to commit to greater reductions in emissions, yet no one will take the first move.

At previous COPs the EU has appeared to be in the vanguard indicating a commitment to reduce to greater levels than other major developed country emitters, yet at COP18 in Doha the EU has come under trenchant criticism as, in circumstances where the EU has already met previous undertakings to reduce, it is now not prepared to commit to reduce their carbon emission levels beyond their already achieved reductions. So, theoretically, they can now rest on their laurels. Yet European youth groups in particular and global NGOs are responding critically, saying that having led with their target commitments once, it is now time for them to take the lead again and commit further.  It doesn’t surprise me that in the context of the serious financial woes of the EU, or at least the extreme woes of a number of EU nations having a drag down effect on the rest, it was unlikely that the EU would commit to anything adventurous at this COP.

In the mix of issues at this COP is the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol (KP), which was negotiated in principle last year as part of the Durban Platform – with the detail to follow and real commitments to be made this year at this COP. With the US always remaining apart from the KP processes, we now have Russia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand refusing to bind themselves to a second commitment period on the basis that they will not do so unless the major developing country emitters - China and India in particular - enter in to like commitments to reduce. China in return in its rhetoric is constantly demanding that the developed wealthy nations must take the lead and show true commitment. In the context of the Chinese economy predicted to pass the US economy to become #1 soon, such demands are not well heard by the countries now determined to remain apart from the KP processes.

One of the misconceptions that arises out of the observation of this approach (nations deciding not to commit to KP mark 2) is that refusal to sign up to another carbon reduction target necessarily means that the countries concerned are thereby indicating that they are not going to be implementing carbon reduction measures as a consequence of not entering in to a commitment. I have repeatedly heard such erroneous statements mouthed by some politicians back in Australia. Increasingly countries withdrawing from the KP second commitment period, such as Japan, are asserting that by its actions, by programs and promised allocations to the Green Fund they are showing real leadership in any event. In short, the argument in effect goes, that they are responsible global citizens as they are putting in place programs in their own country and in the developing countries they support – all such measures leading to significant carbon emission reductions in any event.

Such an argument has always underpinned the US position remaining outside the KP processes. At all COPs I have attended many Side Events where the US has showcased initiatives both within the US and around the world which are aimed at progressively confronting and addressing climate change. They have repeatedly referred to massive expenditure globally on climate change initiatives, all pursued whilst they continually refused to enter in to KP commitments and so refused to commit to any particular obligation regarding carbon emission reductions. The assertion inherent in this approach essentially being “why do we need to sign up to a binding commitment under the KP or any extension of it, if we are taking the necessary actions anyway”. Not surprisingly there are many views critical of this stance and many question whether any or all of the initiatives being pursued by the US are enough, especially in circumstances where it has remained the largest carbon  emitter throughout  (although soon to be passed by China).          

So as we approach the concluding days of this COP, we observers are wondering whether a “white rabbit” will be pulled from someone’s hat. The Arab youth certainly don’t believe it will come from the COP President’s hat! It has certainly been the case that at the last three COPs our world leaders have managed to put together an “advance” in the closing moments of the COPs. Keeping in mind that all COPs are scheduled to close by about 6pm on the final Friday, I will never forget the image of President Obama at COP15 in Copenhagen working with leaders from a select inner group of key nations throughout the last Friday night and then well in to the Saturday to salvage an outcome, and then facing the challenge of convincing the rest of the world to come on board. Then at COP16 we saw the Cancun Accord negotiated well in to the night after most observers had long before flown away from Mexico. Then last year in Durban, the Durban Platform was wrestled out of the leaders sitting up and around the clock all the way through to the Sunday morning. Photos of some national leaders slumped forward asleep at their desks, confirmed the stress and demand of the closing session of that COP. I can but wonder what awaits us this Friday night.