Doha climate talks: battlelines

This is the second installment of a three-part blog post about the ongoing Doha climate talks (COP18). Part 1 recaps the history of the negotiations up to 2011; this part covers this year’s battlelines; and Part 3 outlines my opinion on what should happen in Doha and why it matters.


After governments had loudly proclaimed the Durban Platform as progress, interim negotiations held in Bonn, Germany in May showed countries have very different visions of what it is supposed to produce.

On the ambition workplan (in my opinion the most promising result of Durban), AOSIS and the LDCs rightly advocated urgent action to close the ambition gap before Kyoto 2 targets are set in Doha, and the EU argued global emissions should peak before 2020, but the US argued for any avenue other than a higher target for itself under the UNFCCC, Australia emphasized international emissions trading mechanisms, and India saw the workplan as relating to after 2020, claiming it must wait for the IPCC AR5. India’s position is blatantly obtuse, because the workplan’s reason for existence is clearly to raise ambition now and we don’t need another report to tell us current pledges are utterly inadequate. Small island states took the lead by pledging to cut their emissions by a collective 45% by 2030.

On the platform for a future global agreement, AOSIS, the LDCs, and the EU advocated urgent negotiation of a new protocol (the LDCs also advocated decisions be made by a three-quarters majority instead of consensus), while the US and Australia foresaw a period of brainstorming, and India said the promised “agreed outcome with legal force” could include non-binding decisions. Developing nations defended the sharp distinction between responsibilities of rich and poor, repeating their longtime demand that rich countries cut emissions 25-40% by 2020 (based on the IPCC AR4), while the EU argued for a spectrum of commitments based on evolving responsibilities.

On the second period of Kyoto, AOSIS called for a five-year period to avoid locking in inadequate targets, and for rich countries to cut emissions at least 33% below 1990 by 2017 (their present pledges amount to only 13-18% below 1990 by 2020). Yet the EU continues to insist on an eight-year timeline (albeit with a mid-term review) so there is no gap between Kyoto 2 and the post-2020 regime. Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand missed the deadline to submit Kyoto 2 targets, saying they were still considering whether to participate. Many rich countries who overachieved their targets in the first period, including Poland, Ukraine, Russia, New Zealand, and Australia, lobbied to be allowed to carry over surplus permits, while AOSIS argued carried-over permits should be severely limited and counterbalanced. The surplus could total up to three times the EU’s annual emissions, enough to render Kyoto 2 completely ineffective unless cancelled permanently.

Finally, rich and poor countries remained divided on the LCA track. LCA negotiations are due to be wrapped up in Doha but have not yet delivered what was promised in Bali: there is still no “shared vision” for a global emissions pathway, only voluntary targets for countries which have left Kyoto, weak accounting rules, no money in the Green Climate Fund, and no accordance with the principle of CBDR.

Instead of resolving any of these issues, Bonn descended into procedural quarrels. China, India, and oil-producing states tried to remove the Surinamese chair of the ADP, a member of AOSIS, and replace him with an Indian. The delegates failed to raise ambition, which was reportedly seen as a distraction from negotiations on the post-2020 regime. They failed to agree on any climate funding: the Green Climate Fund’s first meeting was delayed due to disagreement on its board membership, and developed countries described their promise of $100 billion per year as a mere “goal”. They even failed to agree on a timetable for negotiations, though at least the agreed agenda included the workplan on ambition.


Another interim conference in Bangkok, Thailand in September, after being very nearly cancelled due to budget constraints, was a similarly unproductive talkfest, but there were a few new developments.

The US backed away from the 2°C goal just a couple of years after agreeing to it, arguing a bottom-up process of voluntary pledges is more likely to work (an argument that has some merit if the alternative is unilateral leadership and activism, but not when the alternative is the unilateral avoidance and delay practiced by the US). The US argued the ADP outcome must be “flexible” instead of legally binding. The US and New Zealand even argued for “flexibility” on emissions accounting. Meanwhile, Japan and Russia lobbied for countries leaving Kyoto to retain access to its offsets, a push opposed by developing countries.

Tantalizingly, India released a draft five-year plan proposing both domestic climate action and agreeing to a global emissions cap before rich countries accept binding targets, which if borne out would be a major shift in India’s position. And former Bolivian negotiator Pablo Solon said it is time for the BASIC countries to accept binding targets as well as rich countries.

Bangkok also saw the appearance of a new negotiating bloc called the Like Minded Group (LMG), encompassing emerging Asian economies, the Arab Group, and some South American countries. The LMG advocated a strong Kyoto 2 with maximum participation of rich countries, ambitious top-down targets, common accounting rules, no loopholes, and no new market mechanisms. However, the fact that the group includes some oil countries casts doubt upon their motives.

Bangkok split the ADP into two streams, “ambition” (accelerating near-term emissions cuts) and “vision” (designing a post-2020 regime). AOSIS rightly argued the former must be prioritized, because the latter will not be implemented until it is too late. The divide on LCA came into sharper focus, as rich countries delayed progress and advocated moving its unresolved aspects to the new ADP track (apparently because the Durban Platform contains no mention of CBDR), but poor countries argued they should finally be resolved before ADP negotiations advance.

Bangkok resulted in no progress on LCA. Serious ADP negotiations are not expected to begin until 2013, though many countries suggested constructive ideas (eg. Ecuador proposed an international climate justice court). Delegates did produce an unofficial list of proposals for Kyoto negotiating text, focusing on how Kyoto 2 could provisionally apply to prevent a gap between the two commitment periods before being ratified and officially entering into force, but none of the important disputes affecting its integrity were resolved. Again, no new emissions cuts were agreed.


The positions of most players going into Doha were pretty familiar. When Barack Obama was asked about climate change in a recent press conference, he responded that economic growth is more important and he’s not sure how much voters are prepared to do. There was a rumor the US wanted to shift climate talks to the 19-member Major Economies Forum, which excludes AOSIS and the LDCs; the US has denied this, saying it will try to make progress through many forums including the UN. Meanwhile the emerging economies continue to deny any obligation to act. The BASIC bloc continues to defend the principle of CBDR, saying the impetus is on rich countries to sign up to ambitious Kyoto 2 targets. I agree to a point, but not with India’s support for an eight-year Kyoto 2, or Brazil’s position that Kyoto should be prioritized over ambition, and ambition can wait until “during negotiation of the next protocol”. In contrast, AOSIS rightly says Doha will have failed if countries do not increase their short-term ambition to cut emissions long before 2020, continues to advocate a five-year Kyoto 2, and calls for a shared vision under LCA that global emissions will peak by 2015.

After presenting a united front in Durban, the EU could be divided in Doha. At a recent European Council meeting there emerged an “east-west divide” over whether surplus permits should be carried over. Whereas many western European countries want to present themselves as leading the world on climate, eastern European countries have lots of surplus permits because their emissions shrank after the dissolution of the USSR, for reasons unrelated to climate policy. Most blatantly anti-climate-action is coal-addicted Poland, who recently argued humanity should plan to adapt to 6°C of global warming!

The EU has already met its 20% target eight years ahead of schedule, so inscribing it in Kyoto will lock in eight years of inaction. Yet in Bangkok an EU official claimed the prospect of the EU raising its 2020 emissions reduction target from 20% to 25% or 30% was “wishful thinking”. The EU officially denied this, but confirmed they will not raise ambition this year (which is when it most matters). They claim it is impossible because of Poland, which has single-handedly vetoed an increased emissions target, an increased renewable energy target, and all attempts to fix the surplus. However, AOSIS pointed out the EU recently made a fiscal agreement excluding two of its member states. Furthermore, when WWF requested documents from the EU Council of Ministers outlining its procedure for adopting decisions, the Council responded that it was “unable to identify” its own procedure, implying Poland does not legally have the right to veto.

There was much fanfare when Australia announced, three weeks ago, that it intends to sign up to Kyoto 2. What has received less attention is how ludicrously meaningless Australia’s commitment is. Firstly, the target Australia proposes is – prepare to be underwhelmed – 0.5% below 1990 levels averaged over 2013-2020 (equivalent to 5% below 2000 in 2020). Secondly, as pointed out here, Australia’s main motivation for remaining in Kyoto is to have access to its offsets, which will help us avoid decarbonization here in Australia. Thirdly, our commitment remains conditional on Australia getting its way on a litany of issues, almost all of which Australia is on the wrong side: an eight-year Kyoto 2, carryover of surplus permits, continuation of the “Australia clause” that allows creative accounting on land use, access to international carbon markets, and progress on the mirage of a post-2020 agreement. It’s rather like saying you’ll only turn up to the Olympics if you’re allowed to take steroids. Fourthly, though Australia leaves open the possibility of increasing its target, that is only in the unlikely event of a highly demanding set of conditions being met, and appears to altogether rule out targets more ambitious than 25%, both of which could limit the Climate Change Authority’s ability to recommend deeper cuts. (On a side note, Australia said in the same announcement it will delay application of the latest science on the relative heat-trapping potential of greenhouse gases until 2017-18.)

Meanwhile, New Zealand and Turkey joined the US, Canada, and Japan in refusing to take part in Kyoto 2 (the US never ratified the original Kyoto and Canada dropped out last year). These countries claim they remain committed to their 2020 pledges but refuse to make them binding. Their excuse is that Kyoto does not cover developing countries, a complaint that is hard to take seriously coming from countries refusing to be covered themselves. Meanwhile, Russia might participate if it is allowed to carry over surplus permits and access Joint Implementation offsets. Thus it looks like a Kyoto 2 without surplus permits would include at most the 27 members of the EU, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Switzerland, Norway, Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Monaco, totaling less than 15% of global emissions (and none of these countries can be considered definitely on board until the decision is signed and ratified).

In the first week of Doha, reports say the Saudi Arabian chair of LCA negotiations proposed a controversial draft text which was rejected by the US. That document seems to be this one, which surprisingly calls for global emissions to peak by 2015 or 2020 and rich countries to cut emissions at least 40-50% below 1990 by 2020. American delegate Jonathan Pershing reportedly told the conference the US cannot agree to deep emissions cuts because it would not be able to get them through Congress. Pershing claims the US is already taking “enormous” action; in reality its target is a mere 4% below 1990. Meanwhile, the US and New Zealand said Doha should not agree common accounting rules; Canada said it will not cough up any climate finance until there is a global agreement; New Zealand argued countries outside Kyoto should be allowed access to its offset mechanisms; and Australia supported carrying over surplus permits. Delegates have discussed possible compromises on surplus permits; suggestions include capping their number or restricting their uses.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Minister Greg Combet, and even Greens leader Christine Milne will not be attending – just Parliamentary Secretary Mark Dreyfus. Combet says he can relax after the work he’s done in 2011-2012, despite having achieved very little.

Yet again, our so-called leaders are utterly failing to engage with the greatest threat that humanity faces.

In Part 3, I give my opinion on what should happen in Doha and why it matters.

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