Doha climate talks: Island states stand up for ambition

“We have not seen concrete progress on the issues that are important to ensuring the survival of all our members. How many conferences do we have to endure where we go back to our countries and say, ‘next year we will increase ambition to reduce emissions, next year we will see finance, next year we will save the climate’? No more next years.”

Sai Navoti, lead negotiator for Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)

The elephant in the room at the Doha climate talks (COP18) is the cavernous “ambition gap” between the pathetically weak pledges on the table and the rapid emissions cuts urgently required to keep global warming below the 2°C limit agreed by the world’s governments, let alone a truly safe global target.

Last year’s conference in Durban established a process to close the ambition gap, Durban Platform workstream 2, yet in Doha it is being sidelined in favor of competing negotiating streams. The state of those other streams has reached a new low: the Kyoto Protocol is set to lock in meaningless targets for its few remaining participants diluted by endless loopholes, Long-term Cooperative Action has devolved into a system of inadequate voluntary pledges, and Durban Platform workstream 1 will not be implemented until 2020 when it will be far too late. An informal note from the Durban Platform chair suggests Doha’s outcome on ambition could consist entirely of planning future negotiations. Indeed the talks may even be going backwards on ambition, with Russia backing away from its pledge to cut emissions 25% by 2020.

Only the Earth’s most vulnerable countries, the small island states, are exposing the emperor’s lack of clothes. “The science is absolutely clear,” AOSIS said in a recent statement. “If emissions are not lowered immediately, the opportunity to avert the worst impacts of climate change may be irrevocably lost.” AOSIS is calling for Kyoto 2 to end in five, not eight years; for there to be no legal gap between commitment periods; for surplus permits to be severely limited; for access to Kyoto offsets to be restricted to those bound by Kyoto targets; and for more ambitious targets from all parties, especially rich countries.

Some have suggested that surplus permits would not be a problem if they were not tradable. Wrong: the very existence of a massive volume of carried-over permits would not only sabotage Kyoto, but also dilute any post-2020 regime, allowing business-as-usual to continue indefinitely. It’s enough to lead AOSIS, normally the most enthusiastic supporters of Kyoto, to question whether Kyoto 2 will be better than nothing.

The Durban Platform resulted from an alliance between AOSIS and the EU, but in Doha that alliance appears to have broken down, with the EU obtusely refusing to understand the importance which AOSIS rightly places on the ambition workstream. The EU is allowing coal-addicted Poland to sabotage its climate policies; refuses to increase its 2020 target despite having met it eight years ahead of schedule; insists that Kyoto 2 must drag on for those same eight years; and is divided on the issue of surplus permits (although to its credit, the UK advocates higher ambition including from the EU).

An unnamed European delegate criticized what they see as AOSIS’s “unwillingness to sacrifice short-term ambition for the long-term common goals of securing a new legal treaty”. The source said: “It doesn’t feel like an effective negotiating strategy, because they are going to be left pretty high with a lot of asks.” What the European delegate fails to grasp is the pressing urgency of rapid decarbonization to stabilize the climate and avoid tripping feedbacks that could lead to catastrophic global warming.

Regardless of the official agenda or negotiating positions, pre-2020 ambition is not just one issue among many at the climate talks. Ambition is the reason these talks exist in the first place: to cut emissions fast enough to avoid “dangerous human interference with the climate”. As memorably put by protestor Abigail Borah in Durban, 2020 is too late to wait. The awaited “new legal treaty” would not come into force until 2020, and even then it is far from certain to be the global binding regime anticipated by the EU. It is extremely misguided to focus on the mirage of a possible future agreement to be implemented when it’s too late. It should be considered a distant last priority unless the implementation date is brought forward dramatically. With climate action, speed and scale are everything; if we’re acting too slowly we can’t meaningfully say we are progressing at all; indeed we take a step backwards every day we delay.

We must remember we are not dealing with abstractions here. An AOSIS representative said today: “If this seems too hardline for you, show me on a map which of our countries you think are expendable.”

Small island states are on the frontline of climate change, but unless we start phasing out fossil fuel emissions now, global warming could threaten all of our survival before too long.

A series of recent reports have sounded the alarm about climate inaction, including several from organizations that are usually conservative. Those activist greenies at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) warn the current rate of emissions intensity reduction is at least six times too slow to limit warming to 2°C. Those radical eco-socialists at the World Bank warn that even if current policies are implemented, we are headed for potentially 4°C of global warming and it could be impossible to adapt to (raising the question of why the bank continues to invest in fossil fuels). And those tree-hugging conservationists at the International Energy Agency (IEA) warn the majority of fossil fuels must be left in the ground to avoid 2°C.

But we already knew all these things from climate science. What I find most concerning is the latest scientific results. Arctic sea ice could disappear within a few years, threatening to set off a chain reaction of tipping points, including collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and large-scale release of carbon from melting permafrost. Greenland is losing ice at unprecedented speed. Permafrost is already starting to release carbon and could eventually emit at the same rate as deforestation. These findings imply we are already entering a period of dangerous climate change, and may be running out of time to avoid large feedbacks. Meanwhile the Global Carbon Project says we are continuing to emit CO2 at an accelerating rate, and the United Nations Environment Program tells us the ambition gap is growing instead of shrinking. In a sane world, we would all be in panic mode!

The situation was neatly summed up by Giles Parkinson at Renew Economy:

The difference between urgency of the need to act, and the inertia of international climate change negotiations has never been so marked, and neither has the gap in expectations between the developed and the developing world, particularly the poorer and more vulnerable nations.

Surprise has been expressed at the rising tensions in these talks, which the developed world had presumed would be merely procedural, tying up loose ends from the messy negotiations at Durban and Cancun so that a path could be cleared to an agreement forged by 2015, for a binding global treaty to come into force by 2020. Of course, this does not come anywhere close to the science. For the most vulnerable countries, as the Greens would say, it threatens to lock in failure, and the developed world appears to have completely misread the mood of its negotiating partners.

As I write this, I understand that earlier today there was a ministerial roundtable on raising ambition. I have seen no news as yet on whether anything was achieved.

A Canadian delegate justified the lack of urgency with the platitude “Rome wasn’t built in a day” – to which I can’t help responding: Rome burned while Nero fiddled.

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