17 September, 2012

Doha: the long way to a new Climate Deal


Sergio Abranches

After a week of informal conversations in Bangkok, Thailand, negotiators already know what stumbling blocks they will face on the way towards  a successful meeting of the parties to the Climate Convention, COP18, in Doha, Qatar, November 26 to December 7. Most of the obstacles come from an old quarrel between the US and Europe, on the one side, and China, India and Brazil, on the other, on the meaning of the principle of common but differentiated obligations under the Climate Convention.

Negotiators who participated to the Bangkok talks told me they were quite satisfied with progress towards closing the loopholes on the agreement on a second period of commitment for the Kyoto Protocol. But they’re worried with the still existing deadlocks on the conversations to close the details for an agreement on Long-Term Climate Action (LCA). Both belong to an agenda scheduled to be closed in 2009 at the Copenhagen summit.

Meanwhile, a third line of negotiations has already started that presupposes an end of these two other lines that belong to the pre-Durban Platform agenda, they explained. This third parallel group is discussing a plan for implementation of the process leading to a new global climate change agreement binding all countries that has been decided at COP17, in Durban, South Africa, last year.

What the parties have decided in Durban was that in Doha the long overdue job of these two Working Groups should be closed, and the groups dismissed: the AWG-KP – set up at the Montréal Climate Summit, COP11, in 2005, to negotiate a second period of commitment under the Kyoto Protocol –, and the AWG-LCA – created by the Bali Action Plan, at COP13, in 2007, to “conduct a comprehensive process to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention through long-term cooperative action, now, up to and beyond 2012”. In Bangkok, China and India have used a set of clever arguments, according to a diplomat, to stall the negotiations to complete LCA’s job. The duration of both groups have been successively extended since Copenhagen due to deadlocks preventing negotiators to close a final deal under each one’s job definition, or mandate.

From the Doha Summit onwards, countries should dedicate their time solely to the tasks set by the Durban Platform. In Doha, the the expected outcome according with the Platform should be to approve a work plan for 2013 and 2014 to implement the process leading to a new legal instrument on climate change. This means to agree on the form and content of a new global deal to be approved in 2015, and to be in force by 2020. Negotiators are also expected to start discussing how they will review the emissions reductions targets presented at the Copenhagen Summit, COP15, and adopted by the Cancun Agreements, at Cop16, as a legal, although not binding, decision under the Climate Convention. This review should be based on IPCC’s new report on the state of climate science to be issued in 2014.

Some of the diplomats that were at the Bangkok talks say that they sensed a convergence towards a new protocol to be adopted by 2020. This convergence, they claim,  raises the importance of formally approving the second period of commitment for the Kyoto Protocol in Doha, because it would keep standing the legal framework and the instruments upon which the new and more encompassing protocol could be built.

But several countries are still against a new protocol, claiming that this was not agreed upon in Durban. The phrase approved in the early morning of Sunday, December 11, last year, after three sleepless nights of negotiations, is rather ambiguous on the status of the new agreement. The decision was to “develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force”. One of the difficulties in Bangkok came directly from disagreement among countries regarding how to implement the decision to “launch a process” to develop this legal instrument. Europe and some other countries would like to start negotiations by defining the legal nature of the outcome: a protocol. China and India negotiators, among others oppose this starting point, and are not ready to accept negotiating a new protocol. They propose, instead to start the process by discussing what substantive subjects should be included in the new agreement, before defining its legal status. The reason is that only at the table of conversations about the Durban Platform many countries came to realize how far it could go. They need time to fully evaluate how deeply its future consequences and implications could impact their domestic policies.

The most optimistic diplomats think that Doha’s COP18 could be the last of a cycle of negotiations that has begun in the early 2000’s. The Durban Platform should start a new cycle of negotiations leading to a new global climate deal to be closed in 2015 and implemented by 2020. The first delicate task would be reinterpreting the principle of “common but differentiated obligations”. The understanding that lead to the Kyoto Protocol was that this principle implies legally biding obligations to developed countries, and voluntary actions by developing countries. This interpretation precludes a new agreement that would be binding to all. Some diplomats are proposing a paradigm shift that would reinterpret the principle as “common and binding obligations to all, but quantitatively differentiated by level of development and degree of emissions of greenhouse gases”. “Common legally binding obligations to all” is a sine qua non for the United States to ratify a new protocol. The main target here is China. “Quantitatively differentiated obligations” is a formula aimed at convincing China, India, Brazil, and some other countries to accept legally binding obligations, knowing they will not be required to meet the same targets ascribed to developed nations. This will very likely be the core of the major political confrontations at the next climate summits, from COP18 in Doha this year to, at the very least, COP21, in 2015, whose host is not yet defined.

In Doha, negotiators will try hard to close the job of the two long-standing workings groups on the Kyoto Protocol, and on long-term climate action. Their idea is that from Doha onwards they should only deal with the process  to develop the terms of a new agreement, and to prepare for the review of emissions targets offered in Copenhagen, and legally adopted by the Cancun Agreements, by 2014, on the light of the results of the IPCC new report, to be issued on September of this same year.

Closing the serially extended working groups would create the basis for a series of concrete actions to 2020 that would strengthen UNFCCC, a negotiator told me. Among them the full implementation  of the Green Climate Fund – with donors’ actual contributions –; of the fund and plan for the adaptation of vulnerable small nations to climate change; and to put in place the Climate Technology Center and Network. They are all part of a delayed agenda, already decided since the Bali Roadmap of 2007.

Several negotiators are convinced that the 2014 release of the new IPCC report on climate change will give a boost to global climate negotiations, and they would like to invest in preparedness in 2013 and 2014, to fully profit from this push when the time comes. This means to pave the way towards a new agreement by changing some conceptual paradigms that have led negotiations on the past agenda, and preparing the technical and substantive elements of a new climate deal, leaving the hottest political issues to be settled at the end, perhaps by 2015.

The Bangkok meeting has also revealed new divisions within the G77+China aggravating a crisis that has been apparent for at least half a decade. I wrote about the crisis within G77+China, an enormous agglomerate of countries with disparate interests, on my book Copenhague Antes e Depois (Copenhagen Before and After), published in Portuguese in 2010, and also here. Even among the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China)  there are sharp divisions regarding the next decisive steps of negotiations under the Climate Convention. The BASIC countries will convene this week in Brasilia, to try to find a common ground for Doha, and will have a second meeting, prior to COP18, in Beijing.

COP18, in Doha will be threading a narrow path between a stalemate that would make it a void dot on the agenda of climate politics, and successfully closing a cycle of climate negotiations, becoming a landmark in the history of global climate politics. Whether it will flop, or mark the end of a long diplomatic cycle we will only know perhaps in the first hours of Sunday, December 9.

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