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Posted by: David Hone

COP18 Climate Talks – The Definition of Insanity?

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Albert Einstein once said that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. So it was that I spent the last few days in Doha, perhaps anticipating that something might just be different this time around – after all there were things to be done and a whole new agreement to be crafted by 2015.

Finally late on Saturday, COP18 came to an end. Two weeks of discussion and negotiation had barely moved the needle, so the challenge to bring the conference to a useful conclusion and at least move the agenda forward somewhat fell on the Qatari President of the COP, H.E. Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah – which is what he did, despite the objections of some parties. At the end of it all, UNFCCC Christiana Figueres tweeted;

“Read how COP18 has opened a gateway to greater ambition and action on climate change . . . .

Some may see this as a rather optimistic perspective on a COP that may well be remembered more for the excellent facilities provided by the Government of Qatar, rather than anything tangible that the countries were able to agree to actually reduce emissions. The outcome could be described at best as administrative. The three objectives I discussed at the beginning of the conference were delivered to some extent, although the Durban Platform did not progress as much as might have been expected, given the tight delivery timetable it has.

  1. The highlight was the agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, which will now run through to 2020. Most commentators made much of the fact that the agreement only included Europe and Australia, but this is a rather unfair representation of the conclusion. True, the coverage is not what it was for the 2008-2012 period, but looking at it from the reverse perspective, only Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand have dropped out. All of the other former Soviet states have remained, as have Switzerland and Norway. Of course the developing countries have remained, but still without commitments other than to make use of the Clean Development Mechanism. The AAU issues were largely put to rest and at least for the time being the agreement leaves the world with the internal workings of a carbon market, but not much else.
  2. The LCA discussion proved to be the most fractious, perhaps because it is home to the financial flows that are now beginning to percolate through the UNFCCC. This shouldn’t be confused with the carbon market financial flows of the Kyoto Protocol and the future New Market Mechanism, but the much anticipated flow of public funds from developed to developing countries. The job of the COP was to bring the LCA to a close, which in turn would make way for a more focussed discussion on the 2015 Durban Platform agreement. But money got in the way. Many parties claimed that the work of the LCA was incomplete, largely because of the fact that the money is hardly flowing and the Green Climate Fund remains uncapitalised. The US argued that this is because the modalities of the fund have not been agreed and complained that where money had been made available, such as through the Fast Start Mechanism, no appreciation was shown on the part of the recipients. In the end, the LCA did close, but mainly through an administrative sleight of hand which relocated most of its activities to various technical groups under the Convention.
  3. Finally, there was the ADP (Durban Platform). The delegates spent two weeks discussing this under two work streams, one which is looking at increasing the level of ambition up to 2020 and a second which is looking more holistically at the structure of an overarching framework. At this late stage, increased ambition through to 2020 seems like a rather pointless discussion. The energy mix for the 2020s is rapidly being cast in stone all over the world, to the extent that only relatively minor changes could now be made. This isn’t to say that we should give up, but we should at least recognise that major initiatives starting today will only bear fruit in the 2020s and 2030s, but not before then. Even a modest energy efficiency initiative could still take a decade to fully play out, given the time for political agreement, national ratification and finally implementation. Gripped by the urgency of the issue, the parties managed to agree the meeting schedule for the period between now and 2015, but failed to take matters further. That amounts to a year lost since Durban, with almost nothing to show in terms of progress. Unfortunately, even the world’s glaciers would consider the pace to be slow.

Perhaps there was a gateway opened to ambition and action, but nobody has passed through it, or seem likely to in the near future. The level of ambition also remains far short of a 2 deg.C trajectory. By contrast, the side event programme was full of national delegates, some who had come from the negotiation meetings, talking about their national programmes. Not surprisingly, the Chinese “carbon market” presentations were packed.

Now comes the sting in the tail – “loss and damage”. I suspect that this is a subject that has had the lid kept on it for some time, but it is in the open now, probably because of the claimed dissatisfaction with the level of funding and financing flowing from developed countries. The final version of the text raises the worrying prospect of the development of a mechanism to address the impacts of climate change. The following two clauses are pretty clear on the issue:

8. Requests developed country Parties to provide developing country Parties with finance, technology and capacity-building, in accordance with decision 1/CP.16 and other relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties;

9. Decides to establish, at its nineteenth session, institutional arrangements, such as an international mechanism, including functions and modalities, elaborated in accordance with the role of the Convention as defined in paragraph 5 above, to address loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change;

Subjects like this have the potential to stall the process for years, although some may argue that the current rate of progress is little better than stalled anyway. It will also get to the issue of apportioning blame, since this is the flip side of “loss of damage”. If there is blame to share, then the only pragmatic way to do it will be on the basis of cumulative emissions, since this is the root cause of the climate issue. Unfortunately nature doesn’t know anything about emissions per $ of GDP, it just sees accumulation. Given current development rates and the size of some national populations, the cumulative national emissions league table is rapidly changing. By 2020, many of the leading nations “to blame” for the state of the climate (at least on the basis of cumulative emissions) will be today’s “developing countries” (some further thoughts on this to follow in a future post).

The parties will convene in Warsaw next year, somewhere in Latin America the year after and possibly in France in 2015 – all that seemed to be agreed without too much fuss. There will be various inter-sessional meetings in the meantime, but if a deal is really going to be agreed by 2015, something remarkable is going to have to happen. We should reflect on the fact that the noisy and messy closure of the LCA was the sad end of a process that started in Bali and was supposed to deliver a global deal. It didn’t. Perhaps Einstein was right.

Image: Climate Negotiations via Shutterstock



Authored by:

David Hone

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member and Chairman of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). Additionally, he works closely with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and has been a lead contributor to many of its recent energy and climate change ...

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December 14, 2012

Charles Weber says:

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      There is very little chance that people will give up there autos until the oil runs out a hundred or so years from now. However, there is something we can do right now to cool the planet down quite a lot. That is plant trees on all public land and perhaps grass or bushes on roof tops. Bare soil warms the climate considerably south of the subarctic. A fringe benefit will be less people starving if nut trees are planted. You may see an article discussing this in more detail in http://charles_w.tripod.com/climate.html  

                              Sincerely, Charles Weber

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December 13, 2012

Rick Engebretson says:

A helpful summary.

As someone who works with the green fields in the background of your photo, I have a different perspective than those shaking hands in the foreground.

While "stick" incentives are not working, "carrot" incentives are doing quite well. The "energy mix for the 2020s is (NOT) rapidly being cast in stone all over the world." Coal is rapidly being replaced by low carbon natural gas for electric generation, with greater versatility. New low carbon fuels are gaining in a rapidly changing transportation mix. A current article on TEC describes new Saudi efforts for solar water desalination. A very long list.

The very last thing innovators need is for the UN to become an energy money manager. The developed countries staying with Kyoto are to be commended for their success and efforts. But it is a reflection of their skills and certainly not their shame at creating victims.

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