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The Eighteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-18) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ended on Saturday, December 8 in Doha, Qatar (a day late and after an all-night negotiating session, as usual for the annual COPs). The 194 countries that are party to the Convention[1] adopted formal decisions to implement a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol; advance the Durban-Platform process; and resolve—or postpone resolving—a number of issues pertaining to how developing and developed countries share the burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change.

COP-18 would surely have been considered a failure if it had not extended Kyoto commitments. Advancing the Durban process, however, was potentially much more important. The Durban Platform, adopted at COP-17 in late 2011, calls for a new multilateral agreement to be completed by 2015 and to take effect in 2020. Under this agreement, developing countries, as well as developed countries, would assume emissions-reduction commitments—though the respective obligations may differ in ambition and character across the two groups. The key flaw in the Kyoto Protocol was in assigning commitments only to developed countries.  Given rapidly rising emissions in the larger developing countries, no such agreement can hope to effectively address climate change in the medium to long term.

Russia nearly de-railed COP-18 by insisting on being allowed to carry over its large account of emissions allowances from the first Kyoto commitment period to the second. This would have severely undermined whatever environmental effectiveness the second period would have had.[2] The UNFCCC COP has never adopted voting rules, and, by default, formal decisions of the COP are adopted only if no party objects—that is, by consensus.[3] In the final session of the COP,[4] Russia attempted to object to the amendment to the Kyoto Protocol that would implement the second commitment period, but the President of the COP,[5] Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, gaveled over the Russian climate ambassador’s request to be heard. This echoed Mexico Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa’s ignoring Bolivia’s objection at COP-16 in Cancun and reflects a broad interpretation of consensus. Such an interpretation was acceptable, in both cases, only after thorough consultations among the President and key parties assured that the objectors would be isolated politically. (In the case of COP-18, Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland shared Russia’s concerns, but it is unclear whether any would have objected independently.)[6]

While almost sinking the Conference, the issue of carryover allowances was unique to COP-18 and the timely need to implement a Kyoto second commitment period. A much more fundamental and long-lived set of challenges to the UNFCCC process has to do with how to share the burden of emissions-reduction and adaptation between developing and developed countries and associated concerns about equity in climate policy and financing climate action. These concerns have been evident in the UNFCCC process since the beginning, at the Earth Summit in 1992, and remain largely unresolved. Indeed, they are evident in all United Nations bodies with universal membership.

This set of associated, chronic concerns manifested in a new and troubling manner at COP-18, in the form of proposals from developing countries for developed countries to effectively insure them against “loss and damage” due to climate change. The issue is legitimate, from developing countries’ point of view. The developed countries are responsible for the majority of historical greenhouse-gas emissions from industry and energy production,7 while many of the developing countries—including the small island nations—are more vulnerable to damages from climate change. The largest commercial re-insurance companies (Munich Re, Swiss Re)—hardly populated by ideologues—are dedicating considerable resources to better understanding how to manage climate-change risk.

However, there are at least two reasons it doesn’t make sense to purse compensation for loss and damage within the UNFCCC. First, more generally, it is impossible to attribute causality for a specific extreme weather event—which, at least in the medium term, will be the proximate cause of damage—to climate change. Second, developed-country governments will not accept such open-ended liability being imposed upon them. It is reasonable for developing countries to continue to seek substantial additional resources for adaptation to climate change, and there are institutional channels under UNFCCC auspices for doing so. The amounts of money involved are subject to negotiation, and therefore at any given time well-defined. Attempting to supplement increased adaptation funding with unfunded insurance is a recipe for gridlock in the UNFCCC.

COP-18’s decision on loss and damage is largely aspirational, but, of particular concern to developed countries, does require (paragraph 9) that the next COP (in Poland in late 2013):

…establish…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;

I would guess that this paragraph may have caused the United States and other developed-country parties to consider a formal objection in the closing plenary.

If developing countries pursue loss and damage vigorously at COP-19, it will surely overshadow attempts to advance the Durban-Platform process, which would be tragic, given the Durban Platform’s promise. It would also, indeed, undermine efforts to secure financing for developing-country adaptation. The latter process is difficult in its own right, especially given developed countries continued economic struggles, but it is one recognized by most parties as legitimate and reasonable.

After every COP, observers wonder whether underlying disagreements over equity and burden sharing can be resolved, at least to the extent that parties can otherwise agree on emissions-reduction approaches that are sufficiently ambitious to prevent disastrous climate change. In the meantime, every year more countries—and sub-national jurisdictions, most notably California— adopt policies to reduce emissions and to provide bilateral assistance to developing countries for adaptation and mitigation. As prominent examples, Australia and, more recently, South Korea have adopted national carbon-pricing systems, and Australia has committed to linking its program with the European Union Emissions Trading System. Norway’s bilateral assistance—like many, in collaboration with the World Bank—has been among the most ambitious.

In addition, multilateral institutions other than (though usually in collaboration with) the UNFCCC are becoming important nodes in a network of climate finance, knowledge, and action. Most notable among these are the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with the associated International Energy Agency, and the World Bank group.

Whether the UNFCCC—and, in particular, the Durban-Platform process—will become truly gridlocked, ceding ownership of international climate policy to a diffuse network of sub-national, national, and multilateral institutions, remains to be seen. The UNFCCC is valuable because of its near-universal membership, which lends legitimacy to its own processes and policies—and to the broader project of addressing climate change. It would be a loss to the world if it was rendered meaningless. The challenge for the UNFCCC, in the near term, is to realistically define what it can and cannot do, given its political and institutional constraints.

Image: jps / Shutterstock.com


[1] The European Union is also a party, separately from its 27 members, for a total of 195 parties to the Convention.

[2] Russia and other former-Soviet and Central-European countries were granted allowances when Kyoto was first negotiated well in excess of what these countries would require for their own emissions-reduction obligations, in order to secure their participation in the Kyoto regime. Russia sees these allowances as financial assets it wishes to retain.

[3] Consensus is different from unanimity. The latter refers to all parties voting in favor—in a system that requires voting.

[4] I know, I know: It’s really the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP), a separate legal entity that meets concurrently with the COP, which is the Convention’s governing body.

[5] Essentially the chairman of the Conference and always a representative of the host country.

[6] It is worthwhile watching the archived webcast of the final formal COP-18 session here.

7. Though if forestry and land-use changes are taken into account, cumulative historical emissions in developed and developing countries are nearly equal. See Höhne, et al. (2010). Contributions of individual countries' emissions to climate change and their uncertainty. Climatic Change, 106:359–391. DOI 10.1007/s10584-010-9930-6.