Seeking Progress Toward 2015 Deadline, Climate Negotiators Head to Talks in Qatar

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WASHINGTON, D.C.--International negotiators at two weeks of climate talks that begin in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 26 will grapple with what kind of actions will be required of industrialized and rapidly developing nations in a 2020 global climate deal while also ensuring the extension of carbon dioxide caps under the Kyoto Protocol.

The U.N. negotiations will bring together 195 parties--from wealthy industrialized countries such as the United States to rapidly developing ones such as China to less economically advanced island nations--which have vowed to implement the first truly global climate agreement by 2020.

In Doha and over the next three years, negotiators will sort out what a final 2020 agreement should look like, including nailing down financing for the Green Climate Fund and forest protection efforts. Negotiators agreed at last year's talks in Durban, South Africa, on a 2015 goal for adopting a global deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions, giving countries five years to ratify the measure (35 INER 44, 1/4/12).

Meanwhile, a smaller subset of negotiators must reach a deal to ensure the Kyoto Protocol's next commitment period is in place Jan. 1, 2013. While a number of countries have rejected such an extension, those remaining--mostly European nations and Australia--are expected to reach a formal agreement, perhaps in an amendment to the protocol, to avoid a gap in emissions reductions when the current five-year commitment period expires Dec. 31.

A key sticking point for the Kyoto Protocol negotiators is whether to carry into the next commitment period certain emissions credits known as Assigned Amount Units, awarded years ago to former Soviet bloc nations such as Poland.

Movement Needed From Variety of Countries

Broad progress in the Doha talks depends in part on the commitments industrialized countries such as the United States put on the table--either in new climate funding for poorer countries or in concrete actions to cut emissions--and whether rapidly growing nations such as China and India move toward accepting emissions reductions of their own. While it is unlikely negotiators will find a formula acceptable to both developed and developing nations in Doha, environmental and other groups say significant progress on mitigation is needed to avoid a last-minute showdown over the issue in the 2015 talks.

The 2020 climate deal would represent the first global treaty to include commitments to address greenhouse gas emissions not only from the United States and other developed countries but also from rapidly developing nations such as China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia.

U.N. Official Cites Slow, Steady Progress

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, said in an email to BNA that the climate negotiations “are progressing slowly but steadily” and are prompting many countries to take their own domestic actions to address climate change. “[C]ountries that are on the forefront of developing [environmentally friendly] technologies and changing energy policies will have a big advantage later,” according to Figueres, who oversees the U.N. climate negotiations.

The Nov. 26-Dec. 7 meeting in Doha “will be a success,” Figueres said, although it is not clear “which areas will see the most progress” at the talks. She maintained that “political will is on the rise” for more ambitious global action on climate change (35 INER 1068, 11/7/12).

New Track for Climate Negotiations

The Doha negotiations serve as the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP-18) to the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as the 8th Meeting of the Parties (MOP-8) to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set binding emissions reduction targets for industrialized nations. President Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol and its binding emissions curbs in 2001, and thus the country does not sit in on those negotiations.

The talks toward a global climate deal are being debated under a new negotiating track launched at the 2011 South Africa talks--the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. The Durban Platform negotiations are to determine which issues will be addressed in the global deal, from national actions to mitigate emissions to climate funding to how to transfer clean energy technology to developing countries while addressing intellectual property concerns.

Form of 2020 Deal Undecided

Also up for discussion in Doha--although it is unlikely to be resolved there--is whether the 2020 deal will be a legally binding treaty or some other form of agreement. The Conference of the Parties concluded the 2011 South Africa talks with a commitment to “develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” by 2020, with the term “agreed outcome” inserted largely at the behest of the United States.

There are still several outstanding issues surrounding the Green Climate Fund, which negotiators formally “operationalized” at last year's talks. Most of those questions center on whether countries will provide more specifics on funding the $100 billion-a-year effort, which was announced at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The funding is to come from a mix of private and public sources.

Clear Agenda Needed for 2013

Jennifer Haverkamp, who leads the Environmental Defense Fund's international climate policy team, said environmental groups want negotiators to look past the Doha meeting and provide a clear agenda for 2013. “A big question for us is do they come out of Doha with a clear sense of what they are trying to achieve in the coming year, and right now it's not exactly clear what those issues are,” Haverkamp said.

Regarding the Kyoto Protocol, negotiators in Doha have to reach a formal decision to implement the next round of emissions reduction targets after Dec. 31, when the 2008-2012 commitment period expires. While the protocol's importance in the broader climate negotiations has diminished over time--Canada, Japan, Russia, and most recently New Zealand have all bowed out of a second commitment period--it is still seen as an important bridge to a broader 2020 climate deal (see related story).

Resolving Rift Between Blocs

In the background to all of the U.N. climate negotiations is a continuing rift between richer industrialized and still-developing countries over which nations need to do more to curb emissions and assist those vulnerable to climate change impacts. The United States argues that the 2020 global accord must be “symmetrical” in requiring China, India, and other top emitters to join industrialized nations in committing to significant actions to cut emissions.

Those and other developing nations argue that industrialized nations were responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions historically and thus should have to take on deep emissions cuts first. China and other rapidly growing nations have in recent years shown some willingness to take on commitments of their own--generally, more modest actions than developed nations would take.

Haverkamp of EDF said environmental groups simply “want the U.S. to be an engaged, constructive player” at the Doha talks in pushing for as much ambitious action as possible.

Shifting Source of Emissions

The Obama administration's top climate negotiator, Todd Stern, has repeatedly pointed out that while China had relatively small emissions when the U.N. Framework Convention was signed 20 years ago, it has in recent years overtaken the United States as the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases. By 2030, according to some projections, the bulk of the world's emissions will come from China, India, and other rapidly developing countries, with industrialized nations emitting roughly one-third of the global total.

Meyer and other advocates of a binding 2020 deal agree negotiators need to move beyond the “north versus south” dynamic that assigns commitments to countries “based on where the world was 20 years ago.”

Treat China the Same as Chad?

“But once you do that there are the implications of equity,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists--whether richer, developed nations should have to take more action on climate change, help poorer nations transition to cleaner energy, and provide aid to help those vulnerable to rising sea levels and other climate impacts adapt to those effects.

“The inevitable conclusion is countries like the U.S. have to do a lot more” to curb emissions and assist other nations given their relative wealth, he said.

However, the Obama administration argues that rising global temperatures cannot be slowed with only developed nations taking actions. The United States argues that it is time to differentiate between developing nations.

“The U.S. position is that it makes no sense to treat China the same as Chad,” a comparatively undeveloped nation, under the 2020 climate pact, Meyer said.

Developing Nations' Role at Issue

China and other large-emitting developing nations argue that there should be no distinction among developing nations within the negotiations. They argue that the negotiations should follow the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” set out in the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention, which essentially did not require any developing nations to cut their emissions. The United States argues that the 1992 principle is outdated given the rate of economic growth in China and India, which are today significant contributors of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The United States argues that China must commit to actions on its emissions under the 2020 deal, in part, because a climate treaty without pledges from developing nations would likely be dead-on-arrival in the U.S. Senate.

Distinctions Losing Meaning

Meyer said the traditional distinction between developing and developed countries is harder to make in 2012, citing the host of this year's climate talks, Qatar, a significant oil and gas producer. While considered a developing nation under the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention, Qatar is today among the world's highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gas emissions but also has the world's second highest per-capita income, behind Liechtenstein.

Environmental groups have scoffed at the selection of the oil-rich Middle East country as the host of this year's talks. But Qatar and its neighbors hope to tout their continued efforts to promote energy diversity in the region. Thani al Zeyoudi, the director of energy and climate in the United Arab Emirates' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters on a conference call that the Doha summit is “an opportunity to showcase initiatives and projects” the UAE's six states are working on to diversify their economy.

New Opportunity for U.S. Domestic Action?

Regarding developed countries, President Obama's re-election Nov. 6 is expected to spur calls for the United States to take more ambitious action to cut its emissions and show more forceful leadership in the climate negotiations. Obama attended the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, where he was credited with helping to avert a near-collapse of the negotiations with a “Copenhagen Accord” that called for actions to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels.

But the demise of U.S. cap-and-trade legislation in 2010 has left many nations, particularly developing ones, wanting more ambitious climate action from Obama during his second term.

The president's re-election triggered new interest in a carbon tax, but he and his administration have all but dismissed the idea, and Obama told reporters Nov. 14 that he was “pretty certain” there is not enough bipartisan support in Congress to get one passed.

Modest Short-Term Expectations

Meyer, the policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said short-term expectations are relatively modest for the president but the administration must ultimately confront the issue of climate change.

“I don't think anyone expects the president or the administration is going to drop everything given the fiscal cliff, the prospect of a tax deal, and everything else coming up in the next few months and instead make climate change the priority,” Meyer said. “But the hope is that once you get past this short-term showdown with Republicans and that is resolved in a sustainable way, that this [climate change] will be one of the big items of unfinished business along with immigration reform” in Obama's second term, he said.

Joe Mendelson, the National Wildlife Federation's global warming policy director, said his group remains hopeful that there will ultimately be a bipartisan solution to addressing climate. Mendelson said that was one of the big lessons following the collapse of cap-and-trade legislation, led by Democrats, which passed the House in 2009 but stalled in the Senate in 2010. The bill drew very little Republican support, particularly in the Senate.

“We sort of proved that the route to a solution on this is not through one party,” Mendelson said.

Assigned Credits, CDM at Issue

A key sticking point for the Kyoto Protocol negotiators is a debate over whether to carry into the next commitment period certain emissions credits known as Assigned Amount Units, awarded years ago to former Soviet bloc nations which were still economically depressed. The issue was hotly contested at the 2011 Durban negotiations but left unresolved. Some environmental groups favor eliminating those credits in the years ahead because doing so would likely require more actual reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. Many experts suggest negotiators will agree to allow only a portion of the assigned credits to be carried forward.

Also in the spotlight in Doha will be continuing debate over the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, which allows developed nations to earn emissions reduction credits by investing in low-carbon projects in developing countries. The UNFCCC maintains the CDM projects are one of the most successful aspects of the Kyoto Protocol, with the 5,000th such project registered Nov. 15.

But CDM projects tend to bypass the very poorest countries in favor of somewhat more developed nations that have at least minimal infrastructure.

Qatar Urged to Take Lead Role

Haverkamp, of the Environmental Defense Fund, said she remains confident those and other issues involving the Kyoto Protocol will be addressed so that the agreement lives on after Doha.

“Last year, the rallying cry was that the protocol must not die on African soil--and it didn't die there,” she said. “And I don't think it's going to die in the Qatari sands either.”

Serge Lepeltier, France's ambassador for climate change, called on the Qatari hosts of the climate negotiations to mediate a discussion on how the largest emitters can do more to address the impacts of climate change.

If Qatar takes the lead in that discussion, it “will change the dynamics of the meeting,” Lepeltier told BNA. “[T]hen the two most important countries in this process, the U.S. and China, will no longer have an excuse to do so little,” he said.

By Dean Scott
Contributing to this story was Eric J. Lyman (Rome)

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