Doha: Loss and damage in the desert

The UN's Groundhog Day climate negotiations could be stuck in a holding pattern through to 2015

10 Dec 2012, 13:33

"Loss and Damage", has there ever been a more resonant phrase to describe the potentially catastrophic impact of the climate crisis?

The loss of the benevolent and predictable climate that enabled the millennia-long development of our civilisation and the damage that will be wrought by disruption to that climate should dominate every waking thought of the diplomats and ministers tasked with delivering an international climate change deal. And yet last week's Doha Climate Summit only managed to deliver progress so negligible that even the UN's most ardent cheerleaders were forced to admit it amounted to no more than a "modest" shuffle forward. Forget climate loss and damage for a second, we deserve compensation for the loss and damage to the standing of international diplomats that these negotiations continue to inflict.

With the ink drying on the so-called Doha Gateway agreement, it is tempting to assess what exactly has changed. The answer is not very much. The Kyoto Protocol was extended, largely as expected without an increase in ambition, but with a fudged agreement to try to deal with the problem of surplus carbon allowances; a handful of new funding pledges were made, but they fell well short of what is being demanded by developing countries, meaning the row over the level of current funding and the operation of the new Green Climate Fund will continue; there was some important progress on rationalising the talks onto one negotiating track, providing a pathway towards the promised 2015 international treaty, but all the key issues that will shape any 2015 deal were kicked into the long grass; and we saw a tangible shift in the debate around climate aid towards the new concept of "loss and damage".

It really is not much to show for two weeks of late nights and diplomatic manoeuvring, particularly given the extension of Kyoto, the commitments on funding, and the roadmap to a 2015 deal were basically agreed last year. If you had asked a journalist or analyst covering the long-running negotiations to write a story a month ago on what the final agreement would look like, they almost certainly would have come up with a report that looked exactly like those filed over the weekend.

So what have we learnt from the two weeks the world's climate diplomats spent in a country with one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world?

First, if you set expectations for climate summits too low ministers will do their upmost to ensure they are not exceeded. If the Cancun Summit did a good job at repairing confidence in the wake of the perceived failure of the Copenhagen Summit, and last year's Durban talks made important progress in getting the negotiations moving in the right direction, Doha was hamstrung by lowly expectations from the moment the Durban Platform was signed.

As many commentators feared, the setting of a 2015 deadline for reaching a new climate agreement has simply enabled four years of delays as officials push conversations marked "too difficult" along the road to the 2015 showdown. With the Durban Platform agreeing any 2015 agreement will not actually be enacted until 2020, there must also be very real concerns the talks could be stretched into the later half of the decade.

Secondly, while the sleep-depriving format for the annual UN Summits remains as dysfunctional as ever it is equally clear that ambitious action is impossible without a fully committed and competent host.

The Qatari hosts should not shoulder all of the blame for the failure of the Doha Summit to deliver more progress. After all, the world's most talented diplomats have spent years largely failing to wring more progressive positions out of the US and Chinese governments. But the complaints from participants and observers at the talks about the poor organisation and failure to generate a sufficient sense of urgency were too widespread to be ignored. Qatar and other Gulf States had an historic opportunity to back up their recent investments in clean energy with the kind of emission reduction commitments and climate funding pledges befitting of the world's richest nations – they fumbled the chance and with it the perfect opportunity to be seen as part of the solution rather than part of the problem when it comes to climate change. Green businesses and NGOs will be forgiven for feeling nervous at the prospect of climate laggard Poland hosting next year's summit.

Thirdly, a new front in the ongoing battle between rich and poor nations has been opened up with the commitment to address "loss and damage". It has the potential to make or break the talks.

In many ways the new clause is simply a cosmetic makeover of the ongoing negotiations about climate funding and the extent to which rich nations should pay to help developing countries reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change. But the emotive phrase and the clear implication that losses should be compensated threatens to open up an entire Pandora's Box of claim and counter-claim.

Poorer nations, many of which are seeing their long term viability as nation states threatened by climatic changes they are in no way responsible for, have a powerful and compelling case for reparations. But the US (and other industrialised nations who will be happy for the Americans to adopt the position of bad guy on their behalf) will never submit to an agreement that opens the way for compensation payments. Unless negotiators can quickly find a way to deliver a significant increase in climate funding pledges and ambitious new emission reduction commitments from large economies then we could be in for years of increasingly intense recriminations over "loss and damage".

Finally, the lack of progress in Doha confirms once again that the UN negotiations are a side-show to the serious business of delivering the low carbon economy that will give politicians the confidence they need to deliver a global deal.

This morning I looked back at the blog post I wrote in the wake of last year's Durban Summit. I could have today simply substituted Durban for Doha and republished it:

"It is tempting to measure the success of the successive Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban Agreements against the ambition displayed in their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But this is overly simplistic. Any eventual international treaty that contains commitments, legally binding or otherwise, to deliver deep cuts in emissions will only represent a statement of intention...

The real measure of success for international climate talks in general, and the Durban Summit in particular, is whether they drive the response to climate change in terms of increased investment in emission reduction and adaptation measures, and whether they address the 'carbon leakage' that could see carbon intensive businesses from low carbon economies relocate to those regions not taking action to curb emissions.

The aim of the COP summits should not be to simply set emission reduction targets that the international community would then struggle to enforce, but to provide the policy direction and certainty necessary to drive global corporate investment in the technology and infrastructure necessary to cut emissions."

Against this crucial measure, Doha delivered some extremely modest progress in the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and the ongoing commitment towards a 2015 deal.

Across the political, corporate and civil society attention must now turn to that 2015 deadline and ensuring the conditions are in place to deliver a meaningful treaty.

The former head of the UN climate change secretariat, Yvo de Boer, once told me the reason the 2009 summit fell short of its goal was that there was not quite enough confidence among world leaders that the low carbon economy could deliver without compromising development efforts and living standards.

The job of progressive businesses the world over is to spend the next three years demonstrating once and for all that the transition to a low carbon economy is not just possible, but desirable. Because without that breakthrough we will all have to resign ourselves to a lot more loss and damage.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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