Deciphering the Doha climate talks

Oped - Dec. 12, 2012 - By Clare Demerse

Published in iPolitics (Dec. 12, 2012).

It wasn’t a breakdown, but it was a long way from the breakthrough we need.

The UN climate talks in Doha wrapped up over the weekend with a deal that delayed many of the tough issues to future negotiations. While countries did the minimum they needed to do to keep the process moving, they failed to push much beyond those bare-bones expectations. And unfortunately, Canada was once again part of the problem.

This year’s negotiations marked the end of the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, so countries had to agree on the targets and rules for a second phase that will run from 2013 to 2020. They also decided on the approach they will take to negotiating a new international agreement that will come into effect in 2020.

But as the Doha agreements note “with grave concern,” there is still a “significant gap” between countries’ pledges to cut emissions and the scale of action we need to tackle climate change. The Doha decisions call on countries to review and increase their ambition to close this gap, but there’s nothing in the agreements that will ensure they do so.

A particularly disappointing aspect of the Doha result was its approach to the question of “climate finance,” which means providing funding to poorer countries to help them adapt to the consequences of a warming world and curb their own emissions. Rich countries have accepted an obligation to provide this support, committing to a total of US $30 billion from 2010 to 2012 and scaling up to US $100 billion a year (from public and private sources) by 2020. Financing has emerged as a linchpin issue at the UN talks, where it plays a vital role of building trust by assuring poorer countries that they won’t be left alone to handle a problem they did little to create. 

With the first tranche of funding ending this year, poorer countries were looking for real commitments for the next phase, and Doha failed to deliver. Despite pledges from the UK, Germany, Norway and others, the talks wrapped up with nothing more substantial than an agreement to keep talking about financing for another year. The delay in providing financing puts developing countries on track for a “climate fiscal cliff” that could put the brakes on essential investments in adaptation and clean energy.    

Doha did make a new commitment to help address the “loss and damage associated with climate change impacts” in poorer countries through an international institution, again with the details to be decided over the coming year. Some of the countries most vulnerable to global warming, such as small island states threatened by rising sea levels, fought hard for that part of the Doha deal. But as the U.S.-based Environmental Defence Fund pointed out, the need to take on loss and damage is part of a disquieting trend at the UN talks: “First the focus was on avoiding emissions. When mitigation efforts proved inadequate, it turned more attention to adaptation. Now, as the effects of extreme weather and rising oceans hit communities from the Philippines to New Jersey, the UN has realized it must begin to grapple with the damaging effects of climate change.”

And that’s the problem with the Doha talks in a nutshell: pushing the process along at a leisurely pace isn’t enough when we need urgent action. Heading into Doha, a series of high-profile reports (including analyses from the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and the UN Environment Programme) demonstrated that the window to avoid dangerous climate change is closing very fast.

With Hurricane Sandy putting climate change front and centre in the U.S., there was hope that the U.S. could raise its game in Doha, and in the process put pressure on some of the other countries that have been seen as laggards – including Canada – to also rise to the challenge this year.

Unfortunately, most of those hopes proved unfounded. While environmentalists described the U.S. performance in Doha as “mixed” at best, Canada’s received even worse reviews, culminating in a tie with New Zealand for the title of “Colossal Fossil” as the countries with the most problematic positions at the negotiations.

Canada’s negotiating team was in a weak position even before the talks began. The government’s decision to drop out of the Kyoto Protocol last year drew a sharp rebuke from the UN’s climate chief. And with growth in greenhouse gas pollution from the oilsands projected to cancel out all emission reductions elsewhere in our economy the government has a huge gap to close to hit its 2020 target. But things took a turn for the worse in Doha where Canada added a hardline position on climate financing to its troubling domestic track record.

The high-level UN climate negotiations always take place near the end of the year, a time when many of us are taking stock and making resolutions for the year ahead. So where does Doha leave us, and what do we need to do to see a better result next time?

For Canada, the path forward is easy to describe. We won’t be credible participants at the UN talks until we adopt policies strong enough to reach our 2020 target. Many countries would like to see Canada take on a tougher 2020 target as part of closing the overall ambition gap – but given the track we’re on now, even hitting our current target would be a big accomplishment.

Environment Minister Peter Kent recognized the gap between the government’s targets and its actions in his closing statement in Doha saying that “more work is required and we will continue to implement strong regulations to achieve the additional reductions needed.”

We can’t get to the 2020 goal without tough rules on greenhouse gas pollution for the oil and gas sector, and that needs to be Environment Canada’s first order of business for 2013.

The right answer for Canada on climate financing is even simpler: re-commit to providing our fair share. In 2013, that means beating – or at least matching – the $400 million a year that the government committed to provide over the past three years. That’s what the Doha text calls on countries to do; given that Canada has weathered the recent global economic downturn much better than some of the countries that did make pledges, there’s no good reason to delay.

Some observers worry that the UN climate negotiations will never deliver what we need. That’s a valid concern, but now isn’t the time to give up on the only truly global forum we have to address a truly global issue. 

Even at their best – which is not what we saw in Doha – the UN negotiations can’t do the hard work for us. That’s because the UN’s effectiveness is intimately related to countries’ domestic efforts: the more action countries are taking on the ground, the better the international talks will go.

If Canada were already a leader in tackling its own greenhouse gas pollution, the government would have nothing to fear from a strong global agreement. But as long as we continue to delay tough decisions at home, it’s no surprise that we try to do the same on the world stage.

Clare Demerse

Clare Demerse was the director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute until 2014.


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