Ever since the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, downplaying expectations ahead of a UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) has become somewhat of a ritual in the media and even among experts – as if everyone had sworn off being optimistic about international climate action altogether. COP 18, which starts today and will last until December 7, 2012, is no exception to the rule. Why would it, given that public mobilization is nowhere near pre-Copenhagen levels, that nearly every party is satisfied with waiting until 2015 to reach a global agreement, and that negotiations are hosted by one of the most carbon-intensive nations in the world, Qatar?
With such a disconcerting lack of political urgency, one could easily come to the conclusion that man-made climate disruption isn’t that much of an existential threat after all. But over the year that has passed since COP 17 in Durban, climate change has shown that it had little intention to wait for the discussions to end before starting to unleash its devastating effects. Scientists are hesitant to point out a causal link between climate change and a specific weather event, as they should be, but the aggregated evidence for 2012 alone is simply too strong to ignore. Just in the last few weeks, a study revealed that the most pessimistic models about the future of climate change have proven to be more accurate than the optimistic ones, while the World Bank pulled the alarm on an ever more likely “4 degrees Celsius world.”
What is especially striking about international climate decision-making is how much it’s disconnected from the scientific and natural timelines. 2015 is the year greenhouse gases emissions must peak and start declining, according to the International Energy Agency, if the world is to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. Ironically, it’s also the year governments have agreed on as a target for the adoption of a global treaty “with legal force” (actual implementation would come even later, in 2020). If anything, scientific expertise is used as a pretext to further delay aggressive action. Many governments are hypocritically waiting for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), released in 2014, to find out what we already know – climate change is happening faster and stronger than predicted, the 2 degrees Celsius objective is sliding out of reach, and the ambition-reality gap is getting dangerously large.
In the eyes of the climate negotiations experts who addressed a young and multinational audience in Paris on October 28th, for the CliMates International Summit, this fundamental mismatch between scientific evidence and diplomatic ambition should come as little surprise. Indeed, climate agreements are not designed to actually work: they are expected to satisfy every party at the table, full stop. Never mind, for instance, that the Kyoto protocol only enforces all-too-modest objectives for a handful of willing countries, representing no more than 15% of global emissions. It stands out as the strongest application to date of the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle, present since the adoption of the UNFCCC in 1992, which, according to many, grants developing (“non-Annex I”) countries the right to sit back and watch as wealthy nations – with some notable exceptions – make the first efforts to reduce their own greenhouse gases emissions. As a result, it has become front and center of the global conversation on climate change. Brazil, not the least progressive emerging economy in climate negotiations, has said it clearly: with the protocol about to expire, there is little room for discussions about the ambition gap or deeper carbon cuts in Doha. In other words, all efforts should be put on prolonging a dying mechanism that does not work.
The shame is that as Paul Watkinson, head of the French delegation for COP 18, noted during CliMates’ panel discussion, when stakeholders actually move on to the implementation step, cooperation is much easier and effective. It is unlikely, however, that we are going to see a lot of action-centered talks at Doha, where the bulk of the agenda is occupied by the old, divisive, mainly virtual issues many got used to being pessimistic about: the extension of the Kyoto protocol beyond December 2012 for a second commitment period (without Russia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and of course the United States and emerging economies); the repartition of financial efforts towards adaptation, to fill up the empty coffers of the Green Climate Fund; and the implementation of the Durban platform, a pathway to a global agreement replacing the rather unsuccessful Bali roadmap, which was aiming for a worldwide binding deal adopted at Copenhagen.
Very few things on this agenda seem to go in the way of more ambitious international action on climate change – actually, if one is to find reasons for hope at the COP 18, it’s probably safer to look for them at the margins. Take, for instance, the peaceful demonstrations led in several countries of the world by the Arab Youth Climate Movement, which highlighted the potential benefits of having Qatar, a highly fossil-fuels dependent nation, host a climate change conference – the first ever held in the Middle East. What some see as a paradox could also be interpreted as good news: that a carbon-intensive country would take the diplomatic chance of hosting high-stakes talks, and temporarily becoming the center of the international conversation on climate change, at the risk of having its own contradictions exposed and denounced, goes a long way in demonstrating that climate negotiations can’t and shouldn’t rest in the hands of a few proactive countries, or become yet another wealthy nations’ club.
Upon receiving civil rights activists at the White House in the mid-1960s, Lyndon Baines Johnson assured them he understood their concerns and the need for action, and then supposedly added: “now go out there and make me do it.” During the CliMates panel, the negotiations experts and officials seemed to suggest just that. UN international climate meetings are bound to disappoint, because they “only” provide a technical and financial frame for action. Worldwatch Institute and countless other actors, for their part, strive to provide innovative ideas to oil the wheels of the process. But who provides indignation and passion? As the climate dialogue deepens and reaches new territories, this question is likely to receive surprising answers. If public mobilization around climate justice in the Middle East doesn’t falter after the Doha talks end on December 7th, it might prove to be COP 18’s most enduring legacy.
Antoine Ebel is a former intern at WorldWatch’s Climate and Energy team, a regular contributor to ReVolt, and CliMates’ Regional Officer for North America.