UN Climate Talks Conclude Leaving Many In Despair

Two weeks of intense, contentious international climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar, ended last Saturday, failing once again to produce a meaningful agreement for curbing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Instead, the 190 or so countries represented at the United Nations gathering (formally known as the 18th Conference of the Parties, or COP 18) decided to buy more time they really don’t have.

They did this by agreeing to extend the largely ineffectual Kyoto Protocol through 2020, but many were surprised they even achieved that. At least the framework for the next agreement is in place, which is supposed to be settled by 2015, and to go into force when "KP2" expires.

The trouble with Kyoto, of course, is that it only covers about 15% of global emissions. 37 developed nations, led by the EU and Australia, signed onto KP2. They agreed to "revisit" their specific emission cut targets by 2014 at the latest.

The US never ratified the agreement because it didn’t impose binding commitments on China and other emerging economies. Plus Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Russia all opted out of the second phase, which was supposed to expire at the end of this year. 

Still, by keeping market-based mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) intact, Kyoto will serve as a basis for a globally binding treaty and a working carbon market in 2020, says the Center for American Progress.

Low Expectations, Little Progress

While no one is really surprised by this latest impasse, the mood at the end of the Doha conference was particularly somber – with some delegates leaving on the verge of tears. And the divide between developed and emerging nations apparently is growing even wider.

That’s because the world is already close to going over the 2 degrees Celsius (2C) increase that all the world’s leaders have pledged to avoid. Indeed, a recent UN report suggests emissions already are 14% higher than they need to be to hold temperatures below the 2C rise.

Everyone agrees the consequences of eclipsing a 2C rise will be devastating from a human and economic standpoint. At the very least, it will cause sea level rise and many more extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, which carries estimated losses nearing $80 billion, and Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines, which left nearly 1,000 people dead or missing even as the talks were happening.

Surpassing the 2C mark will bring food and water shortages, wipe out habitats and coastal communities, cause deserts to spread, and exacerbate the frequency and severity of droughts. The world’s poorest people will bear most of the burden.

"The alarm bells are going off all over the place," says Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We are in a crisis and treating it like a process where we can dither away forever."

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, issued the following statement at the end of the Doha gathering:

“Today we ask the politicians in Doha: Which planet are you on? Clearly not the planet where people are dying from storms, floods and droughts. Nor the planet where renewable energy is growing rapidly and increasing constraints are being placed on the use of dirty fuels such as coal. The talks in Doha were always going to be a modest affair, but they failed to live up to even the historically low expectations.”

“Where is the urgency? The pace of progress is glacial. The inability of governments to find common ground to combat a common threat is inexplicable and unacceptable. It appears governments are putting national short term interest ahead of long term global survival.”

The Koch Brothers Strike Again

At least some of the blame for the ongoing paralysis can be traced back to the US – where Charles and David Koch are spending millions to defeat any piece of legislation or to attack any elected official who threatens the billions that they make from fossil fuels.

The result has been a deadlock that is now casting a pall over international climate policy, suggests a new analysis published by the International Forum on Globalization.

The report, Faces Behind a Global Crisis: U.S. Carbon Billionaires and the U.N, Climate Deadlock, details how Koch Brothers money has stymied the UN climate talks.

"As the top spenders to stop climate policy in the planet’s most polluting nation, the two oil barons from Wichita hold hostage any progress in Washington, and hence any meaningful global deal in Doha," says Victor Menotti, Executive Director of the International Forum on Globalization. "Advancing a UN agreement requires substantial changes in US domestic dynamics to reduce the role of the Kochs, and all private money, corrupting policy outcomes. Setting stronger standards for power plant pollution will be a litmus test."

Adds Meena Raman of the Third World Network and an International Forum on Globalization Board Member:

"The world cannot expect U.S. negotiators to do anything but lead a race to the bottom toward a total climate crisis as long as they speak for their oil billionaires and not for the American people. How many more must die from climate disruptions before U.S. negotiators align their position with the scientific reality that says the world needs ambitious actions to cut carbon now?"

The US "fiscal cliff" situation is also a drag. Since the election, both Democrats and Republicans have virtually ignored any mention of climate change as they bicker over how to handle the massive deficit and seek to avoid $100 billion in automatic spending cuts that will be triggered in 2013 if they don’t reach an agreement.

With those cuts looming, the US refuses to commit to specific financial aid that developing nations need to cope with the impact of climate change.

The US and other wealthy nations have pledged $100 billion per year by 2020 for this purpose. To date, a number of countries (mostly in Europe) have pledged between $5 billion and $6 billion over the next three years.

But they have been vague about how they plan to deliver. Some developing nations, especially a group of Pacific island nations, fear the worst.

"This is not where we wanted to be at the end of the meeting, I assure you," Nauru Foreign Minister Kieren Keke, who leads an alliance of island states, told the NY Times. "It certainly isn’t where we need to be in order to prevent islands from going under and other unimaginable impacts. It has become abundantly clear that unless the work is supported by world leaders, particularly those representing the countries most responsible for the crisis, we will continue to fall short year after year."

In Doha, developing nations were pushing for the creation of a "loss and damage" fund that would help them bear the costs of extreme weather, an idea the US resisted.

In the end, the delegation adopted language acknowledging the need for this support but failed to set up a mechanism for delivering it.

What’s Next?

As the focus of negotiations shifts to a 2015 deal, advocates of stronger climate policy are calling for more ambitious goals by individual nations, especially emerging economies like China, India, South Africa and Brazil.

“What this meeting reinforced is that while this is an important forum, it is not the only one in which progress can and must be made,” says Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the international climate programs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The disconnect between the level of ambition the parties are showing here and what needs to happen to avoid dangerous climate change is profound.”

Denmark’s Energy Minister Martin Lidegaard told Reuters:

"It’s clear to me that this process is the only global framework we have and since this is a global problem, it has to be addressed globally. But obviously, this can’t stand alone. Nations can’t continue to hide behind the process. There’s a direct link between what we deliver at home and here. We desperately need to combine action by regions."

The new binding deal now being negotiated for 2015 will apply to both rich and poor countries – which is an important distinction from the past.

But with many developed nations still in the grip of the global financial crisis, the question of who will pay for these policies to take shape is still very much in the air.

Here are details of the agreement:

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