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Issues to Watch at the Doha Climate Negotiations (COP 18)

As the U.N. climate change conference in Doha, Qatar (COP 18) rapidly approaches, the urgency of climate action has never been more evident. Extreme weather has wreaked havoc in many corners of the globe, most recently with Hurricane Sandy, which resulted in loss of life and severe economic hardship in all the countries in its pathway. Many countries—from the United States to those with far less capacity to respond—are still trying to comprehend what happened and how much it will cost to get back to normal.

They also understand that this just may be, to quote New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, “the new normal.” The World Bank Group has just released a shocking report of what a world that is 4 degrees Celsius warmer would look like. We must hope that when delegates arrive in Doha, they grasp the urgency of this issue, recognize the immediate and far-reaching threat to human security, and summon the necessary political will to craft an ambitious and equitable global response.

What Can We Expect This Year as Countries Meet for COP 18?

Last year’s meeting in Durban, South Africa was a potentially important turning point, launching a new round of negotiations to create a legally binding international agreement by 2015 to limit global average temperature increase to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. However, after three consecutive years of rather “big moment” COPs, Doha is more about giving operational momentum to the decisions reached in Durban. COP 18 will likely confirm the design of a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, bring some long-standing work streams to a successful close, and set the parameters for the negotiations leading to a new international climate agreement in 2015.

What Is Being Discussed and Finalized This Year?

  • Ambition: How much more ambition will countries be able to muster? The Durban Platform created a “pre-2020” work plan to raise the level of ambition, noting the existing gap between what emissions reductions have been pledged and what’s actually required to meet the 2-degree target. Beyond countries committing to increase the ambition level in their current pledges, this could include new pledges from countries that have yet to commit, such as the host country and others in the region; an agreement for strong rules on accounting and the carbon market to avoid double-counting; and groups of countries committing to go further faster.

  • Climate finance: Always a priority for developing countries, there are three key elements to finance: First, ensuring the new Green Climate Fund (GCF) is ready for action and can begin implementation. Second, with fast-start finance ending in 2012 (see WRI’s assessment of these pledges) developing countries are asking what comes next, particularly how developed countries are going to meet the $100 billion goal they committed to at COP 15 in Copenhagen. Watch out both for pledges for the medium-term and a work plan for long-term finance that includes some innovative mechanisms to scale up. Finally, countries need to agree on how to make climate finance more transparent and how to track the finance that countries have pledged.

  • Transparency and accountability: In order for countries to know whether they are effectively reducing emissions, so-called transparency and accountability rules are imperative. A core part of the negotiations since 2009, COP 18 has to finalize the details on items such as the biennial review; what domestic measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) systems might do; and common reporting/accounting standards. This debate plays out in two places: First is in the Kyoto Protocol, which is up for a second commitment period and includes strong accounting standards. With Australia’s recent announcement that it, too, will place its 2020 target in the Protocol, Kyoto’s institutions become ever more important. Second is in finalization of the Cancun Agreements where, for example, countries need to agree on the details of transparency provisions around developed country biennial reports and how the international consultation and analysis for developing countries is going to function.

  • Carbon markets: The issue of carbon markets will also be in play in Doha, but rather than wrapping something up, it is more about beginning something new. Currently the carbon market has a bit of a “wild west” feel to it. While it is positive that countries around the world such as Australia and South Korea are starting domestic carbon trading schemes, it remains unclear whether those schemes could link with each other. Will there be common rules for offsets? An international transaction log to keep track of trades and avoid double or triple accounting? While much of this will be discussed in the new market mechanisms group, it is likely that many side events and conversations will circle around this question.

  • Forests / REDD+: Negotiations around Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) will continue, with a focus on a “results-based” vision and funding to back it up. Negotiators recognize that reducing such emissions requires keeping the bigger picture (i.e. poverty, adaptation, biodiversity) in mind, and are trying to figure out the best way to capture this holistic view without creating an impossible system. In addition, given that selling emissions reductions as offsets is not likely to be a primary source of finance in the near future, the negotiators are discussing whether there may be other types of finance that are effective for determining performance, but have lower transaction costs.

  • Adaptation: The issue of adaptation remains central for the most vulnerable countries in the negotiations. A number of key issues need to be finalized, including National Adaptation Plans, which should outline mid- and long-term plans that promote good governance as a foundation for adaptation and integrate adaptation into key sectors.

The Plan for the 2015 Agreement

However, we all know that current actions are not adequate, and the world needs a game plan with clarity of how countries are going to join together and tackle the climate change problem. Therefore, in addition to finalizing the rules noted above, two of the major issues of this COP will be both how countries will negotiate the 2015 Agreement (i.e., the work plan for the coming years) and what will be in that Agreement.

Of particular importance is how the U.S. team approaches Doha. After a win in the election, one would hope that the Obama team comes refreshed with a new strategy, stating that it is indeed committed to keeping global average temperature increase below 2 degrees, outlining how the administration will use its executive authority to meet and beat its 17 percent emissions-reductions target, and making it clear that it will adopt an economy-wide target in the post-2020 agreement. All eyes will also be on China and its new leadership, observing whether it will move the country faster and further toward a low-carbon economy. Strong statements to that effect would encourage many countries and increase the probability of success. And last but not least is the “Durban Alliance” of the European Union, the Least Developed Countries, and the Alliance of Small Island States. Let’s hope they can stick together despite some differences to ensure the new agreement delivers what it needs to for the planet.

One issue will be discussed across the entire COP 18 spectrum, and that is equity. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC) has been a fundamental element of the Convention from the beginning. A successful agreement in 2015 will need to preserve the underlying notion that those with the capacity to take bold climate action should go further faster, while acknowledging the need for all countries to address what is the most pressing global problem of our time. Negotiators in Doha will need to think creatively about a work plan that will progressively operationalize equity and CBDR-RC in a manner that can secure buy-in across all Parties. This is a difficult but necessary task.

With climate change’s impacts already being felt through wildfires, drought, sea level rise, and other recent extreme weather events, the stakes for action have never been higher. Hopefully Doha can set the world on track for success so that worst effects of climate change—and the costs to so many—can be avoided.

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