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Reflections on COP 18 in Doha: Negotiators Made Only Incremental Progress

This piece was written with analysis from Athena Ballesteros, Edward Cameron, Yamide Dagnet, Florence Daviet, Aarjan Dixit, Heather McGray, and Clifford Polycarp.

Expectations were low for this year’s UNFCCC climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar (COP 18), which concluded last week. It was scheduled to be a “finalize-the-rules” type of COP, rather than one focused on large, political deals that went into the early hours of the morning. Key issues on the table included finalizing the rules for the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period; concluding a series of decisions on transparency, finance, adaptation, and forests (REDD+); and agreeing on a work plan to negotiate a new legally binding international climate agreement by 2015. The emissions gap was also front-and-center, as the new UNEP Gap Report showed that countries are further away than even a year ago from the goal of keeping global average temperature rise below two degrees C.

In the end, countries were successful in making progress, but only incrementally. The lack of political will was breathtaking, particularly in light of recent extreme weather events.

Here’s a look at what happened across nine key issues that were on the table:

1) Durban Platform

Along with the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, the Durban Platform was the star of 2011’s COP 17. Two main components make up the Platform: increasing ambition immediately and negotiating a new legally binding international climate agreement by 2015 for the post-2020 time period.

COP 18 continued with these issues. In regards to increasing ambition before 2020, some countries—such as the Dominican Republic and Lebanon—did come forward with ambitious new pledges to reduce emissions. This was a welcome surprise, but the hope that Gulf region countries would take such a step unfortunately never came to fruition.

In order to try to build pressure for greater ambition, the Secretary General will host a heads of state summit in 2014. Hopefully this will inspire countries to put more on the table by then. This summit corresponds with an important review of implementation under the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the release of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

Since 2005, countries have been negotiating in two tracks – the Kyoto Protocol and the Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) group. As of Doha, those two tracks are closed—importantly, countries can now focus their full attention negotiating a new 2015 agreement under the Durban Platform. The basic outline of the agreement details three core components–legally binding, widest possible participation by all Parties, and staying below 2 degrees C—even possibly 1.5 degrees C. In Doha, countries agreed that 2013 should focus on a few key issues. They agreed to submit their positions on items like what other agreements the UNFCCC can learn from; what the scope, structure, and design of the agreement should be; and importantly, which principles should guide the agreement. This latter point enables a discussion on equity (see below), which remains a core principle and discussion in these talks. There will also likely be additional sessions in 2013, enabling countries to go deep and figure out how they will move forward together.

2) Kyoto Protocol

At COP 17 in Durban, the EU agreed to a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (KP2), but there was no time to finalize all the rules. In Doha, the rules for that second commitment period were finally agreed upon, allowing it to move forward for another eight-year period (2013-2020). While countries who have joined this second commitment period (including the EU, Australia, Switzerland, and Norway) only contribute 15 percent of global emissions, this is an important step in that it maintains the only legally binding instrument under the UNFCCC.

With the new legal arrangement, these countries will be able to begin implementing their new commitments from January 1, 2013 without any gaps. KP2 also features an ambition trigger, which requests that KP2 Parties revisit and increase their commitments by 2014 (rather than 2015) in line with the 25-40 percent emissions reductions called for by the IPCC 4th Assessment Report. This issue will be considered at a high-level ministerial roundtable in 2014. In addition, developing countries were granted an increase of the “Share of Proceeds,” a means to use a percentage of the revenue generated by carbon market mechanisms to help developing countries meet the cost of climate change adaptation.

For non-KP2 Parties (e.g. Canada, Japan, Russia, New Zealand), negotiators agreed to restrict those Parties’ eligibility to the Protocol’s flexible market mechanisms. In other words, although they can "participate" in clean development mechanism (CDM) projects, they cannot "transfer" or "acquire" the resulting units; only KP2 countries can trade such units. Another key issue was how many “surplus of emission allowances” a country could carry over from the first to the second commitment period without jeopardizing the environmental integrity of the market. Countries decided to further restrict the trading and retirement of units generated from the flexible market mechanisms. This means that although a country will be allowed to carry over 100 percent of its surplus, it must happen under the following conditions:

  • Any surplus will be put into a new emission allowance account called the “Previous Period Surplus Reserve;”

  • A country will only be able to use this allowance if it exceeds its allowed emission (or assigned amount), and if its new emissions target is more ambitious than in the previous period; and

  • There is a limit to the number of emission allowances (units) countries can trade.

In addition, many countries stated publicly in Doha that they do not plan to purchase any such units.

While it is important to have the Kyoto Protocol moving forward—even with a smaller group of countries than under the first period—the key question now is how the Protocol’s structure and rules will impact the new negotiation track and how much this model will influence the post-2020 architecture.

3) Climate Finance

The key question on climate finance was what signal developed countries could send to developing countries on the continuation and increase of funding after 2012. Doha marked a key moment in this debate due to the fact that there was no bridge between the “fast start finance” period (which ends in 2012) and the $100 billion commitment made in Copenhagen that begins in 2020. Developing countries were hoping for some certainty of how to get from here to there.

However, the result was a weak agreement. There was no collective mid-term commitment on scaled-up funding. Developed countries only agreed to maintain through 2015 at least the average finance levels provided during 2010-12--roughly $10 billion a year. It is difficult to know exactly what has been pledged towards this target and to compare each country’s efforts. These open accounting questions and inconsistencies are scheduled to be addressed by 2014, as countries consider ways to better measure, track, and report climate finance.

Encouragingly, a few European countries--Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, and the UK--individually pledged more funding annually post-2012 than they had during 2010-12. These new pledges collectively add up to more than $10 billion over a one- to two-year period starting in 2013. There were, however, an entire set of countries that were let off the hook in Doha, with many citing the difficult economic conditions as the primary reason for their lack of a new pledge. The final agreement calls on these countries to make a pledge for 2013 and beyond “when their financial circumstances permit.” In addition, no clear pathway was established that would require developed countries to lay out a roadmap with their “strategies and approaches” to reach the target of mobilizing $100 billion annually by 2020. Instead, negotiations on this pathway were deferred to the next COP. This exercise will be important to demonstrate that they are on the right track, but, according to the decisions, it remains linked to developing countries’ progress in transparently reducing their emissions.

Additionally, countries pledged or provided a little more than $10 million to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to meet its administrative costs as its Board works to further operationalize the Fund in 2013. Countries also agreed to develop the rules of engagement between the COP and the GCF Board in order to allow the COP to guide the Fund’s strategic direction without interfering in its day-to-day operations. The Standing Committee on Finance, acting on behalf of the COP, will work with the GCF Board to develop these rules through 2013, with the goal of agreeing on them by COP 19.

4) Loss and Damage

In cases where mitigation and adaptation fail, people affected by climate change’s impacts may face damages to their property or health—or worse, permanent loss of assets or even loss of life. Parties broke important new ground in Doha through a decision to begin addressing this issue of “loss and damage.”

The term “loss and damage” has legal connotations in many places, and the historically high-emitting countries had expressed concerns about being held liable for hard-to-attribute damages of potentially unlimited economic value. Until this year, developed country Parties had resisted any concrete decision on this issue because of challenges associated with attributing specific losses and damages directly to climate change. But under persistent pressure from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and island states, the Parties agreed to establish by COP 19 “institutional arrangements, such as an international mechanism” that would help vulnerable, developing countries deal with the irrecoverable losses and damages from climate change. While details on what “institutional arrangements” could mean are unclear, it is likely that negotiations around loss and damage will address questions on rehabilitation, reconstruction, and perhaps compensation for damages from extreme and slow-onset weather events.

<p>Qatar served as the host country for this years UNFCCC climate negotiations. Photo credit: Michael Oko</p>

Qatar served as the host country for this years UNFCCC climate negotiations. Photo credit: Michael Oko

5) Adaptation

The COP made decisions on two important adaptation matters: National Adaptation Plans and the Adaptation Committee.

The COP launched a new set of adaptation planning efforts by approving a set of technical guidelines to help Parties develop National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). NAPs are envisioned as long-term, flexible, and iterative planning processes to help build adaptive capacity and respond to climate change. This is a departure from the adaptation planning approach taken in the past under the National Adaptation Programs of Action (NAPAs), which were short-term, highly project-based, and limited in implementation to the LDC Parties. The COP called on the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to use the existing Least Developed Countries’ Fund (LDCF) to meet the full cost of preparing the NAPs for LDCs. It also asked bilateral and multilateral funders and the GEF Special Climate Change Fund to help non-LDC developing country Parties develop their NAPs.

The COP also approved the three-year work plan of the Adaptation Committee, which represents an important new effort to promote coherence among the many adaptation negotiation streams under the Convention. The Committee also aims to support synergies between the UNFCCC and the adaptation activities of organizations outside the Convention, and will provide technical support and guidance to the Parties. An annual forum held by the Committee in conjunction with COP will be an important vehicle for improving global exchange and lesson-learning on adaptation.

6) Equity

As expected, equity was a central issue in Doha. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC) has been at the heart of the climate negotiations for 20 years. To some, CBDR-RC is an irreplaceable expression of justice that compels developed countries to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while providing financial and technological support for low-carbon development and climate adaptation in developing countries. To others, the application of CBDR-RC forces the burden of action on too few developed countries that are politically constrained domestically and representative of an ever-diminishing proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions. 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 recognizing what Lord Nicholas Stern has called the “brutal arithmetic"--the simple fact that bold action by all countries, including developing ones, will be necessary to hold global mean temperature increase below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

The talks in Doha were not expected to resolve this complex issue--this will require a sustained and creative discussion over the coming three years. However, negotiators were asked to determine an appropriate process to manage the discussion. Their first challenge was to agree on the right timing. Some countries favored a time-bound process consisting of one- or two-year timelines, fearing that the equity conversation would be dragged out in an attempt to stall progress toward a new agreement in 2015. Others resisted an imposed deadline in the belief that the clock was being used against them to stifle debate, with the ultimate aim of removing CBDR-RC from any calculation of the future agreement. The second challenge was determining which issues to focus on. Some favored an initial discussion on principles of equity that could later be operationalized across all elements of the new agreement. Others wanted to discuss the practical application of the principles from the outset.

Looking to the anticipated new agreement in 2015 negotiated under the Durban Platform, the COP decided to undertake a one-year work program to think through the application of the principles of the Convention—including equity—and how this relates to the scope, structure, and design of the new agreement. Governments and observer organizations are invited to submit proposals to the UNFCCC by March 1, 2013. These proposals are intended to cover the full range of climate policy building blocks—including mitigation, adaptation, technology, finance, and capacity building—and should try to harvest lessons from other multilateral regimes. The work program will also feature a series of roundtables and workshops, culminating in a high-level discussion in 2014 hosted by the UN Secretary General.

7) Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV)

The agreement reached in Durban marked an important milestone by agreeing on a comprehensive set of guidelines for measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of countries’ emissions reduction efforts. Doha, on the other hand, resulted in a mixed outcome: While negotiators completed some important pieces of work, they failed to resolve a number of outstanding issues—especially when it comes to ensuring a cost-effective, credible verification framework. Some of these issues include:

Verification: COP 18 was scheduled to adopt a cost-effective verification regime for developing countries, only parts of which were agreed to in Durban. However, countries left Doha with divergent views on how this process--known as international consultation and analysis (ICA)--should be conducted and on the effective use of existing institutions like the Consultative Group of Experts (CGE), a technical assistance body created to help developing countries meet their reporting requirements.

As a consequence, Parties were forced to extend the existing CGE mandate by a year instead of agreeing to a longer-term and more relevant mandate. This means that the CGE will spend more time planning and adopting a work program rather than undertaking the necessary capacity-building activities for developing countries. Such an outcome is concerning in that it may have long-term consequences for implementation of the reporting and verification regime, preventing the Secretariat from preparing training materials in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Reporting and Related Issues: Countries did manage to adopt common reporting format tables for Annex I nations. These tables can help track emissions, climate actions, and support in a more transparent and verifiable manner, as well as build trust through a robust accounting format.

The most controversial issues were:

  • How to deal with emission allowances issued from market mechanisms outside the UNFCCC framework (such as bilateral offset mechanisms and sectoral crediting mechanisms, which have been discussed but not yet agreed to under the Convention). Countries finally agreed to allow for reporting of such emission units, but without “pre-judging” how this would be treated and accounted against targets. It’s unclear what this will mean in practice, nor how it may affect the accounting of emissions towards targets.

  • How detailed and standardized the reporting of climate finance and other means of support should be. Countries made progress in enhancing how to report public finance, technology transfer, and capacity building. However, they agreed that they need further methodological work and considerations on how best to report private finance. This should be taken into account for the next revision of the reporting guidelines, as well as into the first biennial assessment of climate finance flows by the Standing Committee.

Although not perfect, this is a relatively good outcome that will enable Parties to start working on their enhanced national communications and biennial reports within the next two years.

On another positive note, the COP agreed to adopt voluntary domestic MRV guidelines within a year, which will help developing countries meet their reporting requirements both domestically and internationally. This decision called for wider collaboration with internationally accredited organizations to produce such guidance.

Finally, one should not forget the importance of the work done to amend the MRV decisions related to the Kyoto Protocol, without which a second commitment period would not have been established.

<p>The interior of the conference hall in Doha, Qatar. Photo credit: WRI/Michael Oko</p>

The interior of the conference hall in Doha, Qatar. Photo credit: WRI/Michael Oko

8) Mitigation and Accounting

The long-term cooperative action (LCA) text on mitigation brings little that moves us toward greater ambition. By closing this track, countries barely managed to do much more than identify where to deal with unfinished business.

Countries announced very few additional pledges. Qatar and its neighbors failed to come with an international pledge--only noting that they are working on it and plan to announce something this year. In the end, the issue of ambition got transferred to the Durban Platform discussion, which makes sense in view of its two work streams focusing on ambition pre- and post-2020.

Not surprisingly, the COP failed to come to any conclusion on accounting and clarification of pledges as expected from the Cancun and Durban decisions, and did not adopt any rules to prevent double-counting. Negotiators did, however, agree to a time-bound work program that would take this process forward under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) and Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI).

For developed countries, the word “accounting” does not appear in the LCA text (mainly due to some Parties associating this too closely to the Kyoto Protocol rule-based system). However, negotiators agreed to a two-year work program that should enable comparison of KP and non-KP Parties’ efforts through a common set of “elements” that could prevent double-counting and ensure environmental integrity of offsets. This was complemented by a work program to establish new market mechanisms under the Convention, all guided by a comprehensive set of accounting principles under the auspices of a centralized framework.

Developing countries agreed to a two-year work program on mitigation, with opportunities for international organizations to shape relevant guidance that will help these countries design and implement their nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs). Issues related to support were given prominence with a NAMAs registry, which is now becoming a “matching” mechanism rather than a recording tool of actions and support.

9) Forests / REDD+

Parties had two major tasks during the negotiations on reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+): to address technical issues under SBSTA, and to clarify how finance would be made available to countries taking REDD+ actions. Had these tasks been completed, many believe that REDD+ architecture would be largely finished. Unfortunately, in both cases the outcome was to defer decisions for later, though negotiators made substantive progress in providing a starting point for next year’s discussions.

The SBSTA technical issues included guidance on designing national forest monitoring systems; what information would be measured, reported, and verified for results-based payments; and the link with reference levels. Questions on the drivers of deforestation and the need for additional guidance on the REDD+ safeguards were also to be addressed. Parties managed to get through much of the first part of their SBSTA mandate, but ultimately got stuck on the question of verification. While some Parties agreed that the experts who will be verifying REDD+ emission reductions need more guidance than what is currently available, others did not. The topic will come up again in the spring at the SBSTA meetings in Germany.

On finance for REDD+, topics raised included designing a new REDD+ institution, incentives for non-carbon benefits, a fund for joint adaptation/mitigation actions, and consideration of sub-national approaches for results-based payments. Parties had varying views on whether a new REDD+ institution was needed. They realized that given these differences, an agreement was not possible in the time frame available. Parties instead designed a work program that would allow conversations to continue under co-chairs – one each from a developed and developing country. All initial topics were captured here except the question of sub-national approaches.

For many, this was a disappointing COP for REDD+. Despite the determination and tenacity of the negotiators, the final agreements were more a step sideways than forward. On one hand, the lack of progress should not have been surprising, as those working on REDD+ have known for a while that the question of how to create a positive incentive--and recognize and support results--is not universally agreed. For many, this disagreement is characterized by the question of whether REDD+ is primarily about trade-able emission reductions or not. On the other hand, what was surprising was where the negotiators got blocked. Why, for instance, was it blocked in the verification conversation, rather than the measurement conversation, which would seem more appropriate given the concerns Parties raised about developing too burdensome a system for developing countries or the need for implementation support? And in the long-term cooperative action (LCA) track, why did the conversations get blocked on the question of a new institutional “home” for REDD+, which seems quite separate from the question of “finance for what and how”? Is it, as Harald Winkler put it with regard to the negotiations more broadly, that we have reached the point with REDD+ where it is “too political for the technicians and too technical for the politicians?”

Regardless of the broader games at play, the problem with REDD+ remains the same. As one delegate put most clearly: How do we create a tool that encompasses the vision of Norway on results-based payments, of Bolivia on the intersection of adaptation and mitigation, and supports the very real actions and visions evolving in countries like Mexico and Indonesia in a package that suits all? This is not an easy task, but a worthy one.

Discussions in Doha allowed Parties to more clearly understand the different visions of what’s needed. In the coming months, Parties will need to identify and put forward proposals for bridging those differences.

Moving Forward After COP 18

Observers and media outlets often question the UNFCCC process and its slow-motion approach. However, the truth is that the UNFCCC will not stop moving in slow motion until key countries do. All eyes must now turn to the newly re-elected President Obama and the new Chinese leadership, amongst others, to see when large-scale change is going to come. Perhaps they can take some inspiration from the new coalition of Latin countries, which is both driving toward a low-carbon economy at home and bringing fire to the belly of the UNFCCC.

With Doha behind us, the stage has now been set both for additional ambition in the near-term and for an ambitious and equitable 2015 agreement. As climate change’s impacts increase, it’s a firm reminder of why leaders must expend political capital to move climate action forward and build support nationally and internationally to avoid catastrophic change. Next year’s COP cannot be a replay of Doha. Rather, it must demonstrate a new energy and commitment to change.

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