Doha Renews Kyoto Protocol, Postpones Tough Decisions

On December 8, the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha, Qatar, drew to a close. Over 17,000 people and nearly 200 countries attended to work on a global climate treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat global warming. European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard hailed the fact that nearly 200 countries agreed on a framework for negotiating the details of such a treaty over the next three years. However, the negotiations were criticized for putting off difficult decisions, mainly, how major developing countries such as China and India will cut their greenhouse gas emissions and how much the richest nations will aid developing nations with climate change adaptation.

In a final agreement – agreed to almost a day after the conference was supposed to end – delegates agreed to extend the expiring Kyoto Protocol. The agreement, however, only covers around 15 percent of the world's total carbon output. While the European Union (EU), Australia, Ukraine, Switzerland and Norway agreed to the extension, many Kyoto participants, such as Canada, Japan, Russia and New Zealand, declined to participate in another round of emissions cuts. The second commitment phase will begin on January 1, 2013, and end December 31, 2020. It is seen as a bridge to the next climate agreement to take effect in 2020, which was agreed to in principle at COP 17 in Durban. The Doha agreement also included a non-binding call for Parties to the Kyoto Protocol to reassess their emission reduction pledges by 2014 and consider cuts in the range of 25-40 percent.

Developed countries expressed concern that plans to curb climate change would not be effective unless nations such as India and China agree to emissions cuts. Furthermore, scientists and environmentalists indicate that the extension of the Kyoto Protocol will be insufficient to keep global temperatures from rising above two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – generally considered the maximum tolerable rise if we are to prevent the worst effects of climate change. According to a recent World Bank study, without action, global average temperatures could rise four degrees Celsius by 2100.

Nevertheless, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, welcomed the extension, stating, “There is an ever-increasing gap between the action of countries and what the science tells us. That is why it was so important for the Kyoto Protocol to go into its second commitment period because what it has done is ensured that there is going to be environmental integrity and very robust accounting systems that will be able to be used by all countries in the new agreement.” She continued to say it was a lead-up to a treaty that will cover all greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the most divisive discussions throughout the conference revolved around which nations should bear the responsibility for action on climate change, and specifically what actions need to be taken. Malia Talakai, the deputy lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, stated, “At the present time, developing countries are left to cover the costs of loss and damage from climate impacts that are not of their making.” For the first time in international legal text, developed countries pledged to help compensate developing countries for “losses and damages from climate change.” However, the resolution failed to provide a pathway to transition away from the 2010-2012 $30 billion "fast start" program to the new program – agreed upon at COP 16 in Cancun – which would provide $100 billion annually by 2020 to help developing nations finance climate change adaptation. UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon joined developing nations in asking industrialized nations how they plan on reaching their pledges in the upcoming years, indicating, “This is a matter of credibility for member states.” The United States and the EU have both indicated that they have “every intention” of fulfilling their pledges. The "loss and damage fund" is to be discussed at the COP 19 in Warsaw. U.S. chief negotiator for climate change, Jonathan Pershing, stated that the United States does not currently approve a liability-based structure.

With so many decisions yet to be resolved, Figueres reasserted the importance of domestic government policy in combating climate change. Looking forward she stated, “Now, there is much work to do. Doha is another step in the right direction, but we still have a long road ahead. The door to stay below two degrees remains barely open. The science shows it, the data proves it. The UN climate change negotiations must now focus on the concrete ways and means to accelerate action and ambition. The world has the money and technology to stay below two degrees. After Doha, it is a matter of scale, speed, determination and sticking to the timetable.” Hedegaard reiterated Figueres’ sentiments stating that, although modest, the outcome of Doha was, “A step towards a global climate deal.”