The countdown to Doha begins: The Future Climate Agreement

The 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is fast approaching. For those who don’t know what this means, the UNFCCC is essentially the UN’s climate change regime and every year negotiators from the Parties convene to attend its annual Conference. This year it is held in Doha, Qatar, from the 26th of November to the 7th of December.

I will be part of a delegation of Australian university students to the conference set up by Australian not-for-profit organisation, Global Voices. It is a huge privilege that I got to be chosen by Global Voices and strongly recommend young people, especially tertiary students, seek opportunities to represent their country and beliefs/values in events on the global stage, whether it be by participating in diplomacy and foreign relations, or in other capacities such as advocacy.

But for many people I talk to about my opportunity, most of them seem unaware of what the international climate conference is and have no understanding of the implications of the outcomes of its negotiations. For the remainder of my time at home, I will post about some of the things that will be negotiated at Doha and what their implications may be for you. Read on if you are interested in reading about the future agreement on climate change mitigation which is to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

The future international climate agreement

At Doha, countries will negotiate what some of the foundations of what the future agreement should be on how to decrease the negative upshots of climate change. The main way it will look to do this is through Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions reductions. The generation of this agreement was decided on at the 17th COP in Durban, last year, and is to to be organised by 2015 under a subsidiary body called the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (AWG-ADP), and it will hopefully be in action no later than 2020. The agreement is to replace the Kyoto Protocol which, despite its success as the first major international agreement on climate change mitigation, was largely unsuccessful at fostering participation from major economies like the US and will terminate in between 2017 and 2020.

Most of the ratifiers of the Kyoto Protocol have pulled out of negotiations for the Second Commitment Period, and it looks like the only major economies to continue are the EU, Norway, Switzerland and Australia. The US never ratified it, saying that its non-inclusion of developing countries (in particular, China and India) made it an unfair agreement for Americans. Other countries have stopped committing to the Protocol because of economic instability and their disenfranchisement of needing to commit to multilateral agreements to solve a problem which largely impacts on their domestic policy.

At the Durban COP last year, the Convention decided – hastily, may I add – that it was imperative to keep the global average temperature rise since the Industrial Revolution to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius (it is currently risen by 0.8 degrees). The only way it was believed this could be achieved was to allow global emissions levels to peak (arrive at their highest level) as early as 2015 and then decline to about 50 to 70 per cent lower than 1990 levels by 2050. At current, if we continue on the way we’re going, we won’t come close to reaching that goal.

The future agreement has to find a way to do three things, in my opinion: firstly, to find the most effective framework to achieve a global temperature cap of 1.5 to 2 degrees; secondly, to cut the ambition gap in order to foster the widespread participation needed to do this; and thirdly, to ensure that the agreement doesn’t result in massive imbalances and inequalities in the regime (relating to developing countries). This is an extremely hard juggling act to execute, made even harder by the plethora of varying self-interests and perspectives on what is right and what is fair.

The first problem that the negotiators at Doha need to figure out is how to get major economies and significant emitters to partake in the agreement. China is now the world’s biggest emitter, but has fundamentally declined to accept legally binding emissions reductions targets, saying that per capita (per person) it emits far less than the rest of the world and the US and other developed countries have already contributed the most emissions in the past (which stay in the atmosphere forever). [Click here for a link to The Guardian’s interactive world map of CO2 emissions] Conversely, the US won’t agree to a legally-binding agreement which takes away its autonomy, and certainly won’t if China and other developing countries don’t either. However, there have been signs that if one of the two agrees to participate, so will the other.

The second problem is the matter of differentiation: should developed countries (Annex 1 Parties) be held to higher commitment obligations than developing countries (Non-Annex 1 Parties), as was the case with the Kyoto Protocol? The Umbrella Group, a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, The Russian Federation, Ukraine and the US, stresses that major emitters from the developing world should have similar responsibilities as Annex 1 Parties. In contrast, developing nations as part of G-77 & China, Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC), the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Latin American nations (ALBA) all argue that differentiation in mitigation commitments should remain, to varying degrees.

The third problem is deciding what kind of agreement the COP will decide on. This is a matter which will influence the level of participation and ambition of countries. The US wants a pledge-and-review system, whereby each country submits a national pledge as to how much it is willing to cut its emissions and how it will do so; this will give countries total flexibility in how they look to approach emissions reductions. This is looking like a likely solution to get widespread participation, as it was the solution advanced at the recent COPs in Copenhagen and Cancun. It may also be favorable after countries have become dissatisfied with the more stringent, prescriptive type of legal agreement exemplified in the Kyoto Protocol, such as New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Russia. The weakness of this pledge-and-review type of agreement is that it is completely up to individual countries and their domestic policies as to what they’re willing to do to help the situation.

Other issues relating to the agreement include what the market mechanism should like (for example, should we keep with this system of diverse emissions trading schemes and try to link them together, or create one global scheme?); how much financial and technological support should go into assisting the least developed countries with their efforts to try to mitigate climate change; how should the Convention monitor and review countries’ pledges (if a pledge-and-review system were to be adopted) and whether there should be a commonly defined and agreed to carbon-accounting arrangement; how to eliminate emissions from deforestation and degradation; and how to go about looking at adaptation methods to combat adverse effects of global warming.

The path to this new agreement will be hard and painstaking but negotiators need to work hard at forging something out of the subsequent COPs. In my opinion, what is needed is to reconsider the Annex groupings of the Convention to bring them in line with contemporary political/economic realities. Some of the nations classed as developing countries in 1990 have moved forward since then – some have even become major economies – and have experienced massive growth rates in emissions. I believe these new Annex groupings should be the means for deciding the scope of differentiation between Parties’ respective reductions expectations (which they should be held accountable for when reviewing their pledges). This should allow major emitters such as China and the US to participate in the new agreement, as it would satisfy the need for differentiation to encourage China’s inclusion on the one hand, and the need to get the participation of other formerly developing major emitters such as China to help the US subscribe on the other.

I also feel like this pledge and review system will not be good enough to help achieve the global goal of capping the global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, because I don’t think it will enable countries to take responsibility for emissions. However, it can be used as a tool of capacity building, showing countries that they can trust one another and build confidence in a multilateral agreement. It may also allow countries to gain positive individual experiences to show them how they can adopt a nationally appropriate approach to cutting back on emissions. Hopefully this will allow the Convention to build up to a more stringent, prescriptive legally binding agreement in the future. The FCCC should thus adopt a “building blocks” approach to the future agreement. The international trade regime started with a fragile, incomplete agreement and worked its way up towards a comprehensive agreement thanks to numerous subsequent treaties consolidating different aspects of the regime. The climate regime should follow this example.

In any case, the conference at Doha will prove to be massively influential on the trajectory of the new path towards the future climate agreement. The agreement is important for everyone as it will affect all countries’ climate policies, which will filter down into other areas of domestic policy, such as the industrial sector, agriculture, transport and so on. Accordingly, I urge everyone to watch this space and follow the proceedings at Doha.

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