Climate Talks Yield Commitment to Ambitious, but Unclear, Actions
DOHA, Qatar — The annual United Nations climate change negotiations concluded here late Saturday after the customary all-night negotiating session and recriminations over who must bear the costs and burdens of a warming planet.
Delegates from more than 190 nations agreed to extend the increasingly ineffective Kyoto Protocol a few years and to commit to more ambitious — but unspecified — actions to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases.
Wealthy nations put off for a year resolution of the dispute over providing billions of dollars in aid to countries most heavily affected by climate change. Industrial nations have pledged to secure $100 billion a year by 2020 in public and private financing to help poor countries cope with climate change, but have been vague about what they plan to do before then.
Only a handful of countries, not including the United States, have made concrete financial pledges for adaptation aid over the next few years. Todd D. Stern, the senior American negotiator, said that the United States would continue to provide substantial climate-related aid to vulnerable countries. But he said he was not in a position, given the budget talks in Washington and the Congressional process, to promise new American financing.
The participants noted with "grave concern" the widening gap between what countries have promised to do to reduce emissions and the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They declared it unlikely that on the current path the world would be able to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times, a central goal of the United Nations process.
But the group left for future years any plan for addressing the mismatch between goals and reality, merely stating an intention to "identify and explore in 2013 options for a range of actions to close the pre-2020 ambition gap."
The accomplishments of this year's meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were modest, but so were its aims.
The meeting, formally known as the 18th Conference of the Parties, or COP 18, was always seen as a transition from the longstanding division of nations into industrialized perpetrators and developing-world victims of dangerous climate change. That division was enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States never joined and which assigned pollution reduction targets to advanced nations but none to developing countries, including the world's current largest greenhouse gas emitter, China.
The parties agreed last year in Durban, South Africa, to work toward a new protocol or other legally binding instrument that would require actions of all parties, not just rich nations as under the Kyoto agreement of 1997. The new agreement is to be concluded by 2015 and enter into force in 2020.
The Doha meeting did not produce even the barest outline of what that new agreement would look like, leaving those questions for future meetings.
The convention addressed the concept of loss and damage, recognizing the increasing frequency of extreme weather events as well as slower-acting threats like drought and sea level rise. The body adopted language urging more financial and technical support for the most vulnerable countries. But it did not create a mechanism to handle such aid, angering some delegates.
Kieren Keke, foreign minister of the Pacific nation of Nauru and chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States, called the package adopted Saturday "deeply deficient."
"This is not where we wanted to be at the end of the meeting, I assure you," he told the delegates. "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."
It has long been evident that the United Nations talks were at best a partial solution to the planetary climate change problem, and at worst an expensive sideshow. The most effective actions to date have been taken at the national, state and local levels, with a number of countries adopting aggressive emissions reductions programs and using cap-and-trade programs or other means to help finance them.
While the United States has not adopted a comprehensive approach to climate change, the Obama administration has put in place a significant auto emissions reduction program and a plan to regulate carbon dioxide from new power plants. California has adopted a cap-and-trade system for 2013.
Other countries, including South Korea, Australia and most of Europe, started earlier and have gone much further. It is those kinds of efforts that hold the most promise, at least in the short term, for controlling a problem that scientists say is growing worse faster than any of them predicted even a few years ago.
"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," said 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."