Blog Post

COP 18 Surreality

Dec 4, 2012 | Daniel F. Morris

Every year during the Conference of the Parties (COP) for the UNFCCC, Saturday night is reserved for what’s called the NGO party, where negotiators and civil society participants blow off some stream after a week filled with excitement, frustration and trepidation, and mentally prepare themselves for another week of sleepless nights. This year’s party was at a seaside resort an hour and a half south of Doha, the host city. Partygoers rode a stream of never-ending buses through the city and out through the desert, past not one, but two oil refineries and a chemical plant. As methane flares helped light the way for the buses, some of which at least ran on natural gas, the surreality of the situation was not lost on many.

That’s how it goes at this year’s COP. The meeting has a strange mix of subtle irony and unnecessary complexity. First, it is being held in Qatar, the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases. For two weeks, delegates are shuttling around Doha, a city that grew out of the desert with the help of large revenues from oil and natural gas extraction. Qatar controls 13% of global natural gas reserves, and oil and gas activities are responsible for 50% of Qatari GDP. An economy built on fossil fuels is one of the primary reasons Doha can host a world conference on climate change.

The UNFCCC is willing to put up with a little irony to bring the Gulf Oil states more into the fray, which is partially why Qatar was selected to host this year’s COP. It was a chance to get OPEC and other producer states more involved in the negotiation process without applying the pressure of a meeting expected to yield a major agreement. With the COP in their backyard, the Gulf Oil states have an opportunity to show they can meaningfully contribute to global emissions treaty.

Getting to that treaty is never smooth sailing, even in a supposed off-year. Coming into the round of negotiations, expectations were relatively simple for this COP compared to the disappointment in Copenhagen and the surprising progress in Cancun and Durban. The major goals are: 1) agree on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; 2) end the LCA negotiation track that resulted in the Durban Platform; and 3) show some progress on instituting the Platform.

Nothing is ever simple at a COP, however. While parties agreed to end the LCA after Durban, there are aspects of it that don’t fit well into the Durban Platform (which is now its own negotiation track). Countries spent the first week arguing about what aspects of the LCA should survive beyond Doha and how to treat countries with special circumstances, leading to a bit of an impasse last week. Parties are hopeful that the ministerial stage of the negotiations, starting Tuesday, will help move things along, but Doha could be yet another meeting where not much gets done until the wee hours of the final days. There’s no irony in that outcome. At this point, it is pretty much expected.