Blog Post

Doha Dysfunction

Dec 10, 2012 | Daniel F. Morris

You are probably used to hearing about how dysfunctional the COPs are, how much unnecessary brinksmanship they display, and how despite a couple weeks of long nights and frayed nerves, the delegates seem to come together and salvage some kind of agreement that may or may not be disappointing, but at least has some potential for forward progress on international action.  You may have even heard the COPs described as what those in the military refer to as a Charlie foxtrot. From what I saw, this one really set the bar high.  Take the chaos and acrimony of Copenhagen, remove the engaged host negotiators and heads of state that can put in hard political work to crank out a final agreement or document, add an extra dash of urgency from developing countries that is unmatched by the developed world, and you have an ugly climate diplomacy stew.

Doha was an interesting example of what happens when one major negotiating group has no more concessions to give, and unsatisfied parties decide to throw a wrench in the works. The last three COPs have been spent searching for ground for the US and other developed countries to give, then asking them to give it, which they’ve done a semi-reasonable job of doing, considering domestic political limitations. It’s not enough for the scale of the problem, but it is a good period piece in the art of the possible.

Unfortunately, US negotiators have pretty much given everything they can for the next few years. The international community still doesn’t appear to fully grasp the political constraints in Congress, and so the US is left looking like an obstructionist, behind which other developed countries like Japan and Canada can hide. This dynamic is probably going to continue throughout the next few years because no developed country looks motivated to do anything beyond what they have already pledged to do before 2020. Meanwhile, developing countries may get more and more aggressive with their demands, to which they’ll simply hear the answer ‘no’ for the next few years.

Going into Doha, I and some others thought that expectations were low and this would be a relatively easy, uneventful COP. What some of us didn’t appreciate was how the rest of the world would react to President Obama’s reelection. Many countries thought that because he won the election, the administration would be empowered to make a lot more commitments, as if a full climate policy rejuvenation would have occurred in the 20 days between the election and the start of the COP. When they found that wasn’t the case, they were more than a little disappointed, especially because the fast-start financing window ends this December 31 and there is no clear signal from the US on how much money it will provide per year in the ramp up to $100 bn per annum, scheduled to start in 2020.

One of the most amazing things we saw this week was seemingly every negotiation completely broke down at one point or another. It was like a number of the parties said “we can’t get exactly what we want, so let’s blow this mother up.” The LCA track got lots of attention, but it was far from the only one (more on it below). REDD, usually a bright spot, got shut down by Brazil because developed countries wanted international verification, but offered no more financing for REDD programs. The EU blew up week-long progress on international consultation and assessment and market mechanisms two or three days before the end of the COP. Adaptation, agriculture, bunker fuels, and technology got essentially nowhere, despite daily negotiations lasting until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.

The award for biggest firestarter in this COP, though, has to go to Saudi Arabia. With the meeting in its backyard, Saudi Arabia chaired the LCA negotiation, meaning it controlled the agenda and the different versions of text offered for the final agreement. For those not bathed in COP diplomatese, LCA stands for ‘long-term collective action’ and it is the process for action beyond and separate from the Kyoto Protocol. It generated from the Bali Roadmap; work through the LCA led to the Durban Platform, and parties agreed that it should end in 2012, given it completed its goals from Bali. Developed countries think its usefulness has passed, whereas developing countries counter that there are important aspects of it that have not been suitably concluded.

As chair, Saudi Arabia was responsible for guiding these sticky LCA in a constructive manner. Instead, it used the position to focus attention and energy on discussion of compensation for fossil-fuel producing states, basically saying ‘how will countries w/ loads of fossil fuel reserves be compensated for not extracting them?’ The US and other countries considered this topic settled at one point and have no interest in conceding more ground. Within the larger LCA discussion, the Saudis continued to introduce text that had supposedly already been stricken from the final agreement. The LCA dialogue grew so contentious that the Durban Platform track (called ADP) had to be suspended at one point to deal with it.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the Qataris yet. Yeah, about that. Successful COPs are often due in some degree to the hard work put in by the host country. The Danes didn’t get what they were looking for in ’09, but they busted their humps the entire time to get something, the Mexicans in ’10 set the bar for how to run a climate negotiation, and the South Africans were cranking nonstop in Durban to shape the final Platform. This year the hosts are not quite as, umm, engaged. The Qataris wanted to host the COP because they are great at hosting things, but they didn’t know what they were getting into, and it shows. They were almost non-existent in the negotiations. Party delegates didn’t even know who their contacts are or where to find them. Good COPs have host negotiators or work constantly behind the scenes to get an agreement. This one has nothing of the sort.

So, where does that leave us? The endgame for Doha was small and middling. The Kyoto Protocol was extended, the LCA track was closed down, and initial work on the Durban Platform began, all ostensible goals for the meeting. A lot of things have been pushed back to next year with promises to talk, but not much more than that. The developing world will continue to scream for financing, and some additional pledges, like one from Great Britain (£1.8 billion over the next three years), will soothe them for a second before they get even angrier at the US and other developed countries for not stepping up to the plate with predictable funding.

Based on the past week, any document emerging from this wreck was destined to be short, non-specific, and infuriating to everyone. The parties will spend the next year talking to each other with hurt feelings as they move on toward the new track of ‘various approaches’ for mitigation (fantastic name, by the way). Oh yeah, next year is in Warsaw. To set the stage in about as perfect away as you could imagine, Poland said it will not give up ‘hot air’ emissions remaining from the first phase of Kyoto because it needs them for future economic growth. Can’t wait for that meeting.

So that was the story from Doha. Fun times. It’s kinda like living in a greek tragedy wrapped in a comedy written by Peter Sellers and Larry David. The silver lining, though, was that the shisha was fantastic.