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Doha(rd) 2012: should we ditch the UN climate process?

The United Nations’ climate summit in Doha tied up a few loose ends over the weekend but was, at best, a patch-up job. Is the UN process worth the time and effort?

The UN’s climate summit in Doha was a success — on one front at least. A decision by the Qatari organisers to make it a “paperless” summit saved more than 250 trees.

The summit didn’t save much else.

There was little to celebrate in Doha, the capital of the world’s highest emitter per capita and quite possibly the globe’s largest construction site. The two-week summit, which finished on Saturday, did tie up some loose ends, kicked a few cans down the road on sensitive issues such as finance for developing countries, managed to cap the extent of hot air that could dilute the ambition of future treaties, and reached a tentative agreement on “loss and damage”, a sort of insurance mechanism for the disasters that may beset the poorest and most vulnerable nations.

It also sealed the implementation of a second period of the Kyoto Protocol, the only effective climate treaty in place, which will begin in three weeks with even fewer members and lower ambition than the first version.

But on the substantive issues, the need to ramp up action and meet a rapidly closing window to cap global warming at a maximum 2 degrees, it achieved nothing apart from creating another avenue to a hoped-for treaty — this time called the Doha Gateway.

Not even the spate of scientific reports, such as that of the WMO, UNEP, the IEA, and PwC, the impact of Hurricane Sandy, or even a devastating typhoon in the Philippines, and the emotional response of its delegate in the final days of the talks, could spur governments into action.

The trajectory of the summit hit home on the plenary floor, as talks reached their tortuous tenth hour on Saturday evening. Members of the French delegation gathered in a tight knot in the main aisle  and expressed their alarm at the course of events. “We cannot allow this to happen in Paris in 2015,” I heard one of them say in reference to the 2015 UN climate summit. “That would be a disaster.”

The size of the task had dawned on them. The creation of a “Paris Protocol” that unites and binds all nations into a climate treaty may appear as an alluring trophy to mount in the Elysee Palace, but matching rhetoric with action has escaped the skills of 17 different hosts of these climate summits. The French reputation for diplomatic finesse will be at stake.

Agreement in Doha was finally reached at 7.30pm Saturday local time, a day after the summit was supposed to have finished on Friday — and it seemed nobody left happy. It was, at best, a patch-up job. It was designed as a “working COP” (conference of the parties), as Mark Dreyfus, Australia’s parliamentary secretary for climate change, put it.

The summit tied up loose ends so a path can be cleared for a new attempt to forge a global treaty three years hence. But even effective housekeeping proved impossible, and given the urgency for action, few left the sprawling convention centre with a sense of achievement. A pathway had been created, but for all they knew, it could lead to another Copenhagen-style failure.

There was, however, one significant ray of light. If there is still no political constituency to move on climate, there is a growing economic one. Qatar and Saudi Arabia didn’t get rave reviews for how they handled their responsibilities at these talks, but the sheer scale of investment that they plan for concentrated solar power is noteworthy.

The world’s biggest oil export and the biggest gas exporter respectively, these two nations are intent on becoming, well, the Saudi Arabia and Qatar of solar. It is a move borne out of self-interest — the ability to sell more fossil fuels to others — but it is also a recognition of the need to diversify their economies.

It is the economic actions of individual countries that will likely deliver the technology breakthroughs that are needed to combat climate change — Germany’s investment in solar PV has triggered a wave of investment and deployment that has helped bring down the costs of flat panel solar by 80% in the last two years, and sparked a revolution in world energy markets. Energy efficiency standards in Europe, Japan, the US, and now in Australia, will do the same.

WWF’s head of delegation, Tasneem Essop, summed up the summit: “These talks have failed the climate and they have failed developing nations. The Doha decision has delivered no real cuts in emissions, it has delivered no concrete finance, and it has not delivered on equity.”

Indeed, it seems as though superstorm Sandy has entrenched positions, rather than opening them up. Having seen the US gear up to rapidly meet the anticipated $80 billion damages bill, island nations dug in their heels for Western nations to make some meaningful contribution to the UN’s climate green fund, which is supposed to reach $100 billion a year by 2020, but which remains all but empty.

This is about more than the science and the legal wrangling as far as we are concerned,” said the chief negotiator from the Marshall Islands. “It is one of urgency. Our islands are being inundated by salt, our food security is threatened. There is very little than we can do to stop the degrading of our way of life.”

So should we hang on to this UN process? For the most exposed countries, it is all they have — which is why they were so keen to hang on to Kyoto, as impotent as it will be. For the 100 poorer nations representing some 1.4 billion people, there’s precious little else. “Without it, we don’t have forum to press for our survival,” said Gambia’s representative Pa Ousman Jarju.

But will it serve any use? And will a treaty be reached in France?

Next year’s UN climate summit will be in Warsaw, the capital of the country that is almost single-handedly restraining Europe’s ambition to reduce emissions, before likely moving to Peru and then Paris. But the key event could be the leaders’ summit that UN chief Ban Ki-moon will host in 2014.

His goal is to extract commitments to action before the new treaty will come into force from 2020 — recognising that a lack of ambition before that date will condemn the world to 3 to 4 degrees of warming, or even more. France’s President Francois Hollande is also focusing on country leaders, and the talk in the corridors of Doha was that he intends to hold a series of “leadership retreats” in exclusive areas of France in the lead-up to the Paris negotiations.

*This article was originally published at RenewEconomy

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  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Typical Giles Parkinson, trumpets Saudi schemes for concentrated solar, fails to mention their plans for 18 GW of equally low-emission nuclear power by 2032:

    bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-04/saudi-arabia-details-plan-for-nuclear-wind-eqtisadiah-says.html

    albawaba.com/business/saudi-power-nuclear-451448

    Or maybe it was edited out to fit the recent Crikey narrative of nuclear energy decline?

  • 2
    John Bennetts
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Mark.

    Giles comes across as a tourist, rather than as an analyst. Next, he will be serving up weather reports and describing the local marketplaces as though they have some relevance to the issue at hand.

    Come on, folks! If the subject of hastening the date of the end of the world as we know it isn’t meaningful then I don’t know what is. It’s past time that we got moving on all available options, including renewables and nuclear power and anything else that can help to decarbonise our energy industries.

  • 3
    Scott
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I find it funny that we have tied ourselves to the Europeans when Gillard is constantly talking about the Asian century, especially when there are no asian countries cutting their emissions under Kyoto.
    All our biggest global competitors are free to emit at will (Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Canada, US, Indonesia, China etc), yet we (in our infinite wisdon) have decided to join this little gang of 37 (which includes such carbon belching giants as Monocco, Malta and Liechenstein) representing just 17% of global emissions.
    I really wonder what we gain from signing up to a protocol that looks dead in the water.

  • 4
    Ian
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    What do we gain from not doing so Scott? Either way we are doing next to nothing and it’s costing us about the same - next to nothing.

  • 5
    David Hand
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    The benefit of cancelling these summits would be the prevention of climate activists such as WWF et el, undertaking carbon belching junkets to exotic locations on an annual basis so they can tell us we are all doomed (unless we act drastically noww!!!) with all the conviction of a door to door encyclopedia salesman.

    If the hyperbole in last weeks alarming report is right, it’s already too late. The world is going to warm and civilisation is going to come to an end. Relax folks, it’s over.

  • 6
    Stephen
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Yes, we should ditch the process.

    All UN and EU climate change processes are designed by economists to protect the market and business-as-usual.

    Ditto the Australian CPRS.

  • 7
    Giles Parkinson
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Mark, John
    How did you know I am a tourist? I am in Paris at the moment, it’s cloudy, about 3C, and forecast to possibly snow in the afternoon.
    Being in France, it means that this email is around 70 per cent nuclear powered. But even the French now want to downgrade their nuclear share - not so much because they don’t like it, but they can’t figure out how they are going to pay for it. You guys can trumpet nuclear all you like, but until you can find someone to invest in it, it’s all a little pointless. And the reason i didn’t mention nuclear in this story is because Qatar is not interested and the Saudis did not even mention it during their briefings at Doha.

  • 8
    John Bennetts
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Giles, you are a b it brave to stick up for unaffordable, highly mollycoddled antinuclear options on the basis if “can’t afford it”.

    That is BS and you know it.

    If the end of the earth means anything at all to you, it means that all means available must be used to act against it. Nuclear power is now and has been for 40 years cheaper, safer and more readily available than some of the toy alternatives which are truly unaffordable, yet you continually advocate solar and wind at any price.

    If climate change matters, and it does, then nuclear power generation options must be considered on at least a level playing field, yet you, Giles, are personally responsible for doing whatever you can to present counterfactual argument to the contrary and I am getting very very angry that this is the case.

    We should be on the same side, but instead you have chosen to be part of the problem and not of the solution. Tell your kids and grandkids in 20 years what you did when there was still time. Then ask them for forgiveness.

  • 9
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    The nuclear option is intrinsically connected to the “Gold Plated Grid Syndrome” where its proponents seek to be “maintained in the manner to which they have become accustomed”.
    Hence the angry denunciation of “stand alone” technology as “toys”.
    Increasingly, investments on energy will become the decision of communities rather than the “Grid Tsars”, put in place by superannuation funds seeking a locked-in long term market, soporifically insensible to the economics of sustainability or climate change.
    Finally, is there or is there not a market for Australian uranium?
    If there is a burgeoning market for uranium, can we be spared the paranoid bleating and anger about a lack of support for nuclear power generation?
    This hypocritical stench of self-interest, cynically dressed up as heartfelt concern for the planet and humanity,is capable of permeating even the electromagnetic spectrum of the internet.
    It is an insidious and apparently, persistent form of unnecessary pollution.
    Give it a miss, please.

  • 10
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Giles, are you sure they didn’t mention it, in so many words? Would this be the same briefing at which the Saudi minister said “All sources of energy are needed to meet future demand”? What do you think he meant by that? Their previous public pronouncements have made it quite apparent that they consider ‘nuclear energy’ to be a subset of ‘green energy’. Food for thought.

    And your contention on the reasons that France is looking at downgrading their nuclear share is utterly at odds with everything else I’ve read, which strongly gives the impression that the new policy of the incoming Socialist government was entirely politically driven (which is to say, not to put too fine a point on it, enough French people have bought the line spun by the likes of you, see JB above under ‘part of the problem’), and nothing to do with economics.

    france24.com/en/20120827-france-socialists-backtrack-nuclear-promises-montebourg-eelv-hollande-areva-edf-erp

  • 11
    Liamj
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    What a farce, both the UN process and this article. Technological breakthroughs are not what is needed - conservation is, decades of ever deeper restraint and true conservatism.

    Most people seem to prefer the absurd notion that we can shop/manufacture/grow our way to sustainability. You have to be innumerate to even entertain the idea, but it makes perfect sense to an addict.

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