Climate change may seem like an endless black hole of bad news. But delegates at the UN’s annual climate summit, which opened in Doha on Monday, broke into applause yesterday when told that the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon had dropped to its lowest level on record — the rate of rainforest clearing has plunged 27% compared to last year. That’s good news for the climate because clearing forests generates greenhouse gas emissions.

As for the rest of what’s happening at the UNFCCC summit? Well, good news might be in short supply as countries have once again taken up their endless wrangling over the future of the Kyoto Protocol (due to expire December 31) and a new, all-in protocol to eventually replace it.

The stakes for the UNFCCC are high. This is the forum in which countries are supposed to take on legally-binding targets to reduce (or restrain growth in) emissions. And it’s the forum in which countries agree on the rules for counting and verifying emissions (a major issue as without watertight rules, many countries game the situation to pretend their emissions are lower). The world’s best chance of avoiding dangerous climate change is this UN process, as slow as it is.

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Crikey is keeping track of the Doha summit (the best daily summaries come from Canadian researchers at the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Check out their Tuesday summary here, and there are some great photos of the summit here). Today, we ask some of the Australians at the two-week summit how things are shaping up …

Erwin Jackson, Climate Institute deputy CEO:

The formalities and basic positioning statements are out of the way. Delegates are getting down to work. As they do, you can understand why at times outside observers get baffled by the UN climate process. Lawyers debate the finer details of international law using arcane language like “provisional application”. Emission accounting experts interrogate the numbers around “LULUCF”, “AAUs” and “ARD”. You can sometimes have an entire conversation at a climate meeting in language which would be incomprehensible to another English speaker.

But in the end these conversations matter. The decisions around such terms can impact the actions countries take when they get back home. They are also fundamental to the functioning of the global carbon trading market. Therefore, officials debate and, over the coming days, finally find compromises on technical issues before ministers arrive to take forward the outstanding political questions that remain.

Today [Tuesday, Doha time] we saw a classic example of this process. Australia was put on the spot and questioned over its proposed Kyoto target. A number of countries had concerns and lined up to ask why Australia was not using its Kyoto bonus to strengthen ambition to cut emissions. What impact do the assumptions around carbon captured in our forests and landscapes have on pollution from the burning of coal, oil and gas? Australia has pledged to cut emissions by between 5 and 25% by 2020, on 2000 levels. Under what conditions would Australia move to the higher end of the 2020 target range?

With the answers to these questions in hand, the number crunchers will again get to work before their governments make a final judgement on Australia’s ambition and whether it helps or hinders the outcomes their countries want to achieve from this conference.

Will McGoldrick, policy manager, climate change, WWF-Australia:

If I had to choose a motto for the annual UN Climate Summit it would be hard to beat the ancient Islamic proverb, “Trust in God, but tie your camel” — and not just because this year’s summit is being held in the Middle Eastern city of Doha. While the UN climate negotiations remain crucially important, blind faith in this process won’t stop greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere.

An interesting case in point was Monday’s announcement by Australia that it is not yet ready to commit to a pollution target any stronger than 5% below 2000 levels by 2020. On the one hand there is no doubt that by signing up to a new legally binding target Australia is helping to build confidence within the negotiations. On the other hand a 5% target is woefully inadequate.

Here in Doha the mood among environment groups is one of cautious engagement. We believe in the importance of the UN process, but haven’t lost sight of the need for much stronger domestic policies and targets at the national level. Our camels are firmly tied.

Kelly Dent, Oxfam Australia’s climate change policy advisor:

If you tuned into coverage of the US election earlier this month, you’ll almost certainly have heard talk about an impending “fiscal cliff”. Well, there’s another financial precipice looming.

In [the UNFCCC summit in] Copenhagen in 2009, rich country governments promised to deliver a pot of money to help communities in poor countries adapt to climate change and develop their economies in a low carbon way. US$100 billion was promised per year by 2020, with a downpayment of US$30 billion from 2010 to 2012. But now, just as the finance needs to ramp up, it looks set to fall in 2013. Oxfam has released a report showing that rich countries have been stalling on the assistance. Negotiators from the least-developed countries bloc have been stressing the need to increase flows of climate finance in 2013 over the first two days of the Doha negotiations.

The Doha spotlight has also been on the second period of the Kyoto Protocol. The KP is currently the world’s only legally binding agreement to tackle climate change. Australia has now formally submitted its commitment under “Kyoto2”, essentially a target of 5% emissions reductions, and affirming its preparedness to cut emissions by 25% within the context of a global climate deal.

While Australia has made the right decision in signing on to a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, our targets continue to fall a long way short of what the science demands.

*Are you in Doha and would like to offer your thoughts on the negotiations? Get in touch with Crikey or comment on our website

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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