Over the past two weeks, several hundred events have been held across the Qatari capital of Doha highlighting the science of climate change, its impacts and some of the intriguing means being devised to address it. But as the UN climate change talks — the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) — draws to a close today, the missing ingredients are neither the science nor effort, but what it has always been: the political will to match the two.

Ministers and negotiators from more than 190 countries talks face two key difficulties in the frantic final 24 hours of the summit: how to forge agreement on two crunch issues in a relatively unambitious agenda, and then how to spin the credibility of the UN process to an increasingly sceptical public.

As negotiations crawled into the night on Thursday the situation was typically fraught. The fault lines that were exposed at the start  — mostly over the question of finance and the extension of the Kyoto Protocol — have not been resolved.

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Indeed, they have probably been widened by the flood of reports highlighting the gap between action and need, which has steeled the resolve of vulnerable states, in particular, to force at least something more from richer nations.

The specific goal of Doha has been to bring closure to the two strands of negotiations that were enshrined in the UN’s Bali roadmap in 2007, and ultimately fell short of political agreement in the mess of the Copenhagen summit, and to clear the path for a new treaty that everyone has agreed should be struck by 2015 and implemented by 2020. “A three-headed circus”, as one veteran observer described it.

The Durban platform, as the new path is known, is not posing too many problems at this stage because it is yet to even taken shape. But resolving the two Bali strands is proving difficult. One strand is stuck over how much finance developed nations should provide to developing countries to help them with abatement. The developing countries want trajectories to reach the agreed level of $100 billion a year by 2020. Deficit-ridden Western governments, hobbled by domestic considerations, are ducking for cover.

“There are some economic difficulties for some countries. But this is only temporary,” said China, ironically a huge creditor nation to the very same countries. Added Brazil, another strongly emerging economy keen to exploit the frustration of the most vulnerable states: “If developed countries have difficulty to find resources, how much more difficult it is for developing countries?”

The US, the world’s biggest economy, has found itself once again in the firing line. Australia, which has been quiet on the financing front, is also being urged to up its commitment.

As for the Kyoto Protocol, the two issues remain how many surplus credits will be allowed into the second period (the KP expires on December 31), and by extension the new treaty. Poland, the noted recalcitrant, is being leaned on to compromise, with some even suggesting its role of hosting the talks next year may be withdrawn if it doesn’t. There is also the question of whether countries that have dropped out of Kyoto — such as New Zealand and Japan — should be allowed into the international carbon market, known as the Clean Development Mechanism. There is mischief-making on all sides.

“The more that the UN talks fall short of expectations, the more that domestic politics plays into the hands of vested interests.”

Some sort of agreement will be achieved — it always is. Climate change negotiations will not be buried in Doha, as WTO negotiations were more than a decade ago. But the outcome will strongly influence the speed at which the new track of negotiations will take place. And time is of the essence.

That’s where the messaging comes in, particularly for domestic audiences. The more that the UN talks fall short of expectations, the more that domestic politics plays into the hands of vested interests. The irony is that it is these vested interests and domestic political considerations that are shackling the ability of Western countries to take the initiative and call the bluff of the Chinese. This is true of the US, of Europe, and of Australia.

Frustration at these negotiations disguises the fact that much is being done across many nations. Countries stand ready to increase their ambition, as long as someone else goes first. At these talks, despite the fine rhetoric, only Monaco and the Dominican Republic have come to the party. Hardly enough to generate perpetual motion. Whatever one thinks about the UN process, it’s hard to imagine it would be any different without it.

As the Bali roadmap had its denouement in Copenhagen, the Durban Action Plan will quite possibly do the same in Paris. France today formally put its hand up to host the 2015 COP21; the deadline for lining up a new treaty. “We think we are the only candidate, so that should help the choice,” foreign minister Laurent Fabius told journalists here. “It is the world’s major diplomatic challenge.”

Meanwhile, the fun continued in the hallways. Environmental and youth groups continued to call for more decisive action. The US and Japan got “fossil of the day” awards for refusing finance commitments and threatening to downgrade their targets respectively, and Christopher Monckton finally got himself noticed by dressing up as “Monckton of Arabia”, sitting on a camel, and holding a press conference in which he rushed through 25 slides in four minutes and gave the Australian carbon scheme a right pasting.

He even snuck uninvited into a meeting hosted by Australia’s ministerial representative Mark Dreyfus on the subject of verification. Apparently he sat in the chair normally occupied by Burma, fiddled with a few buttons and then wandered off.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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