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

Peter Fray

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