The eighteenth session of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is under way in Doha, Qatar, with states focused on the future of the Kyoto Protocol and ways to help developing countries address their climate challenges. In this new Q&A, Wang Tao explains that the outcomes at Doha are unlikely to be dramatic. Potential tensions between developed and developing nations as well as economic difficulties and domestic politics could hinder progress.

What major outcomes are to be expected from Doha?

The eighteenth Conference of Parties is unlikely to be as dramatic as the fifteenth conference in Copenhagen in 2009. Coming into Doha, there are no high expectations, and the general consensus of all parties is that this round will be a practical meeting to implement the decisions reached at last year’s conference in Durban, South Africa. Difficult and divisive issues, such as the responsibilities of developing countries versus those of developed countries, and increasingly ambitious aims to secure emission-reduction commitments are unlikely to be fully resolved.

Wang Tao
Wang Tao was a nonresident scholar in the Energy and Climate Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
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The most important task for the majority of delegations going to Doha is to effectively conclude the Kyoto Protocol, whose first round of commitments is set to expire at the end of 2012, and Long-Term Cooperative Action negotiations, which were intended to find ways to implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change beyond Kyoto.

The other main task is to start formulating an agenda for negotiating the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which by 2015 will lay out a post-2020 global architecture for tackling the climate challenge.

Even with relatively low expectations, there are still some tricky issues that might prevent a successful outcome at Doha. The different priorities of developing and developed countries, for example, could hinder progress. Developed countries, especially those in the EU, will want to move quickly to set an agenda for Durban Platform negotiations. Developing countries are more concerned with securing commitments and a concrete plan for receiving financial support.

What are the potential hot-button issues at Doha?

One of the most divisive issues in Doha will likely be the arrangement of funds to be provided by the developed country bloc to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change. Establishing a long-term scheme for allocating these funds is expected to be an ongoing negotiation process. Even though a concrete solution is unlikely, there must be an arrangement made at Doha that will allow the discussion to continue in the future without getting lost as new rounds of negotiations begin.

The second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will also be a critical issue in Doha. With Canada, Russia, Japan, and New Zealand leaving the Kyoto Protocol, the EU and potentially Australia will be the only remaining major economies under the second Kyoto commitment period. This will marginalize the importance of the Kyoto Protocol, especially considering that the EU accounts for only about 12 percent of global carbon emissions. But without a timely conclusion to discussions about the second commitment period at Doha, it will be difficult for the developing country bloc to enter Durban Platform negotiations in good faith.

Several other key issues will be at play, including agenda setting for the Durban Platform and continued debate on equity and fairness between the global North and the global South.

Why will funding be such an important issue at Doha?

As part of the Long-Term Cooperative Action negotiations at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of Parties, the developed country bloc agreed to launch a fast-start fund to provide $30 billion to developing countries between 2009 and 2012. This would gradually increase to $100 billion a year by 2020, and the Green Climate Fund agreed upon last year at Durban would be responsible for managing the fund, including identifying long-term sources and allocations schemes.

The fast-start fund is about to expire, but some of the money is yet to be delivered. Although this fund was intended as new, additional funding to support developing countries in combating climate change, there have been complaints from developing countries that developed nations are repackaging money originally earmarked for other development purposes as part of their fast-start-fund commitment.

Since the fund will expire after 2012 and Long-Term Cooperative Action negotiations will also conclude at Doha, it is critical that appropriate arrangements for the climate-finance issue are reached. Developing countries are deeply concerned that without an arrangement for delivering climate finance, they will leave Doha empty-handed and be forced to renegotiate climate finance from scratch under the new Durban Platform track. For this reason, developing countries may use climate finance as leverage, refusing to set an agenda for Durban Platform negotiations until the funding issue is resolved.

But developed countries will also seek to use climate finance as leverage. Despite the economic crisis, the EU still hopes to use the promise of funding as a way to expedite Durban Platform talks. Other developed nations, such as the United States and Japan, may be less keen to use funding as leverage due to their domestic political situations. They hope that developing countries will understand their concerns and take a more flexible approach, but developing countries are less likely to show such flexibility now that so many developed nations have abandoned the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

What outcomes are expected for second Kyoto commitment period in Doha?

The Kyoto Protocol is the only legally binding climate-change deal reached at the international level since the 1992 establishment of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Therefore, the successor to this deal is critical. Now that Canada, Russia, Japan, and New Zealand have left, the EU, as well as non-EU European countries such as Norway and Switzerland, has shown great courage in largely shouldering the Kyoto Protocol alone until the new global agreement, the Durban Platform, starts in 2020. The world is looking to the EU in particular to champion and successfully implement the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

It is important that there is no gap between the first and second commitment periods. To ensure that there is no break, the targets outlined in this second Kyoto period must be consistent with the new post-2020 agreements under the Durban Platform. And the proper arrangements for countries’ surplus emissions allowances from the first commitment period must be made.

How will the economic difficulties and political transitions in the major economies affect this conference?

The uncertainty associated with economic difficulties and political transitions has made many governments shift their focus back to domestic issues, such as unemployment and economic recovery, before considering issues of climate change. During the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, neither presidential candidate placed the issue of climate change high in his platform, which is a reflection of the state of today’s domestic climate politics in many countries.

In this regard, the continued commitments to the second Kyoto commitment period from the EU, Norway, and other countries deserve applause. EU member states suffering from the sovereign debt crisis may find it difficult to talk about climate financial support. But without strong EU leadership, the global climate agenda is unlikely to move forward at Doha.

President Obama’s reelection is good news for the climate change issue, despite the issue’s marginalization during the U.S. campaign. There are expectations that the U.S. delegation’s disappointing approach to climate change over the last few years will change, although these hopes may be dashed by the persistence of domestic political constraints in the United States. However, if Obama wishes to demonstrate that he is serious about climate change, he must begin at Doha.

Emerging economies, including China, are also experiencing an economic slowdown. They will watch Kyoto Protocol developments closely and actively engage in closing the Long-Term Cooperative Action negotiations before shifting their attention to the Durban Platform. This may bring these emerging economies into conflict with the developed economies of the EU that wish to move quickly toward setting the Durban agenda. Mutual trust must be nurtured in Doha in order to mitigate such tensions and make balanced progress on all tracks.

This requires both industrialized and developing countries to understand each other’s positions, take practical approaches at the negotiations table, and conclude what they have achieved with the Long-Term Cooperative Action platform in order to decide what is to be discussed under the Durban Platform. Whether China in particular will play a constructive role in brokering negotiations in Doha remains to be seen.

Is there space for other nations and the least-developed countries to voice their concerns?

The UN platform has offered sufficient space for smaller economies and the least-developed countries to express their concerns because they will be most disproportionately affected by climate change.

The Alliance of Small Island States and the least-developed countries have become more organized, active, and visible over the past few years. They are likely to play an important role in Doha as recipient countries under both the fast-start fund and the Green Climate Fund. They will be determined to fight for the outcome they sought during Long-Term Cooperative Action negotiations. Groups such as the BASIC countries, composed of Brazil, South Africa, China, and India, will be sympathetic to this cause. However, it is also important to avoid slowing the conference’s overall progress by becoming entangled in issues that could be migrated safely to other platforms.

There are also ways for other developed nations to inject energy into the negotiation. Australia recently decided to join the second Kyoto commitment period with conditions, including the linkage of its own carbon-trading market to the EU Emissions Trading System. Despite strong lobbying efforts from the coal and mining industries, the Australian government’s decision is a positive move, especially because the economy has taken priority in the agendas of many other governments. But whether the Australian government will play a constructive role in Doha remains to be seen.

The author would like to express his sincere appreciation to Yang Fuqiang (Natural Resources Defense Council), Li Yan (Greenpeace), and Li Lina (Greenovation), as well as other experts for their insights and support in the research for this Q&A.