In recent years, we have become accustomed to the annual 'climate summits' organised by the UN. This year, the summit (strictly Conference of the Parties or COP18) will be held in Doha, starting on 26 November. But readers can be forgiven for not realising this; unlike many previous events, which have been front-page news for weeks beforehand, remarkably little has been said about this year’s conference (apart from the surprising decision not to invite the IPCC this time). The main reason for this is that previous over-hyping had led to almost inevitable disappointment.
Since the ill-fated Copenhagen conference of 2009 (where enthusiasts insisted a post-Kyoto agreement would be signed, but no substantive agreement was reached and poor organisation left many delegates without access to the conference centre) expectations have been somewhat lowered. The ‘Copenhagen Accord’ which emerged three years ago consisted of a series of non-binding pledges, which was far from the comprehensive post-Kyoto agreement which was supposed to have been negotiated.
A year later, in Cancun, these pledges were incorporated in the final Agreements. They covered 80% of global emissions – more than those committed to under the Kyoto protocol – but were self-regulated, voluntary and conditional. As such, they fell far short of the binding global deal which many participants wanted. Last year, COP17 resulted in the Durban Declaration, again rather modest compared to the hopes of many negotiators but in which all parties agreed to “develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all parties”. In other words, an agreement to agree at some stage, in principle by 2015. Even then, the new agreement would not come into force until 2020.
Which means that something more than good intentions will be needed from the Doha conference if there is any chance of the deadline being met. The problem for the negotiators is, as ever, the fact that different countries have different priorities and expectations. There is a group of enthusiastic promoters of both the process and deep emissions cuts, primarily the EU and Australia. They have made the most substantial commitments and, in principle, are prepared to lead by example.
But this can only be up to a point, because elected governments can only go so far without the consent of voters. In the UK, the only country to have enacted a Climate Change Act committing it to independently-set reductions, the outline of the delayed Energy Bill has just been made public following prolonged and fractious negotiations between the Coalition partners. Put briefly, this continues with the renewable energy expansion programme to meet 2020 targets, but puts off consideration of further targets for 2030 (which some protagonists consider essential at this stage) for several years, so making climate and energy policy a likely issue at the 2015 general election. Where one country leads, others may well follow.
There is a second, large group of developing nations which contribute little to current emissions but have a lot to gain from the industrialised world financing their green development (the Green Climate Fund earmarked for this is intended to be $100bn per year by 2020). Not surprisingly, they are enthusiastic supporters of more action. Tuvalu and other low-lying island groups have, for example, made much of their imminent demise as sea levels rise, despite no evidence that they are any more threatened than they have ever been.
Then there are the large economies not currently covered by Kyoto obligations. China is key, since it is the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter and continuing to expand its energy generation rapidly to support continued growth. If this pattern continues until 2020, which seems certain even in the unlikely event that the Durban process achieves its negotiating targets, then China’s emissions will be substantially higher than now and effectively locked in for the operating life of the generating plant. China will be prepared to commit to goals on energy- or even carbon-intensity, but nothing which will jeopardise its growth. In the cold light of day, this makes almost anything Europe can do completely fatuous, since global emissions will still continue to rise.
The other country in this group is, of course, the USA, bête noire of climate activists for its refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol. There have been sighs of relief over President Obama’s re-election, since it is believed that this makes America more willing to be a party to any new agreement. What people seem to forget that it was under the previous Democrat president (Clinton) that ratification by the Senate proved impossible. But, in the meantime, what has surprised many is that the country’s emissions have gone down significantly, despite the lack of targets.
This, of course, is due to the exploitation of shale gas leading to a sharp drop in gas prices and its replacement of coal as the favoured fuel for electricity generation. In practice, the difference between binding targets, voluntary goals and market forces may be difficult to discern. But gas is still not popular with those who favour a strong climate mitigation policy. Although it can make a large contribution to achieving short- and mid-term emissions reduction, these lower but still large emissions would be locked in until the gas-fired generators were themselves replaced. This is the nub of the issue troubling the UK Coalition partners at the moment.
Doha, of course, will forever be associated with the failed/stalled present round of WTO trade liberalisation talks. It seems unlikely that it will have much more positive connotations for the UNFCCC.