Center for American Progress

What to Expect in Doha: An Overview of the 2012 U.N. Climate Change Negotiations

What to Expect in Doha: An Overview of the 2012 U.N. Climate Change Negotiations

A look at the climate change conference and what the results of U.S. elections may mean for the Obama administration’s positions during these negotiations.

The next high-level gathering of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change started this week in Doha, Qatar, and will continue until December 7. In this column we provide an overview of the upcoming talks and discuss what the results of U.S. elections may mean for the Obama administration’s positions during these negotiations.

What to watch for in Doha

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Doha will continue the progress made to date toward advancing a series of tracks toward a comprehensive international climate agreement. While none of these tracks alone is sufficient to address global climate change, taken together they have gotten us closer than ever to a comprehensive international solution. The biggest items on the three primary tracks of the Doha agenda are:

  • The closing of the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action
  • Agreement on a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol
  • Advancement of a work plan for the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action

Closing of the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action

During the 2011 climate talks in Durban, South Africa, parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed that the Long-term Cooperative Action should conclude in Doha. The action, which began in 2007 in order to implement the Bali Action Plan agreed to under the Bush administration, gave rise to the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements.

Though many throughout the world hoping for a binding international treaty viewed Copenhagen as a disappointment, it was never likely that the 2009 U.N. climate change conference could have ended in a binding agreement. The United States would not have signed onto an agreement that did not solve the problem of rising greenhouse gases, leaving out major emitters such as India and China—now the largest emitter in the world, the country’s per-capita emissions are on par with the European Union’s emissions. China even objected in Copenhagen to developed countries articulating their own 2050 emission-reduction targets in a formal agreement, presumably because it would mean that rapidly developing countries would be responsible for the remainder of required emissions reductions to achieve some level of climate safety.

But for all its criticisms, Copenhagen was groundbreaking. For the first time countries at all stages of development agreed to put forward pledges for national actions to address global warming by 2020. Over the past three years, 141 countries, including all the major emitters in the developed and developing world—which are responsible for more than 80 percent of global emissions—have made voluntary mitigation pledges. This was an important step forward, given that until then the only articulated pledges for reductions were made by developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol, which now account for less than 15 percent of global emissions.

Perhaps most importantly, the Long-term Cooperative Action allowed a pathway for a bottom-up approach, bringing pledges from both developed and developing countries to the table. The bottom-up approach, as opposed to a top-down architecture, allows for varying commitments by country. This is significant because it recognizes the different capacities and levels of development of each country. The question is: How do we ensure that the sum of parties’ commitments will keep us on a pathway where it is still possible to hold temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels by the end of the century? This is now the agreed-upon goal of the U.N. process.

Many analyses warn that there is a gap between the total emissions reductions from parties’ pledges under the Copenhagen Accord and where we need to be to meet the 2 degrees Celsius goal by 2020. The current framework allows for parties to start where they are now and assess progress to see what must be done to meet that goal. The pledges—along with agreements on transparency, technology, forestry, and finance—were enshrined in Cancun during the 2010 U.N. climate conference. Parties agreed to report on progress of their unilateral commitments, and the following year in Durban, countries agreed to regular regional reviews beginning in 2013. Work on how to overcome this gap will now move to the new track under the Durban Platform.

A more important aspect of the Long-term Cooperative Action track will be the successful transfer of work streams from the action to other tracks and implementation of institutions previously agreed to in Copenhagen and Cancun. Most important are the newly created Climate Technology Center and Network and the Green Climate Fund. Both fulfill the promise made in 2007 in Bali that developed countries should help developing countries to more quickly transition to a low-carbon economy by providing access to clean energy technology and finance.

The financial commitments made as part of the Long-term Cooperative Action track negotiations are perhaps the most critical at this point. In 2009 parties agreed to targets for climate finance of $30 billion in “fast-start finance” from 2010 to 2012, and the creation of a global fund that can help mobilize the bulk of a commitment to $100 billion annually in public and private funds by 2020. Developing countries attending the meetings in Doha will be most concerned that a funding gap does not develop between 2012 and 2020.

We have previously argued that a ramp up of funding toward this $100 billion goal is needed throughout this decade in order to leverage emissions reductions in developing countries, where we will see the largest rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and to increase the capacity for private investment that can benefit all parties. Because approximately one-fifth of the emission-reduction programs submitted by developing countries to the Cancun Agreements are contingent on financial and technical support, they will not happen without global support.

These issues and others in the track will not be easily resolved. Progress made in the Long-term Cooperative Action on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, known as REDD+ technology, and finance and ongoing work streams must continue elsewhere, whether it be the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action or subsidiary bodies of the convention. The outcomes of the Kyoto Protocol and the Durban Platform depend in part on how smoothly the work of the Long-term Cooperative Action transitions or concludes.

Defining a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol discussions will focus on the conditions that developed and developing countries can agree to on the extension of the protocol for a second period that would end in 2020 at the latest. (The first period ends at the end of this year.) The Kyoto Protocol sets binding emissions targets for developed countries that sign onto it, but developing countries are not obliged to make reductions. The United States did not sign onto the protocol for this reason. The 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution said the U.S. Senate would not consider a climate treaty that divided the world between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries. So far, the only major developed parties to agree to a second commitment period are the European Union, Australia, and Switzerland.

There are a range of issues here: the exact length of the extension, what new commitments for reductions developed countries will agree to, what level of ratification each party will agree to, and whether the Clean Development Mechanism (see below) should be open to any developed countries that sign on to the Kyoto Protocol or only to those that articulate an official Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Objective by the end of the second commitment period.

The Clean Development Mechanism, designed under the protocol, is the world’s only carbon market available to developing countries. The mechanism allows carbon credits to be earned for projects that reduce greenhouse gases in developing countries. Successfully reforming the mechanism will help ensure that a significant stream of finance for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries continues. In this respect, it is likely the most valuable part of the Doha negotiations over the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

Some developed countries that were pushing back against developing countries on the acceptable levels of ratification, such as New Zealand, have already opted out of a second Kyoto Protocol. Canada, Russia, and Japan also announced intentions not to participate.

Advancing a work plan for the Durban Platform

The Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action is on the agenda during the second week of talks in Doha. Progress on the Durban Platform is contingent on the outcome of the Kyoto Protocol because many developing countries will likely not begin work in earnest on the former if there is not agreement on a second commitment period of the latter.

In the final outcome at Durban, the parties agreed that by 2015 they would create a “protocol, legal instrument, or agreed outcome with legal force … to come into effect and be implemented from 2020.” The platform also called on parties to increase ambition and propose measures to close the gap between the pledges made under the Copenhagen Accord and the reductions needed to limit global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by the end of the century. Parties agreed to a process that “shall raise the level of ambition” of mitigation efforts consistent with the next major report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to be released between 2013 and 2015.

As we have argued, the most significant achievement of the Durban Platform is to create a process that will culminate in an international agreement that applies to all parties, unlike the Kyoto Protocol. To cement this in place, both the United States and the European Union opposed explicit reference to the “common but differentiated responsibilities” and equity in the Durban agreement. Both of these ideas have been interpreted to mean a hard and fast distinction between the obligations of developed and developing countries to reduce emissions.

There are two work streams of the Durban Platform—one dealing with the framework for an agreement and another with closing the mitigation gap. Both of these will be compromised if there is backsliding on the applicability of the agreement to all parties, which is quite possible given efforts to reinsert divisions between developed and developing countries in the current negotiations and others around the world.

The “Like Minded Developing Countries Group,” for example, is an emerging negotiation block made up of about a dozen developing countries that recently met to reaffirm the notion of equity and common-but-differentiated responsibilities in the June 2012 Rio Declaration. They demand financial resources and technology transfer in exchange for national actions on climate change and assert “that the process as well as the outcome of the Durban Platform in both work-streams are under the Convention and must therefore be in full accordance with its principles and provisions, especially equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.”

Efforts to enshrine common but differentiated responsibilities are elsewhere in submissions to the Durban Platform such as China’s ambition submission, which includes the following:

Developed country Parties should take the lead in reducing their emissions by undertaking ambitious mitigation commitments and fulfill their obligations of providing financial resources and transferring technology to developing country Parties in accordance with the principles and provisions of the Convention, in particular the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The key to increase the level of ambitions to reduce emissions lies with the developed country Parties’ political will and the recognition of their historical responsibility.

China’s submission on the work plan of the Durban Platform similarly stated:

The ADP process will be conducted under the Convention and in full accordance with all its principles and provisions, in particular the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and its outcome forms an integrated part of the Convention.

India’s submission reflected this view as well, while Argentina and Brazil’s submissions also make reference to common-but-differentiated responsibilities and equity as the basis for the Durban Platform.

The U.S. position has been to not oppose common-but-differentiated responsibilities as such, but instead to insist that they do not mean there are only two groups of countries in the world with radically different sets of responsibilities. Since the Obama administration understands well that it can never get a treaty that looks like the Kyoto Protocol past the U.S. Senate, whatever the notion of fairness enshrined in the new agreement turns out to be, it must be one that acknowledges some principle of graduation: that a country can sufficiently develop enough so that it can move from one category of obligation for mitigation to another.

This is not to say that the United States has ever claimed that all countries should have the same responsibilities for reducing emissions, but that obligations for reductions should exist across a broad range instead of falling into one of two rigid categories. What’s needed in Doha in the coming years, as negotiators work to develop the framework and details of a treaty by 2015, is a conversation about how to reflect equity that ensures that the major global emitters are taking sufficient actions to prevent dangerous increases in emissions.

Besides these key facets, on the minds of all of Doha’s attendees are the implications of the U.S. elections on global and U.S. climate action.

What the U.S. election means for U.S. climate action

As the delegates gather in Doha, questions abound concerning the intentions of the United States now that the election is over. The re-election of President Barack Obama and members of Congress who voted to defend the administration’s ability to act on global warming is an affirmation of an agenda prioritizing clean energy and climate change. Just as importantly, the American public’s belief in global warming has never been higher, having grown to 70 percent in September 2012. More than three-quarters of U.S. voters want elected officials to take steps to address global warming.

Between March 2012 and September 2012, there was also a significant increase in the number of Americans who strongly agree that climate change could directly impact them—13 points higher than it has been for the past four years. Forty-two percent of respondents now say that global warming will impact them a “great deal” or a “moderate amount.” This measure of concern has historically been the softest part of the American public’s views on climate change, with Americans’ belief that global warming will adversely impact plants, animals, future people, or people in developing countries more than double the concern that it would harm them.

These same polls show that this past summer’s extreme weather and drought were the strongest drivers of this change in the intensity of Americans’ concerns about climate change. If these polls were run again today, after Hurricane Sandy hit the Atlantic Coast, this concern would no doubt be even higher. Given that we can expect more extreme weather consistent with climate projections in the future—as evidenced, for example, in a recent World Bank report—the American public will certainly demand more climate action.

Unfortunately, given the results of this year’s congressional elections, President Obama will likely be operating under the same political constraints for national action under which he was operating in his first term. Nonetheless, the president is standing firm on our international commitments for emissions reductions. As he reiterated in an interview during the campaign:

We can meet the targets that I negotiated with other countries in Copenhagen to bring our carbon emissions down by about 17 percent [below 2005 levels by 2020], even as we are creating good jobs.

On Monday Deputy U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing announced to the delegates in Doha that U.S. emissions are already 8.8 percent below 1990 levels, emphasizing that we are projected to meet our 2020 goal.

While some of these reductions are attributable to the shift to generating more electricity from natural gas, the Obama administration’s policies are effectively reducing greenhouse gases. A report by the Center for Climate Strategies using data from the Energy Information Administration finds the United States is on a trajectory to achieve President Obama’s goal for carbon emission reductions by 2020. But the economic slowdown and transition from coal to natural gas, which are often thought to be primary drivers of the reduction, combine to account for only around 22 percent of reductions. Instead, policies at the federal, state, and local level constitute the majority of the emissions reductions, accounting for nearly 70 percent of them. Case in point: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a collection of 10 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states that has already cut emissions by 23 percent since the program began in 2009. Twenty-one states have emissions targets, and 29 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have renewable energy standards in place.

Even assuming that Congress is not willing to move forward on progressive climate action, the Obama administration will continue to address global warming using executive authority and rulemaking under the Clean Air Act, including the development of rules for new power plants. We can also expect the administration to pursue progress on limiting greenhouse gas pollution through bilateral and multilateral partnerships to advance clean energy technology deployment, to expand sustainable energy access, and to aid developing countries that will be hit hardest by climate change as part of U.S. foreign aid diplomacy and national security goals.

In this respect, then, we expect no change in U.S. commitment to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change process and multilateral bottom-up efforts such as enhanced action through the G20 and the U.S.-led Climate and Clean Air Coalition, which brings together states, the private sector, and NGOs to address short-lived climate pollutants such as methane, hyrdofluorocarbons, and black carbon, which are all more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Looking outside the U.N. talks

Regardless of the results of the Doha talks, it is important to remember that the new treaty being created by 2015 won’t take an ounce of carbon or any other greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere until 2020. In the meantime, parties must continue unilateral actions on climate change in good faith and as domestic strategies for economic growth. And we must pursue progress in forums outside the U.N. talks.

A new World Bank report warns that “we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” The report follows on the heels of the International Energy Agency 2011 World Energy Outlook release, which states that, “On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change,” and that, “We are on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C.”

It is clear that focusing on the official U.N. climate negotiations alone is not enough to put us on a pathway to limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. That’s why, as a complement to the U.N. climate change process, the Center for American Progress embraces a “multiple multilateralism” approach—a slate of multilateral agreements that can close the gap between anticipated unilateral mitigation commitments by parties until 2020 and reductions in greenhouse gases needed to put us on a pathway to climate safety by the end of the century.

A column released during the U.N. climate talks in Durban in December 2011 introduced our multiple multilateralism approach. An upcoming CAP report will expand on the approach and identify where emissions reductions can be realized in existing multilateral forums outside the U.N. climate change negotiations.

For instance, an agreement to phase down hydrofluorocarbons in the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer could reduce approximately 4 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent through 2020. The Montreal Protocol, originally agreed upon in September 1987, is an international agreement that successfully reduced ozone-depleting substances. The primary replacements for these pollutants, however, are hydrofluorocarbons, which have a high global warming potential. Hydrofluorocarbons, which are primarily used as refrigerants, are hundreds or tens of thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, but they are shorter lived. Their levels are projected to double by 2020, in large part because they are being used as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances that are being phased-out under the Montreal Protocol.

For the past four years, the United States, Canada, Mexico have jointly, and Micronesia has separately, introduced proposals to phase down hydrofluorocarbons in the Montreal Protocol, but the proposals have been blocked by India, China, and Brazil. International support for a phase down is growing, however, as evidenced by the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro’s inclusion of a “gradual phase-down in the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons” in the outcome document, “The Future We Want.

We must deliver on commitments such as the G20 fossil fuel subsidies phase-out, build on the success of initiatives such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and expand conversations to and within multiple forums. While the Doha meeting will likely end with stepwise progress toward a new international agreement, it is even more important now to look outside this conference to other forums for overcoming the emissions ambition gap we now face.

Rebecca Lefton is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center. Both work on international climate policy.


[1] Bolivia, China, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Venezuela participated in a meeting of the Like Minded Developing Countries Group in Beijing on October 18-19, 2012.

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Rebecca Lefton

Senior Policy Analyst

Andrew Light

Senior Fellow