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Twenty years of talk about climate change

November 28, 2012

3-minute read

Doha, Qatar -- The 18th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is now underway in Doha, Qatar. This year’s president is His Excellency Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiya, chair of Qatar’s Administrative Control and Transparency Authority.

Al-Attiya said the conference is “a turning point” and participants have “a golden opportunity … over the coming days, and we should not miss it.” COP presidents usually utter such statements at the outset of negotiations.

Two decades ago the framework convention was born amidst the excitement of the Rio Earth Summit. A generation later, it’s hard to find much optimism around the climate change negotiations. There have been too many disappointments, too much backsliding by major industrialized nations, and far too many speeches that have talked out the clock every year around this time.

Meanwhile, the planet is telling us things.

This year saw new global climate records -- in high temperatures and droughts, in rainfall and floods, in Arctic sea ice reduction and in massive, unpredictable storms like Sandy which devastated the eastern coast of the United States and rolled, unstoppable for days, over a vast portion of the North American continent.

Earlier this month, the World Bank released an assessment of where things stand on climate change called Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C World Must be Avoided. It concluded that continued inaction by the world’s governments means we are all heading to a planet that will be four degrees warmer -- and it warns that this will have devastating consequences.

Yesterday, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report that says thawing permafrost, which covers one-quarter of the Northern Hemisphere could "significantly amplify global warming.” This at a time when the world is struggling to find a way to reduce human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The report states there are 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon locked in permafrost, twice the amount in the atmosphere. Climate models do not take this amount into consideration, it says, adding that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should consider a special assessment on permafrost.

This is also the year that the Kyoto Protocol runs out. Kyoto committed developed countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% over 1990 levels by 2012. Nearly all have failed. Some like the United States haven’t tried. One country, Canada, announced it is walking away from the treaty, an unprecedented move.

News reports indicate a deep divide already shaping up between developed and developing countries over this issue. Extending the Kyoto Protocol to 2017, as some nations are calling for, would allow time to get a treaty in place that would bind all countries to emissions reductions. At last year’s session in Durban, South Africa, countries agreed to have a treaty binding on all countries finalized by 2015 for implementation in 2020. As part of the deal, wealthy countries were supposed to extend their greenhouse gas reductions beyond the end of this year. The EU, Australia and a few other countries have said they will take on follow-up commitments. Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Russia have refused.

The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) is calling for a second, five-year period of greenhouse gas emissions targets under Kyoto.

AOSIS is led by Marlene Moses, Nauru’s UN ambassador. She is very clear about what the protocol means for small island countries around the world: Without “our only legally binding international agreement with quantifiable targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions… there is hardly any future for the most vulnerable, especially those members of AOSIS.”

There will also be talks in Doha about financing adaptation in the developing world. Last year, developed countries agreed to boost funding to $100 billion a year by 2020 - an increase from the $30 billion committed from 2010-2012. Who will contribute, how much  and how the fund will work are still to be determined.

Kelly Rigg is executive director of the Global Campaign for Climate Actions. "Doha,” Rigg says, “will send important signals about whether the world can still manage to keep warming within tolerable limits, or if we are headed for severe climate chaos."

Still, there were signs of hope this year, according Norwegian glaciologist Olav Orheim, chair of the board of GRID-Arendal, a Norwegian foundation that supports the work of the UNEP (full disclosure: GRID is the writer’s employer).

In a piece published this week on the website of the UK newspaper The Independent, Orheim suggested that the re-election of Barack Obama and the appointment of a new leadership in China may help put climate change on the world political agenda. Obama is in a second term and, despite the divided and fractious Congress, has more latitude now that he will never have to run for office again. Hu Jintao, the outgoing Chinese Communist Party chief, devoted a section to the environment in his speech to the recent party congress, perhaps a response to the increasing pressure from Chinese citizens angry about the state of their environment.

One can only hope Orheim is right. It will take both the US (the world’s largest per capita emitter) and China (the world’s largest emitter in total amount) to move the agenda. It’s a tall order and there is no time to waste if negotiators are to take advantage of Al-Attiyah’s “golden opportunity.”

John Crump is a CCPA research associate and an expert on Arctic and global environmental issues. This blog first appeared on the Many Strong Voices web site.

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