Bad COP: An analysis of the UN climate talks in Doha

Bad COP: An analysis of the UN climate talks in Doha

Protesters march in Doha, Qatar. Organizers claim this was the first time civil society had organized a march on climate change in the Middle East. Photo by Arab Youth Climate Movement.

It’s hard to listen to reports on the UN climate conference in Doha without feeling like I’m listening to a broken record. It’s also hard to write about, as the agreements that were made in the past are constantly evolving, and because climate negotiations are hardly the most interesting thing going on in the world.

Nonetheless, the UN Conference of Parties (COP) summits are extremely important, because they represent the sum of international efforts to solve the climate crisis. Properly dealt with, climate change presents us with an opportunity to make the world a safer and fairer place. This is why much of the global justice movement (notably Naomi Klein) has diverted much of its efforts to climate activism. But UN Conference of Parties (COP) summits represent how not to react to the climate crisis. The best overview of the summits so far (and many of the arguments that unfolded in Doha) is this short, adorable little clip made by some Scandinavian animators about the history of what’s happened since 1992.

In spite of their significance, nobody has taken these conferences seriously – not world leaders, not environmentalist lobby groups, not even the UN itself – since the failure of the COP15 summit in Copenhagen in 2009. It’s pretty hard to generate enthusiasm for any sequel to what was largely billed at the time as “the last chance to save the planet from climate change”. The reason it was described as such was the scientific consensus that global emissions need to peak by 2015 and then decrease steadily thereafter, in order to avoid a tipping point where a triggering of the release of the earth’s natural carbon reserves would make a reversal of the warming process impossible.

Fast-forward three years, and we have just seen the end of yet another formulaic set of negotiations. After two weeks of bullying, posturing and absolutely no progress, it was announced that a deal had been reached after an intense set of last-minute crisis talks. As in previous summits, the Doha agreement(1) acknowledges that climate change is a problem but defers any real action to a later date. The Kyoto Protocol(2) is to be extended to a second commitment period lasting until 2020, when an international climate treaty (to be negotiated over the next two years) is to come into effect.

While some observers have hailed the Doha agreement as a turning point for its acknowledgement of the responsibility of Northern countries to provide climate aid to the developing world, disbursement of these funds has also been delayed. Developed countries formally pledged only $6 billion in climate aid. A widely-reported incident where the delegate from the Philippines burst into tears as he described the devastation wreaked by typhoon Bopha on his country and appealed to the international community for aid will go down as just another fruitless outburst in the history of the COPs. The other noteworthy incident was the presence of Lord Monckton, the self-promoted prince of climate denial. Dressed as “Monckton of Arabia”, he managed to impersonate the delegate for Myanmar and address the assembly with a tirade of conspiracies before being ejected by security. Monckton had intended to arrive at the conference on camelback, but Aziz the camel threw him into a sand dune.

In spite of Monckton’s efforts to make a credible case for his conspiracy theories, the existence of human-induced climate change was not up for debate. The majority of the tough discussions focused on economics and growth. Wealthy, developed nations like the U.S. and Europe were unwilling to cut emissions unless developing countries pledged to also make deep cuts because of the perceived negative economic impact of doing so. The US has also made clear its preference for the use of market mechanisms to reduce emissions. The abuse and collapse of both the European Emissions Trading Scheme and the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (which was extended as part of the Kyoto protocol) have already shown us that carbon markets don’t work.

Kumi Naidoo, head of Greenpeace International, criticized the position that the US had taken in Doha at a press conference at the end of the summit. “It’s interesting that yesterday, in the United States it was reported that the cost of reconstruction in New Jersey alone is $60 billion plus. It’s ironic that that’s the same amount of money that we’re trying to garner for the entire developing world to help them cope with this crisis…. Where is the priority, when in fact, even the CIA and the Pentagon have been telling that the biggest threat to peace and security is not going to come from conventional threats and terrorism, but from the impacts of [an already visible] climate change?”

It’s clear where priorities lie, not just for the United States, but also for many of the other countries at the table: with the oil and gas industry. Qatar, which did an abysmal job at hosting the talks, holds the current record of the largest emissions per capita of any country in the world, mostly due to its position as a powerhouse for natural gas extraction and the fuel-intensive technology that enables the water-deprived nation to function. Why would the Qatari government, committed as it is to protect its natural gas exports, encourage a country like the United Kingdom, currently highly addicted to Qatari gas, to set ambitious emission targets that encourage the use of renewables? Next year, the talks will be held in Poland, which is expanding its extraction of coal and shale gas at an alarming rate and will stop at nothing to keep doing so. It is inevitable that COP19 will be planned and arranged with the specific goal of protecting these business interests.

There are few better examples of the unsustainability of our current political and economic system than what just unfolded in Doha. The climate crisis can offer some very depressing moments, but it also presents us with an opportunity to create a better planet for everyone (and everything) that lives on it – so long as we don’t leave it as a problem for the UN to solve. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing on some of the inspiring projects that climate justice activists around the world have been working on.

(1) Doha agreement – also known as the Doha Climate Gateway. You can read the full text here. (It isn’t very long.)

(2) Kyoto Protocol – A good overview of the Kyoto Protocol can be found here. It’s worth noting that it has changed over the years (with various countries pulling out and the evolution of its different mechanisms) and that overall, it has not been successful in reducing emissions so far.