COP18: Politics and Protocols


As Doha hosts the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Can ‘COP 18’ build on the successes of the previous conference, held in South Africa last year – or will negotiations stall again as they so often have at previous events? Mark van Dijk goes back to trace the history of climate change negotiations around the world and speculates on what this gathering of world powers means both for the State of Qatar and the health of the planet itself.

If you had been in the city of Durban in South Africa on the hot and humid morning of December 11, 2011, you would have felt a buzz of optimism around the city. In the early hours the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had concluded in the South African port city with an historic agreement on a legally binding deal to limit global carbon emissions. The accord would, for the first time, include all major emitters of greenhouse gases.

“What was achieved at 3.10 am was another stepping stone on a tortuous route to a world agreement on preventing climatic catastrophe,” read an editorial in that morning’s edition of Durban newspaper Daily News.

“The outcome in Durban is a coup for Africa,” a delighted South African President Jacob Zuma said at the time. “Issues that had taken so long to resolve have been resolved on our soil.”

It didn’t take long, though, for the celebrations to die down and the harsh realities of climate change to hit home. Within a week of the Durban summit, reports emerged that crop farmers in South Africa’s North West province had only managed to plant on 45 percent of arable land due to a lack of rainfall. Maize supplies plummeted, food prices rose. South Africa faced another summer of drought, and indeed, many places the world over faced another year of the purported consequences – thanks in part to industrial emissions – of climate change and global warming and its effects on crop yields, water shortages and natural disasters.

Nevertheless the South African COP 17 event was considered one of the more accomplished of its ilk. Former Durban city manager Michael Sutcliffe played a central role in organising the 2011 summit, COP 17. “It was an undoubted success,” he says. “The Durban Platform was agreed upon and a commitment made to continuing with the Kyoto Protocol, among other decisions.”

Now, as Doha prepares to host this year’s summit, from Monday 26 November to Friday 7 December, Sutcliffe is in Qatar providing advice to COP 18 project director, Reda Ali. “This is a very complex event to organise and the project director’s teams are doing a great job to ensure that the logistics are in place,” Sutcliffe says. “I do believe the State of Qatar has a great opportunity to not just take the negotiations forward, but to play a role in bridging the divides which often bedevil such complicated negotiations.”

For the MENA region – and for Qatar in particular – the COP 18 summit could not have come at a more crucial moment. The question remains, though: will the Doha talks bring about more real solutions?


“Governments have promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions and help the poor and vulnerable adapt to climate change,” UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres said in September at a pre-COP 18 meeting in Bangkok, Thailand. “They know they must implement these promises fully, raise their efforts before 2020 and redouble those efforts again after 2020. Soon, in Doha, they must show implementation and set the pace towards adopting a new, universal climate agreement by 2015. The next three years are set to drive the next two decades of the international response to climate change.”

At a pre-COP 18 meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres urged world governments to make good on their promises to tackle climate change challenges when they meet in Doha later this month. (Image Corbis)

If the past two decades are anything to go by, those next three years are going to bring a deluge of diplomatic disagreements and legal wrangling. Since the Earth Summit in 1992, United Nations (UN) member states have spent COP after COP trying to balance the economic demands of today with the environmental consequences of tomorrow. COP 18, it seems to the outside observer, will be no different.

To get a sense of how sensitive these negotiations can be, consider the Kyoto Protocol. Negotiated at COP3 in 1997, the treaty only came into effect at COP 11 in 2005. Linked to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Protocol sets binding targets for 37 industrialised countries and the European Community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These, according to the treaty, amount to an average of five percent against 1990 levels over the five-year period from 2008 to 2012.

“The major distinction between the Protocol and the Convention,” according to the United Nations’ official report (their emphasis), “is that while the Convention encouraged industrialised countries to stabilise GHG emissions, the Protocol commits them to do so.

“Recognising that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity,” the report goes on, “the Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.”

At COP17 in Durban, governments noted with “grave concern” the gap between the current pledges to curb emissions and the reality of what was required to limit the increase of global average temperatures to, at the most, two degrees Celsius.

Until COP17, China – ranked by the UN as world’s biggest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter – and India (ranked fourth), had been exempt from constraints because of their classification as ‘developing countries’. Meanwhile, the United States (ranked second) has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, while Canada (ranked eighth) has withdrawn its commitment, and both Russia (fifth) and Japan (sixth) have officially announced that they will not join the second commitment period.

“Qatar has a great opportunity to play a role in bridging the divides that often bedevil these conferences.” – Michael Sutcliffe, senior advisor, COP 18.


It took two weeks of intense negotiations before a deal was struck at COP 17 in Durban – and even then, the summit had to add an extra day. Sutcliffe, however, does not expect similar difficulties at COP 18 in Doha. “No, I wouldn’t think so, primarily because Durban focussed on setting the framework for the next few years and that made things more difficult,” he says. “This is not going to happen in Doha, but there are also very complicated and very practical issues which must be resolved in Doha. One thing is that you can never predict how negotiations go and so I would not say never would there be another extension like Durban.”

A recent report by the analytics firm ISpy Publishing shows that up to 630,000 terawatt hours of solar energy are going unused in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region’s deserts; while British risk analysis consultancy firm Maplecroft recently ranked Qatar as the second-highest “extreme risk” country (behind Bahrain, and ahead of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) on its annual Water Stress Index. With water in such short supply and with so much potential solar power going to waste, climate change management is becoming a key issue in Qatar’s future.

“This is a challenge for the world as a whole,” says Sutcliffe, “and while Qatar is a small country, it has a great opportunity to provide leadership over the next year in taking the climate change negotiations forward. Its work on building a knowledge economy, where the green sector (from energy to water to food and sanitation) is critical, is of note here. Actively working to get communities mobilised as they have to find ways to both do everything possible to mitigate climate change and adapt to the effects of climate change is going to help the Middle East and the world do what must be done. These are all issues ensuring that we balance economic, social and environmental priorities and the Middle East must continue to contribute towards global solutions to this major challenge.”

For the Middle East and North Africa region – and for Qatar in particular – the COP 18 summit could not have come at a more crucial moment. The question remains, though: will the Doha talks bring about more real solutions, or will it all be more deadlocks?


Delegates coming to COP 18 can expect hours of conferences and meetings aimed at resolving many of the world’s climate change problems, in particular carbon emissions – though perhaps not to the degree of the negotiations at COP 17 in Durban, South Africa pictured here, some of which extended past midnight. (Image Reuters/Corbis)

This month’s summit in Doha could go one of two ways. A successful meeting would see all parties agreeing to the details of a second period of commitment to the Kyoto Protocols, and finalising the deal for Long-Term Climate Action. One potential stumbling block – which emerged at informal, pre-COP 18 talks in Bangkok in mid-September – is the tension between the United States and Europe Union on one side, and Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the so-called BRICS states) on the other, over the exact meaning of the two sides’ common but differentiated obligations. That aside, the major focus in Doha will be on establishing a work plan for 2013 and 2014, which will ultimately lead to the new legal agreement (agreed to in principal at COP17) on climate change.

This article first appeared in TheEDGE 4.11, November 2012.


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