The annual ritual of the United Nations climate change conference, held this year at Doha, Qatar, has concluded after a “stoppage time” ending. It is hard to label the Doha summit as a success or a failure. In fact, in some ways it was both. On the one hand, a number of decisions were reached, providing greater clarity on the way forward. The Kyoto Protocol (the mechanism by which developed countries commit to reducing emissions), which was in intensive care unit, was renewed. On the other hand, no new tangible commitments were made. The summit exposed the deep chasm that now exists between country groups and highlighted how difficult negotiations would be going forward.
One of the important gains from Doha, though, was a small procedural success that bodes well for future negotiations. The climate negotiations have for a long time been a victim of the need for full consensus. Technically, all 192 countries have to consent if an agreement is to be reached. At the Doha conference, two powerful countries had strong reservations about certain issues; but in the face of “near-consensus”, these reservations were not allowed to become deal-breakers. First, the United States protested about a new “loss and damage” mechanism that proposes to compensate developing countries for climate change-induced natural disasters. Its chief negotiator, Todd Stern, was quoted by campaign groups as saying, “I will block this. I will shut this down.” But eventually, as the United States faced the prospect of being the last man standing, it came around and accepted the concept, the exact details of which are to be finalised next year. Second, Russia argued that it (along with Belarus, Ukraine and Poland) be allowed extra credit – colloquially called “hot air” – for the emission cuts they made when their industries collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian negotiator almost derailed the final plenary, arguing that there could be no agreement if his concerns were not addressed. The brave Chair of the conference virtually overruled the Russian negotiator, simply saying that he would reflect the Russian view in his report, but that this would not be allowed to derail the final agreement.
These incidents show that the complex negotiating system has developed the ability to reach agreement even in the face of stiff resistance from influential countries. While we will have to be careful that this is not misused, it sets a useful precedent.
But the climate negotiations will have to do better than the band-aid approach they seem to have been following over the last few years — where little or no progress is made for a whole year, and a weak deal is patched together in the closing hours of the annual conference, effectively keeping the negotiations just about alive for another year.
So how can things be improved?
First, we need to make negotiations an ongoing, rather than an episodic, process, with at least 120 to 150 days of active negotiations every year. Adequate funds need to be made available for this work (this will be a good use of the new climate funds!). This is the only way to rummage through all the gory detail that climate negotiations today involve. This “high-intensity” approach to negotiations needs to be complemented by regular high-level forums where influential political leaders come together, break deadlocks and make firm commitments. The UN Secretary-General’s proposal to have such one such high-level forum in 2014 is a good one, but we need to ensure these are action-oriented events where difficult choices are made, instead of just statesmanlike speeches.
Second, as we move ahead on the Durban Platform, we need to think about innovative solutions. While we should preserve the principles such as equity that are dear to us collectively, we should not become prisoners of the current framework. Some outstanding analytical work in the form of concrete proposals has been put forward by experts such as Mike Spence, Jeff Frankel, Nick Stern, Thomas Schelling, Aaditya Mattoo and Arvind Subramanian. These need to be critically examined and discussed with an open mind by countries.
Third, we must encourage a model that enables us to make progress even if some countries disagree — the search for consensus should not be confused with the search for unanimity. The overcoming of the US’ and Russia’s objections at Doha, for example, bodes well for the process.
Fourth, we need to move away from a pure “top-down” model, which focuses on imposing targets on countries — this simply doesn’t work in today’s geopolitics. We need to embed “bottom-up” elements — for example, giving countries more leeway in coming up with their targets and strategies, while agreeing to key common principles for an effective global framework. This needs to be accompanied by accountability mechanisms to verify adherence by countries to their commitments and a review mechanism every few years so that we can respond to new things science is telling us.
A successful future of climate negotiations may well rest on these pillars.
The writer is the Officer on Special Duty to the Union minister for rural development. These views are his own