Governments keep fiddling while earth burns

The agenda unfinished at successive climate summits is mind-boggling, but negotiators continue to haggle and fiddle at the edges while the earth keeps heating up. As Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, put it, the current November 26 to December 7 summit at Qatar capital Doha, still has five major unfinished tasks

* “Agreement on an amendment to the Kyoto Protocol,” the only legally enforceable agreement under which developed countries must reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are warming the earth, and whose first commitment period runs out this month;

* “A clear path on climate finance,” with poor nations seeking a roadmap to 2020, by which time rich nations have promised to mobilize $100 billion a year to help the world moving to a greener development path;

* “Effective review of the long-term global goal” to keep temperature rise within two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times;

* “An urgent response to the widening emissions gap,” with current emission commitments falling around 40% short of what is needed to reach the two-degree goal according to the United Nations Environment Programme, The World Meteorological Organization warning that concentrations of the main GHG carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are at never-before levels, and the World Bank expressing the fear that the earth is moving towards a four-degree rise, with consequences catastrophic for human civilization as we know it; and

* “A firm foundation for a long-term framework applicable to all, equitably instituted and responsive to science,” the point of maximum discord at this summit, with rich nations insisting on a regime where all countries take on legally enforceable GHG emission reduction pledges by 2015 – effective after 2020 – and poor nations equally insistent that their rich counterparts first keep promises on financing and transfer of green technologies, issues that many rich countries are not even willing to discuss.

Ban ki Moon, United Nations Secretary General, arrived in Doha and immediately added his voice to Figueres, saying the combat against climate change “should be led by the developed world. They should provide technology and financial support to mitigate and adopt. While the climate change phenomenon was caused mostly by industrialized countries, the impact hits all, rich or poor.” He also repeated his warning that “the window of opportunity” to combat climate change “is closing” and that “our actions need to keep up with the scale of the challenge. This is technologically possible and financially viable. What is needed is political will.” Ban could not be starker than when he said about the 194 governments whose representatives are gathered here, “We have a clear choice. Stand together or fall together.”

But in the negotiating rooms, government representatives continued to point fingers at one another, with poor nations effectively accusing rich nations of breach of promise, while rich nations kept saying they could not do more, unless large developing countries like China and India took on legally enforceable emission reduction pledges – something which they have repeatedly refused to do, given the fact that most of the GHG in the air has been put there by rich countries and that the per capita emissions in poor countries are still below the levels in rich countries.

As ministers from around the world arrived for the summit finale, bureaucrats who had been leading the negotiations so far passed all these unresolved issues to the political level. The ministers are supposed to meet informally on Wednesday to see what they can do to resolve these issues. If past summits are an indication, they will not be able to do much more than agree to keep talking, while most of the world goes on in its business-as-usual path, ignoring the climate change crisis that is already affecting farming worldwide, making droughts, floods and storms more frequent and more severe, and raising the sea level. At a parallel summit for business leaders, Peter Bakker, present of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, pointed out that entrepreneurs were not willing to risk more in green technologies because governments were not clear about the policies they would pursue.

There have been a few beacons of light amid all the doom and gloom. Some rich countries, including host Qatar, are expected to make substantial financial pledges to help poor countries move to a greener development path. Britain made a pledge totalling € 2.2 billion.

Throughout 2012, the UNFCCC has been running a competition among projects in the developing world that reduce carbon emissions while helping the urban poor. The award ceremony for this initiative, called Momentum for Change, was held during the summit on Tuesday evening. Nine projects, including bus rapid transport systems in Guangzhou, China, and Ahmedabad, India, received awards. Speaking at the ceremony, UN chief Ban ki Moon said the need was to scale up worldwide from these pilot projects.

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