This week sees the start of the 18th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, or COP18 for short, in Doha, Qatar. This should be a busy transitional COP, with much on the agenda to resolve and important steps forward being taken toward a long term international agreement. But procedural issues, agenda disagreements and fundamental sticking points could still dominate, leading to a two week impasse. Let’s hope not.

At the core of the process lie three work streams which have evolved over many years.

The oldest of these is the discussion on the Kyoto Protocol (KP), which has now been running in one form or another for most of the twenty year history of the UNFCCC. Discussion on a second commitment period (KP2) over the past years have embodied the toughest issues in the climate negotiations, such as the role of developing countries in reducing emissions, engagement with North America (neither Canada or the United States will participate going forward) and the need to put a robust price on CO2 emissions. I am a big fan of KP, despite its shortcomings. It was designed with carbon pricing as its central theme, allowed countries to trade to find lowest cost abatement pathways and through its architecture encouraged signatories to implement cap-and-trade based policy frameworks within their respective economies. The simple but clever ideas within it have not been matched since in terms of effectiveness and efficiency despite years of negotiations. Given sufficient willingness, there are clearly routes forward by which KP could evolve to become the much sought after “21st Century global agreement”, but instead it is reaching the end of its shelf life. There seems to be no resolution with North America under this banner, developing countries appear reluctant to let it be the approach to govern their much needed actions and even the country of its namesake city is unwilling to sign again on the dotted line. Australia and the EU remain as the KP bedrock, if for no other reason than to rescue the CDM and consummate their carbon market linkage with a common approach to accounting, offsets and single market currency (AAUs and CERs). The parties do need to agree on KP2, despite the lack of critical mass, and then roll forward its inherent carbon market architecture into the new grand design.

Next comes the discussion on long term cooperative action, or LCA, a workstream which appeared in 2007 at the Bali COP and is home to a broad range of developments from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA), the much discussed New Market Mechanism (NMM) and more recently the Framework for Various Approaches (FVA). It was meant to deliver the grand deal at Copenhagen in 2009 but didn’t and now labours on with many loose ends and partially thought through ideas which have not been implemented or even fully negotiated. Nevertheless it has been a useful testing ground for new thinking, but has not yet delivered any real mitigation action. It needs to stop now, but difficult issues remain such as the funding of the Green Climate Fund and the modalities for actually spending any money that may arrive in its coffers. These spinoffs from the LCA will need to continue under one of the Subsidiary Bodies or within the ADP (see below) discussions, but the parent discussion should be put to rest in Doha.

Now comes “the new hope”, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. For some, the parties at COP17 simply kicked the can 9 years down the road knowing that little new progress would be made, but for many this represents a much needed and major reboot of the process after years of making almost no progress at all on the respective roles of developed, emerging and developing economies. As Harvard’s Rob Stavins noted in his blog of January 2012;

Now, the COP-17 decision for “Enhanced Action” completely eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction.  It focuses instead on the (admittedly non-binding) pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (that is, all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force (after ratification) by 2020.  Nowhere in the text of the decision will one find phrases such as “Annex I,” “common but differentiated responsibilities,” or “distributional equity,” which have – in recent years – become code words for targets for the richest countries and a blank check for all others.

We should not over-estimate the importance of a “non-binding agreement to reach a future agreement,” but this is a real departure from the past, and marks a significant advance along the treacherous, uphill path of climate negotiations.

Although there have been some opening salvos fired in the ADP (Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action) in various inter-sessional meetings this year, the heavy lifting for this work stream needs to start at COP18. In recent months the IEA, the World Bank, PWC and others have all made it abundantly clear that unless some truly meaningful progress is made in the sort term, the 2 deg.C goal will pass us by (it may already have) and that before we know it we will be looking at a 4 deg.C outcome, along with all its consequences. Even the timetable for the ADP, which seeks to reach agreement by 2015 for implementation in 2020 is problematic in terms of the need for immediate action, but it is what it is.

The ADP needs to define a work programme that embraces the five primary strands of action coming out of the KP and LCA, namely;

  • National action defined through specific targets, goals and actions, but aligned with the overarching mitigation objective. This would also include REDD.
  • An underlying carbon market infrastructure as currently embodied by the KP but adapted to the applicable framework for mitigation action. Without an evolving price on carbon in the international energy markets, mitigation action will stall. This work stream should also pick up the NMM discussion.
  • A funding mechanism that can leverage private sector finance for kickstarting technologies and helping less developed economies invest in a low carbon pathway forward. This is the GCF.
  • A continuation of the work of the TEC and CTCN to share knowledge and best practice arising from technology implementation.
  • A robust approach to adaptation.

Recently the World Business Council for Sustainable Development resurfaced work that it undertook back at the start of the LCA, but which is highly relevant to the first of the two prospective work areas above. “Establishing a Global Carbon Market” looks at how the substance of the KP carbon market can be applied much more broadly to an evolving world of various approaches.

The above represents a tall order for two weeks work, but with some 10,000 people in tow there is certainly enough labour at hand to get this heavy lifting done. A refined single track approach will bring much needed focus back to the discussions which then paves the way for at least some hope that the 2015 goal for a new agreement can be met. In summary, the big asks for this COP are:

  1. Agreeing a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol through to 2020 and then politely ushering this Grand Dame of the UNFCCC off the stage with some reverence and applause.
  2. Bringing closure to the LCA work programme and shifting some key components (e.g. GCF, TEC) into the formulation of the ADP.
  3. Establishing a clear work programme for the ADP, which incorporates as a priority, the foundations for a continuing and evolving global carbon market.

Good luck and success to all the delegates.