COP 18 comes with low expectations, but it is critical to put the nuts and bolts together for a global climate change agreement.
For the first time in ages a COP is happening with few expectations. Held in Doha, Qatar, over the next two weeks, the 18th gathering of the world's environmental minds is being hailed as an important stepping stone in the process towards a legally-binding agreement on climate change. But it will not have the dazzling headlines and agreements of past COPs.
This comes after the surprise result of the last Congress of the Parties (COP) held in Durban, where a new agreement was hammered out in the early hours of the morning after the conference had ended. The agreement, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, aimed to "develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force applicable for all parties".
And what makes this important is the "legal force" and "all parties" parts. All previous global climate change talks broke down because the big emitters stayed out and any compromise agreements were voluntary. This left the historic Kyoto Protocol listless.
The platform is going to be developed by 2015, and will come into force by 2020. This means the big decision has been made, and Doha gets to hammer out all the details of this and other things that were left at a loose end in Durban.
Nick Nuttall, spokesperson of the United Nations Environment Programme, said there should be two tangible outcomes from Doha. The first would be the finalisation of how and when the Green Climate Fund will be financed. The second would be a network of green centres of excellence to bring expertise to countries to help them develop sustainably, when they would otherwise not be able to afford and access the required skills.
The Green Climate Fund is a huge political issue. The end aim is to have $100-billion a year in the fund by 2020. To kick-start it $30-billion was to be available between 2010 and now. To date all that has happened has been an agreement that it will be headquartered in South Korea.
Rashmi Mistry, the climate change advisor at Oxfam, said, "The major need for countries like South Africa is financial backing for climate change projects." But despite commitments from the rich world, she said the fund will remain empty when the two-year period ends.
Mike Shanahan, spokesperson for the International Institute for Environment and Development, said only $24-billion of the $30-billion has been committed. "And only 20% of the fast start finance has been allocated to projects that will help poor nations adapt to a changing climate," he said.
"Less than half of this finance is in the form of grants. The rest is loans, which means poor countries must repay with interest the costs of adapting to a problem that they have not caused," he said.
With the money for a sustainable development path not there, the levels of carbon emissions are reaching record levels. Last week the United Nations Environment Programme released a report showing that greenhouse gas emissions are 14% above where they need to be by 2020%. This is a 20% increase from 2000 and will represent 50 gigatonnes of emissions by 2020.
These emissions need to be at 44 gigatonnes by 2020 if a low-carbon development path can be achieved affordably, it said. If this is not done, the report concluded that the cost of reducing emissions will be up to 15% higher by 2020.
Achim Steiner, the programme’s executive director, said, "The sobering fact remains that a transition to a low carbon economy is happening far too slowly and the opportunity for meeting the 44 gigatonne target is narrowing annually."
And while governments are still negotiating a new agreement by 2015, they need to urgently do something to curb emissions now. "There is a wide range of complementary voluntary measures that can bridge the gap between ambition and reality now rather than later," he said.
Martin Kaiser, Greenpeace climate campaigner, said that coal had accounted for nearly two-thirds of the recent increase in carbon dioxide emissions. This has pushed total greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to nearly 400 parts per million – 450 is considered the maximum level if average temperature increases are to be kept around two degrees.
Harmke Immink, a director and carbon advisor at Promethium Carbon, said the central issue in Doha will be the individual commitments countries make to reducing their emissions now. This will also create some certainty over a marker for trading carbon credits, she said.
And to help give the kind of information for such a system, Doha should help finalise a system of monitoring, reporting and verification. “This will have a direct impact on business through mandatory reporting requirements and sectoral requirements,” she said.
In a major discussion document on its plans for Doha, the UK government said it was important for the rich world to increase its ambitions for lowering its carbon emissions by 20% to 30% by 2020. It also said that it was critically important for the EU to work with the Brics countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) to create an equitable agreement on who does what and who pays.
The first week of Doha is about thrashing out details and plans. The second week will see the big political players arriving to rubber stamp any agreements. And this year the question will be whether Barack Obama will come to give increased support after he promised to champion climate change issues.