High stakes, low pressure: A winning combination for COP 18 in Doha?

30 November 2012

DOHA, QATAR - On Monday the latest UN Climate Change Conference (COP 18) took off in Doha, Qatar. The general impression of participants here is that this is the most "relaxed" UNFCCC COP in recent years (however pressing the need to address climate change), and indeed the atmosphere is positive. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres yesterday in a briefing said that the trust between parties is very high compared to COP 15 in Copenhagen, but probably not high enough to reach a meaningful global agreement on climate change by 2015, which is what governments are aiming for over the next 3 years, it.

The venue for the conference is a gleaming new Qatar National Convention Centre and, as in Cancun, the venue is at quite a distance from the hotels where most participants sleep. This COP is smaller in attendance than those held in the past three years, but the hallways of the venue are starting to fill up.

The COP opened with outgoing president of the COP South Africa warning that the Durban Platform (ADP) negotiations - which took off at COP 17 in Durban and should result in a global agreement by 2015 - should not simply be the Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) negotiations in a different jacket (it was agreed in Durban that the LCA negotiation track would be wrapped up here in Doha). When COP 17 president Maite Nkoana-Mashabane handed the presidency over to Qatar, many climate-watchers were surprised to note that COP 18 president Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah made no mention of his country's emission targets in his opening address. Qataris have the highest per-capita carbon dioxide emissions in the world (80 tonnes of CO2/capita).

Key issues at COP 18

In terms of substantive issues, the following potential ADP elements are being discussed here over the two week conference.

    • Strengthening mitigation ambitions


    • Financing: (how) will the Green Climate Fund (GCF) work? How much climate finance will be committed over the next few years?


    • Bringing some order to carbon markets



    • Equity and the implementation of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR)


    • Adaptation


    • Transparency and accountability (measurement, reporting and verification of emissions)


    • Technology: how to link to finance? Should intellectual property rights (IPRs) be further discussed in the UNFCCC? How to make the different mechanisms for technology cooperation such as the Technology Mechanism work?


    • Other support for developing countries and capacity building

Of these issues, the most important will be climate finance, as this will be crucial to convincing developing countries to be engaged in negotiations over the next three years.

Also crucial will be the way in which the LCA will be closed and what will be included in the new ADP negotiation track. The Durban decision did not state the content of the post-2020 "agreement," so the key deliverable for Doha is an outline and principal stages of the ADP work schedule over the next 3 years, which should culminate in an agreement by 2015, and which should enter into force by 2020.

At least as important as the topics in the post-2020 agreement will be the way in which they are treated; there will be a need to mix top-down with bottom-up approaches in order to secure buy-in by all countries. For further ideas on mixing a "contractual" with a "facilitative" approach see this excellent paper by Daniel Bodansky of Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. The ideas in this paper deserve to be worked out further as the need for policy innovations could not be bigger.

Then there will also be negotiations on a second commitment for the Kyoto Protocol (KP) here in Doha. The KP covers only 10 percent of global emissions though and it is already clear that, despite limited participation by developed countries, there will be a second commitment period; in Doha negotiators need to figure out the duration of the second commitment period and technical details.

Notable in the negotiations is that the "gender day" on Tuesday has had a clear impact on the negotiations as there was a strong impetus to integrate the specific interests of women in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Trade issues a focal point for forum on "response measures"

On Tuesday a series of meetings of the "forum on response measures" started. The forum has been established to discuss the impacts of measures which countries take to address climate change. Many of these "response measures" have an impact on trade and sustainable development and, as such, ICTSD has been a strong proponent of the forum on response measures which was put in place in Durban in 2011. Examples of response measures are emissions trading schemes, levies on air and maritime transport, government incentives for clean energy, carbon labelling, and border carbon measures. Developing countries would be particularly vulnerable to such taxes at the border on carbon, because, typically, their exports are relatively carbon intensive.

In the workshop, subsidies for clean energy were given as an example of both response measures to climate change and of industrial policy. Some potential negative effects of subsidies were given, such as loss of innovative capacity, loss of competitiveness in the long run, and loss of market share for renewable energy and fossil fuel producers. On the other hand, subsidies can have benefits for mitigation but the impact of subsidies for clean energy on sustainable development is highly complicated and needs more analysis.

In the forum on response measures in Doha, different experts and countries shared their perspectives on response measures, ranging from adverse impacts of response measures on developing countries to sharing best practices. Some developing countries said that once there is an outcome in the UNFCCC, then more specific rules for low-carbon trade which safeguard equitable sustainable development will need to be discussed at the WTO. Also in the context of reporting on response measures, the WTO's Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM) and reporting to the WTO's Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee were referred to as best practices.

The workshop also showed the linkages between response measures and the need for robust enabling frameworks for low-carbon trade and investment. In this context, ICTSD has made proposals and has done research on potential Sustainable Energy Trade Initiatives (SETIs), and in Doha ICTSD will launch a public-private partnership on SETIs. SETIs would be one way to deal with or prevent negative impacts of response measures (e.g., subsidies and local content).

ICTSD events in Doha take off

Besides the launch of the SETI Alliance, ICTSD is organising several events on trade and climate change. ICTSD yesterday hosted an official side event on green innovation where experts showed the possibilities of technological leapfrogging and demonstrated how the crafting of enabling frameworks for innovation is a crucial government task. Technological development happens through licensing, mergers and acquisitions, and global learning networks. However, when designing domestic incentives for development of clean energy technologies it is important to avoid conflicts with WTO rules.

In this side event, ICTSD presented its latest research on fast-tracking schemes for green patents. This research shows that fast-tracking can reduce the time needed to obtain green patents, and can commercialise clean technology faster. Also fast tracking leads to faster and wider knowledge diffusion.

On Friday morning, ICTSD hosted an event on access to sustainable energy for all which will feed into further ICTSD analysis based on case studies and on Saturday, there will be a dialogue on the trade impacts of government incentives for low-carbon development.