Governments are gathering in the Qatari capital of Doha for the annual UNFCCC climate change negotiations. Following the failure of Copenhagen in 2009, the modest successes of Cancun and Durban resuscitated the process, the plan now is to agree a deal in 2015 to come into force in 2020.
Whilst this offers some cause for hope, it is unlikely to stop dangerous climate change, defined as a rise in the global average temperature of 2 degrees centigrade or more. Current emissions trajectories mean the window during which global emissions must be brought to heal in order to avoid this has all but closed. Privately, most experts now concede that we are facing temperature rises that are considerably higher and climatic changes that are considerably more dangerous.
That we collectively face this prospect after eighteen years of global negotiations tasked specifically with preventing it, is symptomatic of the politics of climate change and energy rather than the negotiations themselves. Whilst the talks may not have produced much directly, they have provided a rationale for governments to take action themselves. For example, the European Climate and Energy Package owes much to the EU’s wish to position itself as a leader in the negotiations before Copenhagen.
The failure of the talks to have delivered much directly is primarily political. Countries (and industries) facing short term costs from a transition away from fossil fuels have proven highly effective at stalling and blocking progress. As such, negotiations have been grindingly slow.
Much of the 2012 Doha agenda is depressingly familiar. Can the Kyoto Protocol – currently the only instrument under which countries can take on legally binding emissions reductions – be extended with a new round of commitments? How will the needs of poor countries, to adapt to climate change and adopt clean technologies, be funded, especially now that the round of financing pledges announced at Copenhagen has finished? How can overall ambition to reduce emissions be increased? Behind all these questions lies the larger one: how can a global deal be formulated that i) builds from the Kyoto Protocol ii) accommodates emerging economies iii) accommodates the US and; iv) delivers action?
These questions are unlikely to be answered at Doha. The meeting will be considered a success if a derailment is avoided and things remain on course for an agreement in 2015. However this is a dangerous measure of success. If too much is left to be agreed in 2015 because earlier meetings failed to tackle key issues or find the grounds for compromise, then it may prove impossible to strike a deal when the deadline comes. A similar dynamic contributed to the failure at Copenhagen in 2009.
Energy politics seem unlikely to improve in the near term. New discoveries of fossil fuels and new technologies to extract them, point towards the perpetuation of existing energy sources and sectoral dependencies. Thanks to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, the US can now expect to be largely energy independent within a couple of decades. Whilst a shift from coal to gas in the US and other developed economies will help reduce national emissions in the medium term, there is plenty of growing demand for coal elsewhere: worldwide 1,200 new coal-fired power stations are planned, nearly two thirds of them in rapidly developing India and China. Clean energy faces an uphill struggle against abundant fossil fuels, incumbent industries and entrenched interests.
It may be climate change itself that eventually unlocks the negotiations. This year, the US Midwest experienced its worst drought in 60 years just before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. International food prices have spiked three times in the last five years, with extreme weather implicated each time. Droughts have triggered successive food crises in East and West Africa in the last two years. Whilst these events cannot be directly attributed to climate change, events like them will become more frequent and more severe as climate change gathers pace.
As the human and economic costs of extreme weather begin to accelerate, so too may the demand for decisive collective action on climate change. Should this time come, the value of the UNFCCC will be obvious.