The YCEI Fellows Reflect on COP-18

Student Group: 
Now back in New Haven, CT, a week after the conclusion of the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, the Yale Climate & Energy Institute’s COP18 Fellows  reflect on their experiences and some of the key highlights of the conference.

What was your overall impression of the COP-18?

Jose: Doha was the one COP where everyone knew the outcomes in advance and diverted efforts to deal with minutiae and details on every parallel track. The COP presidency didn’t engage as expected; therefore, the efforts fell more on the shoulders of facilitators in the various negotiating tracks. Since the big efforts were in the hands of very few countries, the action was diverted to the details of specific negotiation texts, for example those relating to capacity building and technology transfer. These two texts seemed initially innocuous and requiring little debate, ended with long discussions mired in political details that were originally not even in the text.  Detailed and engaged discussions should’ve happened on substantial agreements on more meaty issues, like financing, and the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

What did you feel was the most memorable moment?

Eli: At the end of the week, after Typhoon Bopha had killed over 500 people and displaced thousands more, Philippines lead negotiator Naderev Saño broke down with emotion during his speech to the floor of the AWG-KP plenary. “Every single hour, even as we vacillate and procrastinate here, we are suffering. There is widespread devastation back at home…we have never had a typhoon like Bopha, and heartbreaking tragedies like this are not unique to the Philippines…I appeal to the leaders from all over the world to open our eyes to the stark reality we face… if not us, who? If not here, where?” As he went on, his voice choked with emotion, the hall fell silent. When he concluded, most of the plenary hall erupted in applause.  It was a much needed infusion of emotion after an endless wash of vague promises and stilted speeches on CBDR (Common But Differentiated Responsibility). Fellow YCEI fellow William and I were both moved, and we thanked Saño for his passion after the plenary concluded.

If you could change one thing about the COP process to make it work better what would you change?

Ben: One of the most remarkable aspects of the COP is how democratic, how gloriously polyphonic, it is. Where else can, say, the miniscule Solomon Islands stand up before the world’s wealthiest and most populous countries and have their say? The most powerful moments of any COP invariably occur when island nations bring their moral high ground to bear during a plenary, like the one given by the Philippines’ lead negotiator Naderev Sano, as Eli mentioned previously. There’s no question that such speeches are vital for communicating just how dire climate change is, and for forcing recalcitrant negotiators to communicate that their actions have human consequences, and for making sure that the poorest and most impacted nations get the compensation they deserve.
But there were times, too, when I couldn’t help feeling that the whole thing was cacophonous and dysfunctional, and that it was thanks in part to the plurality of voices that COP encourages. The fact is, the vast majority of the countries at the COP won’t be part of any mitigation solution.  If most countries can’t help on the mitigation front, their role at the COP is primarily to call the biggest emitters to action.
For that reason, I’ve heard more than a few people recommend that climate negotiations leave the UNFCCC altogether and migrate to the G20 — whose members represent about 80% of the world’s carbon emissions — or the Major Economies Forum. Now, that’s a little drastic, and it’s also horribly iniquitous: I would hate to imagine the fate of the world being decided in a back room by the wealthiest, and most irresponsible, actors, while the most vulnerable nations are left out in the decision-making cold. And yet I can’t help but think this whole situation would be a lot easier to resolve if, say, China, India, the U.S., and the E.U got put in a room together to hash something out.

Did you speak with any negotiators and did they share any inside perspective?

William: The New Zealand team had some very clear goals coming into the negotiation: (1) not to commit to the CP2 of the KP, (2) to lobby for access to the carbon market mechanisms under the KP framework while remaining uncommitted, and (3) not to increase financing commitments. I have spent much time with the N.Z. negotiation team, which was an ensemble of skilful diplomats who were supposed to push these mandates from top. Most of the time in our conversations, the answers negotiators gave were largely the political platitudes — justifications of why N.Z. is doing what it was doing. Yet, on one occasion, the deputy lead negotiator of N.Z. mentioned, “keep in mind that things are not going to get any worse - we have a right wing government at the moment.” This value judgment from the negotiator showed that this particular person, like many of us, was not very happy with what was going on, either. However, due to the nature of their role, they were mere conveyors of what’s already been decided back in New Zealand. This, once again, highlighted the need for governments to show strong leadership within a national context.
One of the most controversial issues at the COP this year was the issue of compensation for losses and damages incurred by developing countries as a result of developed countries’ overwhelming contribution to climate change. Why was this such a hot-button issue?  
Ben: I’ve been fascinated by the many different ways in which the Loss and Damage conversation has been interpreted in the media. It’s true that the phrase “Loss and Damage” does appear in the text now, which has been interpreted as a victory for the small, vulnerable countries that will be most impacted by climate change. Similarly, the United States’ willingness to ultimately allow the phrase — after declaring throughout the conference that they wouldn’t permit it to remain — has been seen as a significant concession from a country that typically doesn’t make concessions.
At the same time, I read remarks from developing countries’ heads of state suggesting that they were outraged by the way Loss and Damage worked out. That’s because the US did win one subtle but important point: the word “compensation,” which according to most analysts would have implied legal liability for the biggest emitters, was deliberately left out of the final text. Not only that, but no mechanism for transferring Loss and Damage payments has been developed or even seriously proposed. So, while global agreement to eventual Loss and Damage funding is an important development, it appears that L&D payments are still years away from actually occurring; it is this disconnect — between long-term consensus and short-term inaction — that has produced diverse interpretations and frustration on both sides of the debate.     

What was the most memorable side event you attended?

Alexander: “Pathways to Sustainable Energy Systems: Opportunities and Challenges,” about national transitions to renewable energy, with Peter Altmaier, Federal Environment Minister, speaking for Germany, Xie Zhenhua, NDRC Vice-Chair,  speaking for China, Edna Molewa, Environment Minister, speaking for South Africa, and, last but not least, Fouad Douiri, Minister for Energy and Environment, speaking for Morocco. The panel was moderated by Andrew Steer, President of the World Resources Institute.

Lauren: A side event on the last day hosted by the World Council of Churches called “Ethical and Religious Insights on the Climate Crisis”.  It was a refreshing change of topic that appealed to the humanity of the climate crisis, not negotiations of positions and interests.

What were your impressions of the host city for the COP: Doha, Qatar?

Alexander: I myself was struck by how most of Doha’s inhabitants are international and very few  are actually Qatari. Only one-fifth of the national population is native to Qatar, the rest being of Indian, Nepali, Filipino, and other ethnicities. I began by speaking Modern Standard Arabic on the streets, but I later discovered that only two-fifths of the population are Arab; English served me better than Arabic.

Lauren: Doha was an unusual choice to host an environmental conference.  It lacks some of the basic features of a city that is serious about reducing its carbon footprint and improving its overall sustainability, such as a viable recycling program.  Tackling climate change is a daunting task, and it is important that the environment in which the conference is hosted reinforces the aspirations of climate negotiations themselves.