No surprise, Connie: Doha was a failure

This is a response to European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard’s article entitled "Why the Doha climate conference was a success." It is soon to be available on New York Times dotearth blog. 

By Anjali Appadurai and Nathan Thanki

Connie Hedegaard doesn’t respond to our tweets. She ignores us in the halls of UN climate talks. So when we read her in the Guardian dismissing civil society frustration at the outcome of the recent talks in Doha, we had to set the record straight. Doha’s outcome was not even a partial success and did not come as a surprise to civil society, as Hedegaard suggests. Rather, we have only been grimly affirmed in our observation that the “leadership” of the world still seems to suffer from the remarkable cognitive dissonance that characterizes the type of outcome Hedegaard calls a success. To label it as such is insulting.

Worse – it is dangerous.

Yes, if things go according to plan for the big 2015 climate talks, they will yield a new "outcome with agreed legal force," probably similar to the Kyoto Protocol. But that deal won’t even come into force until 2020, nearly a decade down the road. While the science tells us that global emissions must peak by 2020 in order to have a 40% chance of staying below two degrees of warming, our leaders tell us to trust them while they manufacture a deal with the odds increasingly stacked against them.

Regardless of the timeline, Doha was supposed to lay a strong foundation for an effective 2015 deal, and it failed in this regard. Instead, what have we?

We have a purely symbolic second commitment period of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The EU commitment of 20% reductions below 1990 levels is already fulfilled thanks to a couple of lone stars and several members’ declining economies – but without setting further targets before 2020, they are congratulating themselves for eight years of inaction.  A 40% minimum reduction was demanded by the small islands – supposed allies of the EU – but that was never considered. A five-year second commitment period was another key, ignored demand from civil society and vulnerable nations.

In the end we have the "do nothing" approach of an eight-year commitment, locking in low ambition until the end of the decade.

Similarly lacking is finance for urgently needed adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. Three years of "fast start finance" with its broken promises have fostered distrust, and Doha did nothing to mend that rift – no plan for long term finance was made, no work was done on finding new sources, and the feeble trickle of current finance remains mostly repackaged development aid.

The terrible irony of climate finance has not diminished: there are trillions to bail out banks and wage wars, but barely anything to support the world's poor to cope with climate change.  To make it sound like a good deed is dangerously misleading: climate finance is a moral and legal obligation under the UN.

And the other shiny trinkets we were sold in Doha? A work-plan for the Durban Platform, a "view to considering raising ambition" in 2014 (diplomatic-speak for promising nothing), a declaration not to buy any more "hot air" (unused surplus carbon credits from the first Kyoto period), and a potential future EU offer to move from 20% to 30% cuts. Such offerings are no replacement for immediate, meaningful emissions cuts and finance. Behind the political rhetoric, intentions are clear: Kyoto was extended not out of an imperative to reduce emissions, but rather to continue the farcical carbon markets, to be a bargaining chip in forcing the rest of the world to accept Doha’s "package" deal, and to maintain the pseudo-green EU image.

Hedegaard’s measure of success is based upon EU goals going into Doha, and these – as pointed out by civil society – lacked ambition from the start. Doha gave us meager crumbs from the EU table while constructing a “bridge” to a new system that evades the very root of the issue: rich countries must make deep cuts to avoid runaway climate change and to repay the debt of 200 years of unabated industrial emissions. Focusing energy on bringing emerging economies to the same level of obligation wrenches the spotlight away from the true blockers of progress (led by the USA) and shines it falsely upon developing nations with tiny per-capita emissions mostly accumulated from producing goods we consume. In Doha this was called “progress” (read: dangerous misconception) and given the dubious label of “leadership.”

Such is the cognitive dissonance that prompted civil society outrage not only in Doha but also in Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban. The chasm between political discourse and concrete action – reflected in the gaping holes in finance and emissions reductions between now and 2020 – is so huge that Doha’s incremental steps are insignificant when viewed in context.

What we are seeing is a clear message from the EU and other developed nations that they don’t want the responsibility of dealing with a problem they caused. Since Copenhagen there has been a collective forgetting, a wiping clean of the institutional memory of the Convention so as to disregard the past 20 years of inaction and the disparity of responsibility for the problem.

The final insult of Hedegaard’s piece is that it dismisses the outrage of civil society, from youth and grassroots groups representing social movements to  brand NGOs like WWF – who publicly endorsed an open letter from civil society to negotiators and issued an emergency appeal for immediate action. We were in the room as NGOs of every shape and size labored over decision texts fresh from the negotiating rooms, we were in the halls as youth from all over the world chanted angrily our condemnation of the same texts, and we were at the meetings where each detail of the Doha decisions was pored over and translated for observers in home countries.

The analysis of experts, activists and researchers is first-hand and legitimate; undermining it is perhaps the biggest failure of political vision. Frustration is renewable, and it’s also compounding.

The UN climate convention has had a clear objective since 1992: to “achieve […] stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.” Self-congratulatory politics won't do anything for this objective; they only reinforce the false notion of EU “leadership.” In truth, the only thing we are progressing toward is the edge of a climate cliff.

Failure, check.

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