On Irretrievability

by Trudi Zundel

The last few nights at COP are characteristically grim. Ministers have arrived and Parties have been in closed sessions for two straight days. Negotiations have been in a deadlock for a week and a half—North and South are fundamentally opposed on most major issues. This is the time when the powerful players begin to throw their weight and influence over the process in earnest, and we at Earth in Brackets are biting our nails waiting for the developed countries to show their hand: what kind of a backroom deal are they waiting to drop on us?

In the midst of that lull, civil society groups large and small are sounding the alarm on the state of the talks. The “big greens”—Greenpeace, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, Christian Aid, ActionAid, and WWF—released a joint statement declaring the state of talks a "disaster"; southern grassroots movements have plastered the convention center with their open plea to ministers; and youth are rallying behind the red lines of the Philippines and other developing countries in escalating (approved…) actions over the past three days. 

In the lead up to the final show-down, I think it is vital to understand just how high the stakes of a bad outcome are. Each year, developing countries and civil society come back fighting for a just climate deal, and each COP produces outcomes that move farther and farther away from that goal. The deal we need is not politically possible in Doha, but a bad outcome here could close the door on a just deal in the future. 

Why is this decision so important?  COP17 in Durban gave Parties one year to wrap up work on the Bali Action Plan (which consists of five “pillars”: mitigation outside of the Kyoto Protocol, as well as work on adaptation, finance, technology transfer, and capacity building, and to come up with a plan to close the emissions gap between now and 2020, either through the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol or some other mitigation plan.  

With these two tracks at a crucial decision point, both equity and ambition are at risk in the Doha decisions.  By the definition of developing countries, in order for work to be concluded successfully on the LCA all of its pillars must either be successfully implemented or have a “home” under the Convention to ensure that they don’t get left behind. Without a political mandate to keep discussing and making progress on the Bali issues—as in, without direct instruction from the COP to Parties in a decision or treaty—there is no legal or procedural guarantee that progress will be made on them in the future. It is a similar case with ambition: without a decision on legally-binding, top-down emissions cuts now, there is nothing requiring Parties to reduce emissions between 2012 and when the Durban mandated treaty/outcome/decision comes into effect in 2020.

Developed countries, the US and Umbrella group in particular, have been refusing outright to discuss the contentious issues under the LCA (see post below about blank texts in the Chair’s draft LCA text); they argue that there are already mechanisms in place to address adaptation, finance, and tech transfer (the Adaptation Committee, GCF, and Technology Mechanism under the UNFCCC), and so no decision on them is needed out of Doha. However, what they fail to explain is that those mechanisms need a political mandate to keep scaling up—they are only in their infancy, and thus far are inadequate.

As evidenced by the last twenty years, full texts are just as empty as blank ones. A Doha outcome with promising ambition and a mandate to move the Bali pillars forward is unlikely to change developed country behaviour in 2013.  But it would at least give a minuscule fighting chance to turn this system around in the year to come—a task which would take herculean effort from domestic US and Northern NGOs.  

No outcome will be a “success” for people or the planet, and we need global outrage about, but there are varying degrees of failure. The worst case scenario for Doha is an irretrievable outcome that leaves developing countries and domestic grassroots organizations with no legal tools to hold developed country Parties accountable; that gives them legal permission to carry on with business as usual.

On that note, we embark on the last 24/36/48 hours (who ever knows?) of COP 18. 

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