Backgrounder: How climate negotiations work

Leading environmentalists discuss the complicated process of negotiating a deal on global warming for the COP18.

COP17/CMP7 United Nations Climate Change Conference 2011 in Durban, South Africa
The agenda for the Doha COP18 was largely decided during previous negotiations in Durban, South Africa [EPA]

Doha, Qatar – The world’s largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases has been tasked with finding a solution to climate change.

Between November 26 and December 7 about 17,000 official delegates, 7,000 representatives from non-governmental organisations and 1,500 journalists will descend on Doha, Qatar’s capital, to try to work out a climate change agreement. More than 190 countries will send representatives to the talks.

The COP18 in Qatar builds on previous climate summits. Companies and countries who want to continue emitting noxious gases into the atmosphere, causing the climate to heat up, will be working to stall a new agreement, while environmentalists and other countries will push for tougher emissions targets.

Most scientists and many governments agreed in 2012 that an increase in the global temperature must be limited to less than 2 degrees Celsius in order to avoid catastrophic “run-away” climate change. That goal seems unlikely.

At the COP18, the eighteenth climate summit, key goals include extending the 1995 Kyoto Protocol – which was designed to bind signatories to emissions reduction targets – past 2012 when it expires.

The negotiations themselves are an obtuse and complicated process, as leading environmentalists try to explain the process in a simple way.

What’s on the agenda?

“There are four main issues for this whole conference,” Tove Ryding, climate policy coordinator with Greenpeace International, told Al Jazeera. “One is the legally binding agreement – the Doha amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. There is a high chance that will get adopted. All the G77 and EU are working towards having that in the outcome.

“In Copenhagen [during a COP summit in 2009]… rich countries pledged climate support to the global South for three years. They gave $30bn. That ends in 2012 and then we have no more climate finance. There is a debate about whether there will be a new number and new money on climate finance.”

Governments need to adopt a new binding agreement in 2015, and “there are no plans on how they are going to do it”, Ryding said. Negotiating some of the text for that new agreement will be on the agenda for the COP18. Environmentalists hope this new text will have “a legally binding road map” so governments can be assessed annually on whether they are reducing emissions enough to meet their goal.

“As of the end of 2012, $30bn was committed by developed countries [for climate mitigation in poor countries]… I am not sure how much was actually mobilised.” 

Tasneem Essop, WWF International

“Lastly, governments need to actually do something to reduce emissions,” she said. “We are afraid there won’t be anything concrete.”

How do the negotiations actually work? 

“In Durban [South Africa, during the last round of negotiations in 2011] countries agreed on a work programme for this year,” Wael Hmaidan, director of the Climate Action Network, told Al Jazeera. The negotiations happen along different “tracks”, including discussions on how to extend the Kyoto Protocol and developing a long-term cooperative action (LCA) plan to make a lasting agreement. 

Countries in the negotiations can submit “draft text”, or new ideas or proposals to be put on the table. It is up to the chair, in this case Qatar’s Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah, to decide how the draft text is put to other delegates and whether new proposals are discussed. “Sometimes the text is too complicated and there is no possibility of reaching consensus,” Hmaidan said. Smaller working groups address various tracks of the negotiations, including developed country mitigation plans, financial arrangements, and the long-term action agenda.

The first week of negotiations usually sees bureaucrats from different countries discussing various additions to or omissions from the agreement’s proposed text. “At some point towards the end of the conference, ministers fly in and sign the final text,” Hmaidan said.

During negotiations in Copenhagen, for example, “delegates reached an outcome, but it wasn’t formally adopted because some countries were not satisfied enough”, he said. If consensus cannot be reached, the host country can form a “friends of the chair group” comprising representatives from opposing factions to try and hammer out an agreement, which can later be presented to all the countries, he said. If nations cannot reach consensus, amendments or changes to the draft text can be passed through if 75 percent of delegates vote for them.

Part of the idea behind the Kyoto Protocol is that developed countries should provide monetary support for developing countries, so they can transition their economies away from burning fossil fuels. How does the financing work?

“As of the end of 2012, $30bn was committed by developed countries,” Tasneem Essop, spokesperson for WWF International, told Al Jazeera. “I am not sure how much was actually mobilised.” Developed countries have pledged to eventually pay $100bn per year, “but we want clarity on that in Doha”, she said.

Aside from money and reams of paper being used to draft future agreements, what tangible outcomes do you expect to see in Doha?

“We expect the EU, Norway and Switzerland to join the next round post-Kyoto,” Ryding said. “There is a question around Australia, New Zealand and Russia on whether they will join at all. That will be discussed during the COP. We don’t know if they will commit to five-year or eight-year targets. What they actually decide makes a lot of difference for the climate.”

Currently, China, India and other large developing countries have not signed onto binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Getting them involved in the 2015 agreement so they “take on specific commitments” will be crucial, she said.

What would the outcomes of a successful summit look like?

“We need an agreement to get a road map for 2015,” Ryding said. “We need the money for climate mitigation. And we need the concrete reduction of emissions.”

Source: Al Jazeera