About a fortnight has gone by since the closure of the Doha 2012 climate change talks. A good many pundits all over the world have already declared what Doha had been and had not been and what may be its implications for humanity. My own understanding, having observed and participating directly in the climate change talks since Bali in 2007 until Doha in 2012 is that the future is still too uncertain to say if from Doha we see an oasis in the horizon or a mirage only frustrating the global effort to save humanity from its own actions and inactions. Would Doha be remembered as a requiem for global efforts to tame the menace of climate change or a ballad of victory over it (climate change)? These are not idle questions of esoteric values but issues of life and death for countries such as Bangladesh and its people and the future generations, their economic and social well-being and sustained rise in quality of life, or, in other words their right to development.
Such questions may arise because the final collective decisions in Doha are couched in language which appears to practically wipe out in many, including core, cases the fruits of all the discussions and debated since the Bali Action Plan in 2007. This short essay will try to argue how and possibly why and what would be the implications for us. I will not discuss the definition, nature, causes, implication and similar other issues related to climate change. By now much of these are known or readily available from easily accessible sources. For those who are still interested to refresh their mind about these, they may consult the Summary for Policy Makers of the Assessment Report 4 (AR4) available in the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Milestones in Climate Change Talks: We need to count first the major milestones in the climate change talks and global actions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, or the Convention) was established in 1992 during the earth Summit in Rio that year as the quasi-legal framework for concerted global action on climate change. Five years down the road in 1997, Kyoto Protocol, KP, the first and so far the only legally binding global agreement to cut down global emission of green house gases (GHG) was inked. It took five years to be ratified by enough number of developed countries (also called Parties who have ratified the UNFCCC) to come into effect. The mandatory commitment was made by many of those countries. The notable exception was the USA, the country with the largest share of global emission of green house gases (GHG). The first commitment period of KP will end on December 31, 2012. That is despite being established in 1997, the effective time for the implementation of KP was only 7 years. For want of a legally binding and enforceable treaty for long meant that even the small targets under KP were either not achieved or that countries far surpassed the emission limits they themselves agreed to. A dialogue was therefore initiated for a second commitment period of KP as well as raising its ambition (of emission reduction).
To Mother Nature, however, it matters nothing at all whether an ounce of say carbon di-oxide (CO2, the main green house gas) is released in France, or Rwanda or Bangladesh. To her an ounce of CO2 is an ounce of CO2. There is thus a case for lowering the over-all global aggregate emission of GHGs, not simply those in developed countries. Given this situation, however, the fact remains than for many reasons, historical, stage of development, financial, social and institutional, not all countries are equally capable of acting at the same or similar level. So while every country must strive for the global common good, not all countries may have similar responsibility and capability. The text of the Convention and since then all texts refers to these two principles as "common but differentiated responsibility" (CBDR) and "respective capability" (RC).
In all these the differentiation is made between the developed countries and the developing ones with maximum flexibility of action by the least developed countries (LDCs) but also for the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and later some time also for those countries which are in transition from socialist economic systems to non-socialist ones.
One should also mention here the process of decision-making in the climate change talks. The Convention has two permanent subsidiary bodies called the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI) which looks after the implementation of the COP decisions and the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA). The COP may create temporary subsidiary bodies while the subsidiary bodies may also create temporary bodies under it subject to COP's final agreement. Whatever is agreed upon in any of these lower bodies must be finally accepted by the COP in its deliberations which is open to all signatories to the Convention or Parties. And the decision must be unanimous and "freely" arrived at by Parties. It can not be imposed, on the face of it, by any specific group of Parties or a Party.
During Bali COP 13 in 2007, the decisions were no exception but it made a major departure from earlier texts. For the first time it was recognized by all including the USA that while the developed countries must lower emission on a mandatory basis, developing countries including LDCs may also do so on a voluntary basis and if for doing so they need financial and technological assistance they may request for them as a condition for such actions. Apart from mitigation (i.e., lowering of emission), the Bali text also referred to the need for action on adaptation, finance, and technology transfer and development. It was a comprehensive package and within a framework called Ad-hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA). The consensus was that by the COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the operational details would be worked out for a global action against climate change. It did not happen that way.
The Copenhagen COP was a fiasco due to inept political handling by the then Danish Government as well as by the then USA President. An accord was reached among several countries, Bangladesh included, which was to be presented to the COP plenary where it was to be adopted. However, the placement was made in a way to which many parties objected to as a kind of imposition of will of a few countries. This was vehemently objected to and while the Copenhagen Accord had quite a few good elements of political will, it did not completely sail through.
The next COP 16 in Cancun in 2010 more or less brought the Party-driven process on track and was notable because of bringing clarity to many issues. It particularly is noteworthy among others for its decisions on the outcome of the AWG-LCA on shared vision which is the epitome or the soul of the whole climate change talks. It is this issue among others that Doha has apparently grossly glossed over. This has grave implications globally as well as for countries such as Bangladesh. To examine this issue let us look at what it was in Bali, what it became in Cancun, Durban and then in Doha. This will show how an issue of life and death for most developing countries and LDSs have been sidelined in the name of consensus and may be possible secret deals among some of them.
The Shared Vision and Its Evolution: The idea of shared vision is a long term goal regarding all the elements of the Bali Action Plan which is contained in Decision 1/CP13 of the COP 13 in Bali in 2007. Part of it reads as follows:
"Decides to launch a comprehensive process to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention through long-term cooperative action, now, up to and beyond 2012, in order to reach an agreed outcome and adopt a decision at its fifteenth session, by addressing, inter alia:
(a) A shared vision for long-term cooperative action, including a long-term global goal for emission reductions, to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention, in accordance with the provisions and principles of the Convention, in particular the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, and taking into account social and economic conditions and other relevant factors;"
The rest of this decision contains the elements of the Bali Action Plan which have been indicated earlier. The AWG-LCA was established to deliberate and decide global and commensurate national action on the four elements by COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. As we have seen earlier this did not happen. But the Cancun COP 16 came to the rescue. The decision 1/CP 16 in Cancun clearly states regarding the shared vision that it "addresses mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, and capacity-building in a balanced, integrated and comprehensive manner to enhance and achieve the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention, now, up to and beyond 2012;"
The decision then goes on to elaborate how mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer and capacity-building form a part of the shared vision. Then in paras 5 and 6 of the decision it is stated:
"5. Agrees, .. ..to work towards identifying a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050, and to consider it at the seventeenth session of the Conference of the Parties;
6. Also agrees that Parties should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible,
. in this context, further agrees to work towards identifying a time frame for global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions based on the best available scientific knowledge and equitable access to sustainable development, and to consider it at the seventeenth session of the Conference of the Parties;"
The seventeenth session was the Durban COP 17 last year which adopted the following decision regarding the shared vision:
"1. Agrees, in the context of the long-term goal and the ultimate objective of the Convention and the Bali Action Plan, to continue to work towards identifying a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050, and to consider it at its eighteenth session;
2. Also agrees to continue to work, in the context of the provisions of paragraph 6 of decision 1/CP.16, towards identifying a time frame for the global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions based on the best available scientific knowledge and equitable access to sustainable development, and to consider it at its eighteenth session;
3. Further agrees that consideration of a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050 and the time frame for global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions cannot be undertaken in the abstract and will necessarily involve matters related to the context for such considerations;"
Immediately it becomes obvious that the earlier clear-cut Cancun decision had been watered down in Durban and to the extent that it completely remains silent about adaptation, finance, technology transfer and development and capacity-building. To silence critiques, a sop has been provided in the name of a "context for the emission cut" without ever clarifying what that context is. If it had been made clear that the context is what 1/CP 16 contained in particular paras this would have been sufficient. But no such luck.
Secondly, the issue of a time frame for peaking of emission has again been not finalized in Durban and was to be decided in COP 18 in Doha. And what did Doha decide? The relevant parts of the decision read as follows:
"Recalling the principles, provisions and commitments set forth in the Convention, in particular its Articles 2, 3 and 4,
Also recalling decisions 1/CP.13, 1/CP.16, 1/CP.17 and 2/CP.17,
1. Decides that Parties will urgently work towards the deep reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions required to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to attain a global peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, consistent with science and as documented in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reaffirming that the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries;
2. Also decides that Parties. efforts should be undertaken on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, and the provision of finance, technology transfer and capacity-building to developing countries in order to support their mitigation and adaptation actions under the Convention,
What we do not see is a firm time-based commitment to global mitigation efforts and any mention of a time frame of peaking. The only saving grace here appears to be a reference to adaptation, finance and technology transfer. But this misses technology development and capacity-building which were integral parts of the Cancun decision. Question now are why this has turned out as it has and what is the implication of these decisions for Bangladesh?
Assessment of the Doha decision: I believe that there may be two reasons for a watered down version of shared vision on mitigation in Doha. First, possibly advanced developed countries and some of the big developing countries, generally going by the name BASIC countries including Brazil, China, South Africa and India had agreed to this as a kind of compromise or a give and take for a commitment on continuation of the Kyoto Protocol. Secondly, as a review of the adequacy of actions for a global goal as well as the implementation of commitments under the Convention is to be made over 2013-2015 based on which all Parties will have to mitigate on a mandatory from 2020, all big emitters, advanced developed countries as well as the Basic Group and some others in similar situations find this an easy escape route for not taking any immediate action for the next 8 years.
To keep critics at bay, reinsertion has been made of the adaptation, finance and technology transfer which were dropped in Durban. This serves the national interests of both the groups particularly as the some of the big developing countries usually froth in the mouth regarding rights to sustainable development and poverty eradication, they will have their hay day.
I think I may recount here what happened in one of the contact group meetings on shared vision which I participated in. I raised the issue of 2015 as the global peaking year because that is the general LDC position. This was put immediately under bracket by several developing countries and one of them, a neighbour of ours, actually said "I hate this 2015". My idea was that if further questions are raised, I will agree to a more flexible version like "2015 or as soon as possible thereafter based on science". The opportunity never arose because there was no further discussion on this and when the informal text was out this appeared to be a jumble of various options including elaborations of Cancun-like references to adaptation, finance, technology etc. But when we received the final COP version, it was what had been shown above. So something must have happened in-between between the large developing countries and the advanced developed countries for a shared vision which is slightly more balanced but weakened on mitigation. While this may suit the big emitters among the developing countries as well as the developed countries, what about the vast majority of other countries including LDCs to which Bangladesh belongs?
Before going on further, it may be advisable to give a reply to one possible critique of the view presented here. Some may say that there had been a lot of advances in other elements of the Bali Action Plan, so even if these are not shown under the shared vision, this is no great loss. I offer only one answer, there may be more. This is that it is only in case of shared vision that we get an integrated global picture of how human kind wishes to tackle the challenge of climate change. Elsewhere, these are operational nitty-gritties but shows no basic philosophy behind global action.
Implications for Most Developing Countries, LDCs and Bangladesh: Whatever happens during the next eight years up to 2020 will greatly influence what comes thereafter. First, I have a hunch that this hiatus will be used by many including the big emitters to raise further their emission in the name of all kinds of national rules, procedures, law etc or, rights to sustainable development (while as a consequence trampling other people's rights). If the Review decides that a substantial cut will have to be made, many would, on the plea of CBDR, then lower their ambition or at least use a more recent benchmark to decide their national efforts.
What all these mean is that it would be quite difficult to decide upon a framework for lower emission, its extent and the peaking year. Much of the present day adversarial climatic conditions that we face are due to what has already happened by way of emission in the past. If the future emission is not cut substantially from right now, the situation would be far more horrific. This is the second implication. And nobody, no nation, will be spared the wrath of nature.
The upshot for Bangladesh in one word is that its dream of becoming a middle income country by 2021, will become possibly more distant, poverty reduction process will slow down due to repeated shocks to the economy and livelihood of people because it would be prey to the increasing vulnerability due to rising frequency and severity of natural hazards. A critical issue will be food security as farmers may have to face major losses in production due to these hazards. To add insult to the injury, this is another area where Doha has failed to deliver. But that is a matter to be discussed another time.
Oasis or Mirage: So we go back to what we intended by our title of the paper. If the Review can take care of the concerns well, if it leads to a legally binding global compact enough to hold, almost figuratively, the tide over time, we will indeed reach an oasis which may not be a great comfort yet to many as they will continue to suffer for many years the consequences of past accumulated GHGs in the atmosphere, but nonetheless an oasis. Else, if the Review fails or becomes only partly successful the probability of which is great, in my view, given the geological speed at which the talks sometime move, even that oasis may actually turn into a mirage.
Dr. M Asaduzzaman works for the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies and was a delegate on behalf of the Government of Bangladesh to the Doha climate change talks. He can be reached at