(Editor’s Note: Heherson T. Alvarez is a former senator and Cabinet secretary. He is currently a commissioner of the Climate Change Commission. He is a member of the Philippine delegation to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP 18 in Doha, Qatar.)
As the world awaited the arrival of “Baby Seven Billion,” who demographers say is likely to be born in Asia, the international community remained unable to make any significant headway on pending vital environmental issues at the recently concluded Doha Climate Change Conference in Qatar.
The proceedings were almost as arid as the Qatari environment. A progressive emirate on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar is an extraordinary country, with oil and gas reserves, as well as a gross domestic product that is consistently ranked among the highest in the world.
Qatar is smaller than Cebu Island. Its native population approximates Cebu City’s 800,000. And Doha, the country’s capital, is a gleaming modern metropolis more impressive than Makati City.
Working a full-day meeting, formally known as the 18th Conference of the Parties, or COP 18, under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was a collective failure of imagination.
As I emplaned back to the Philippines, the 24-hour overtime produced the Doha Climate Gateway, which simply extends the Kyoto Protocol until 2020, when a more global emissions reduction agreement will take effect. This result fell far short of the goals defined in Durban.
Last year in Durban, South Africa, the parties agreed to work toward a new protocol or some other legally binding instrument to replace the Kyoto agreement of 1997.
The new agreement was originally expected to be concluded by 2015, but this goal now appears quite tentative.
There was, however, a small consolation for the delegates from 194 nations taking part in the Doha conference, with an estimated 16,000 participants.
As in Durban last year, Doha ended with a commitment to extend the Kyoto Protocol with the aim of laying the ground for a new agreement to be finalized by 2015.
It is, to me, an iffy proposition.
First, the Kyoto Protocol has the support of nations that produce less than 15 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and therefore cannot have a radical impact on the threat of climate change.
Second, while the Doha conferees agreed on far-reaching actions to reduce climate-altering emissions, they neglected to specify what exactly these actions should be. They merely stated an aim to “identify and explore in 2013 options for a range of actions to close the pre-2020 ambition gap.”
As part of the Philippine contingent, I pushed for the inclusion of black soot or carbon in the UNFCCC’s category of harmful emissions. By doing so, I believe it will qualify the Philippines for future UN and private funding assistance since our cities are polluted daily by black soot generated by diesel-driven public utility vehicles.
Commissioner Yeb Sano, my colleague in the Climate Change Commission, made an impassioned plea for the convention to come to grips with the reality of climate change, citing the death and destruction of Typhoon “Pablo” in Mindanao.
In the end, the body responded by expressing “grave concern” over the widening gap between what countries have promised to do to reduce emissions and the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Division of nations
In effect, the acrimonious and long-standing division of nations into “industrialized perpetrators and developing-world victims” will continue to simmer.
It was this division that assigned pollution reduction targets to advanced nations but none to developing countries, including the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China.
Rejecting this division, the US refused to sign the Kyoto treaty.
In diplomatic parlance, the president of the conference, Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah of Qatar, prudently described the agreement reached as “a gateway to the future” and the starting point for a new global treaty that would replace the Kyoto Protocol.
While UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres echoed the same sentiments, she ominously admitted that “current pledges are not sufficient to ensure that the global average temperature does not rise more than another 2 degrees.”
In fact, under current conditions the world would be unable to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from preindustrial times.
This was not reassuring to Kieren Keke, foreign minister of Nauru and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, in any way.
Fearful that small island nations like Nauru will be pummeled out of existence by unimaginable impacts of climate change, Keke labeled the Doha package “deeply deficient.”
Delegates of a few wealthy countries, including the United States, made concrete financial pledges for adaptation aid over the next few years.
But additional significant pledges do not appear to be forthcoming.
The developed nations postponed a resolution of the dispute over providing billions of dollars in aid to countries most heavily affected by climate change.
While it is true that industrial nations have pledged some $100 billion a year by 2020 for this purpose, they offered no plans on how they will achieve this.
Astute delegates pointed out that Doha did not “produce even the barest outline of what that new agreement would look like, leaving those questions for future meetings.”
Others angrily contended that while the convention dealt with the concept of loss and damage from extreme weather events, it did not create a mechanism to handle such aid.
Lack of political will
The Doha conference is a strong indication that governments around the world, despite a formal treaty and 20 years of arduous negotiations, still lack the political will to effectively address the threat of climate change.
In contrast, the most effective actions to date have been taken at national and local levels in pursuit of aggressive emissions reduction programs.
For instance, while the United States has yet to adapt a comprehensive approach to climate change, the Obama administration has put in place a significant auto emissions reduction program and a plan to regulate carbon dioxide from new power plants.
Some countries, notably EU members, Australia and South Korea, have made significant initiatives in controlling a problem that scientists say is growing worse and getting faster than predicted a few years ago.
Researchers maintain that, over all, global emissions jumped 3 percent in 2011 and were expected to jump another 2.6 percent in 2012.
Their calculations show that emissions are gradually falling in some of the most advanced countries, reflecting conscious efforts to shift to various adaptation and mitigation programs.
Unfortunately, the decline of emissions in the developed countries is more than offset by the high growth in developing countries like China and India and the continued dependency on coal and fossil fuels.
The Global Carbon Project, a network of scientists that tracks emissions, asserts that emissions continue to increase so rapidly that an “international goal of limiting the ultimate warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees, established three years ago, is on the verge of becoming unattainable.”
The pessimists at Doha found a voice in Habib Maalouf of Al-Safir, a leading newspaper in the Middle East, who saw that national economic interests took priority over the fight against global warming.
Maalouf put it succinctly: “A world subject to the dictates of a market economy based on competition can never hope to resolve a global issue that requires cooperation. This is why, year after year, we see demonstrated the impossibility of reaching binding agreements.”
But a new optimism sparkled, too, at the summit.
“What this meeting reinforced is that while this is an important forum, it is not the only one in which progress can and must be made,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, the director of the international climate programs at the Environmental Defense Fund.
As Haverkamp spoke, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was setting an exemplary alternative. Clinton, who did not go to Doha, started a project called the “Climate and Clean Air Coalition” to deal with black carbon and other short-lived climate pollutants that have an inordinately powerful impact on the climate but dissipate far more quickly than carbon dioxide.
There is no doubt that the struggle against climate change will take the collective will of the international community. But I wager that that factor will not exist until there is a concert of conscience among nations and among world leaders.