Hot air in Doha

Climate change summit emits irony and disappointment

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There is always something ironic about holding an international conference on climate change, yet certainly when such a summit takes place in Qatar. In late November, some 16,000 delegates, experts and journalists from all corners of the world traveled by plane to the acclimatized hotels and meeting rooms of Doha to discuss how to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The irony becomes bitter when the summit — dubbed COP18 for being the 18th annual meeting of the ‘Conference of the Parties’ under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — is headed by one of the world’s top former oil men in a country that is regarded as the world’s most polluting per capita, and when an extra, 11th day of talks is needed to grind out an agreement that is worth virtually nothing. 

Now, of course, the hosts did their utmost to give the event a positive spin. The summit’s Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres defined it as “historic”. All that is needed now, according to her, is “a change in political will”. Likewise, the summit’s chairman, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, remained upbeat. What he dubbed the “Doha Climate Gateway” marked “the beginning of discussions” on a binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The beginning? The world has been debating and discussing ever since the first World Climate Conference in 1979 — and with very little to show for it. Perhaps Attiyah — the former president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and “Petroleum Executive of the Year 2007” according to Energy Intelligence — has been breathing too much of his own emissions. If anything, the accord inked by nearly 200 nations on December 8 is a “getaway” from any serious commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions any time soon. 

The only thing 11 days of talks brought the world was an extension of the Kyoto Protocol (KP), while — hold on to your chair for this one — member states agreed to try to agree on a new agreement by 2015. See here the reason why Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth, defined the accord as an “empty deal”.

One should know that the KP ended in 2012, and that the 2010 Durban agreement had already called for a new deal to be agreed by 2015 and to take effect by 2020. What’s more, the KP did not exactly produce heaven on earth. Signed in 1997, it only obliged the European Union and Australia to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to some 5 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012. The good news is that the some 37 countries involved are to meet the target. Collectively, they are likely to cut their emissions by some 16 percent. The bad news is that they only produce some 15 percent of global emissions, which since 1990 have risen by an estimated 50 percent. Most of the increase comes on the account of China and, to a lesser extent, India. In Doha, they joined the ranks of the United States, Canada and Russia as the loudest opponents to any kind of climate deal. 

Now, Qatar can of course not be blamed for the disappointing outcome. It had hoped that the biggest conference ever to take place on its soil would write history, put Doha on the map of the world and give Qatar some much needed green credentials; as the summit ended in failure, the opposite may happen. 

After all, most people are increasingly aware that global warming is a real threat and that something needs to be done. However, on the back of the continuous summit failures from Bali to Rio, less and less people take climate talks seriously. The same is true for the media. Few journalists bothered to cover the Doha summit in depth. “We expected nothing and got nothing,” said the editor of the Dutch newspaper I write for, defending her choice not to send anyone. 

The latest Doha failure will only fuel this general sense of fatigue and negativism. The cynics will claim that organizing a summit on climate change in a country with the world’s third biggest gas reserves, as well as the world’s highest carbon and ecological footprint per capita, says it all about the level of political will and ability needed to fundamentally change the world economic order.  Worse, there is very little hope that the stalemate will have changed by 2015, or 2020. Hence, the word on the street: “Do you want to reduce the amount of hot air entering the atmosphere? Stop organizing international climate change summits!” 

Peter Speetjens is the Beirut-based correspondent for Netherland's Trouw newspaper

Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.