Late Saturday evening, a full day after it was scheduled to end, this year’s United Nations climate negotiations finally ground to an anticlimactic and dispiriting conclusion. Despite the near round-the-clock endgame and down-to-the-wire drama, negotiators from more than 194 member countries ultimately had precious little to show for their efforts. Yes, they managed to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol would continue for another term. And they tied up some loose ends from previous meetings and made some incremental progress on emerging issues. But on the core issue affecting the fate of the planet—the need to rapidly reduce emissions to have any hope of keeping climate change to manageable levels—progress was nowhere to be found. They moved the process forward, but the problem rages on.
In one sense, this exceedingly modest outcome was no surprise. From the outset, we were warned that this was just an “implementation” or “transitional” meeting; the big issues were not to be discussed. This is because at last year’s meeting in Durban, the Parties decided on a three year schedule to negotiate an overarching agreement, and nothing in the climate negotiations happens until the last possible moment. The Durban timetable all but assured that incrementalism and procrastination would rule the day in Doha.
But in another sense, this summer vacation approach to the negotiations was utterly incomprehensible. The urgent need for action was there for all to see. Many delegates came with vivid, heart-rendering accounts of how climate change was already impacting their countries in ways their governments could not address. Not least, President Obama’s negotiating team could point to this summer’s searing, unprecedented drought in the Midwest, forest infernos in the Rockies, and of course, the over $70 billion worth of devastation inflicted by superstorm Sandy.