Doha climate change deal clears way for 'damage aid' to poor nations

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Poor countries have won historic recognition of the plight they face from the ravages of climate change, wringing a pledge from rich nations that they will receive funds to repair the "loss and damage" incurred.

This is the first time developing countries have received such assurances, and the first time the phrase "loss and damage from climate change" has been enshrined in an international legal document.

Developing countries had been fighting hard for the concession at the fortnight-long UN climate change talks among 195 nations in Qatar, which finished after a marathon 36-hour final session.

Ronald Jumeau, negotiating for the Seychelles, scolded the US negotiator: "If we had had more ambition [on emissions cuts from rich countries], we would not have to ask for so much [money] for adaptation. If there had been more money for adaptation [to climate change], we would not be looking for money for loss and damage. What's next? Loss of our islands?"

Ruth Davis, political adviser at Greenpeace, said: "This is a highly significant move – it will be the first time the size of the bill for failing to take on climate change will be part of the UN discussions. Countries need to understand the risks they are taking in not addressing climate change urgently."

Ed Davey, the UK energy and climate secretary, said: "It's about helping the most vulnerable countries, and looking at how they can be more resilient."

But the pledges stopped well short of any admission of legal liability or the need to pay compensation on the part of the rich world.

The US had strongly opposed the initial "loss and damage" proposals, which would have set up a new international institution to collect and disperse funds to vulnerable countries. US negotiators also made certain that neither the word "compensation", nor any other term connoting legal liability, was used, to avoid opening the floodgates to litigation – instead, the money will be judged as aid.

Key questions remain unanswered, including whether funds devoted to "loss and damage" will come from existing humanitarian aid and disaster relief budgets. The US is one of the world's biggest donor of humanitarian aid and disaster relief, from both public and private sources. It will be difficult to disentangle damage inflicted by climate change from other natural disasters.

Another question is how the funds will be disbursed. Developing countries wanted a new institution, like a bank, but the US is set against that, preferring to use existing international institutions. These issues will have to be sorted out at next year's climate conference, in Warsaw, where they will be bitterly contested.

Davis said: "This [text] is just the beginning of the process – you need to have a finalised mechanism. But it will concentrate minds on the fact that it is in the best interest of countries all over the world to start cutting their emissions quickly." Governments also rescued the Kyoto protocol, the initial targets of which run out at the end of this year. The EU, Australia, Norway and a handful of other developed countries have agreed to take on new carbon-cutting targets under the treaty, running to 2020.

A separate strand of the negotiations, set up to accommodate the US because of its refusal to ratify Kyoto, was closed. This will allow unified discussions to begin on a global climate treaty that would require both developed and developing countries to cut their emissions. The treaty is supposed to be signed in 2015, at a conference in Paris, and come into effect in 2020.

The next three years of negotiations on the treaty will be the hardest in the 20-year history of climate change talks because the world has changed enormously since 1992, when the UN convention on climate change was signed, and 1997, when the Kyoto protocol enshrined a stark division between developed countries – which were required to cut emissions – and developing countries, which were not.

China was classed then as a developing country, and although it still has about 60 million people living in dire poverty, it is now the world's biggest emitter and will soon overtake the US as the biggest economy. It has made clear its determination to hang on to its developing country status, and that the countries classed as developed in 1997 must continue to bear most of the burden for emissions cuts, and for providing funds to poor countries to help them cut emissions and cope with climate change.

Positions: 

Speaking to EurActiv during the Doha COP18 summit, Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency said that he would be happy with two outcomes. “One would be if the negotiations led to a second climate change [agreement] that still belongs to the top part of the intensive policy agenda. Secondly, we have about $520 billion dollars of fossil fuel subsidies today and about half of them are coming from the Mideast countries. I consider fossil fuel subsidies to be the public enemy number one in the fight against climate change, and I hope that the countries in the region where these emissions take place will have a better understanding of the role of fossil fuel subsidies in using energy inefficiently and leading to higher carbon use emissions. In the end, it is the only hope or expectation that I have.”  

Yvo de Boer, the former UNFCCC secretary-general told EurActiv that the most he thought achievable was “firstly a resolution on continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, secondly clarity on how the finance gap is going to be addressed, and thirdly a work programme that will help us get to an all-encompassing 2015 agreement. I think that it is possible to agree a work programme taking us to a global treaty in 2015 although the devil there is in the detail – ie. How comprehensive will it be? And will it address critical questions like what is it that we are actually supposed to agree in 2015 – a treaty or another protocol or a set of decisions? It is critical that these questions be resolved early or it will not be clear to countries what they are working towards.”

De Boer, who currently works as climate advisor to the KPMG group of auditors, added that the issue of quantifying emissions by industrialised countries and major emerging economies would “not be a complicating factor. There are emissions data available on most countries in the world. The issue is: do countries take a quantified target as rich countries have done in the past – committing to reduce emissions in absolute terms by X%? Many developing countries are more in favour of relative targets where you commit to reduce the emissions intensity of your economy – emissions can still go up but by less than overall economic growth. There’s also the question of ‘could you also think of growth targets?’ That might sound bizarre at a time of catastrophic climate change but when Europe signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, a number of countries - Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland - all had growth targets because of a recognition in the EU that those member states were still relatively poor and needed to grow, and increase emissions. You could argue that given that per capita incomes in a number of major industrialising countries are still relatively low, they’re not yet in a position where they could take an emissions reduction target in absolute terms.”

The EU’s climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, was upbeat about the results of the COP18 summit. "In Doha, we have crossed the bridge from the old climate regime to the new system,” she said in a statement. “We are now on our way to the 2015 global deal. It was not an easy and comfortable ride. It was not a very fast ride either. But we have managed to cross the bridge. Very intense negotiations lie ahead of us. What we need now is more ambition and more speed."

However, many environmental NGOs said that they were shocked at the result of the talks. “Rather than contribute to closing the gap between what countries are willing to do and what is needed in terms of climate action, Doha has increased it,” said Wendel Trio, the director of Climate Action Network Europe. “By sticking with only the lowest end of their promises, Parties like the European Union are moving this gap in the wrong direction. The EU missed its chance to play a leadership role in Doha, which it could have done by increasing its emission reduction target to 30%, in line with policies it already has in place. We are dismayed that the EU accepted weakening “hot air” rules by allowing the use of emission surpluses from the past.”

Ulriikka Aarnio, CAN’s senior policy officer added: “Developed countries have once again missed an opportunity to build a stronger partnership with developing countries by not providing the level of climate finance that has been promised. By neither putting money on the table nor providing clarity on when and where climate finance would be provided, developed countries are losing respect as well as the ability to get developing countries engaged in taking binding commitments in a new treaty.”

“This package offers improved continuity from existing carbon markets to the new markets of the future,” said Dirk Forrister,the CEO if the  International Emissions Trading Association.  “But it still won’t inspire action at the scale commensurate with the Copenhagen objective of limiting warming to 2 degrees.  For that, we need much more clarity around a robust market mechanism that can deliver at scale. Through several long nights of tough negotiating, Doha delivered the essential elements for a new market mechanism.  But there is much more work needed to complete the details and make it operational.”

Oxfam’s campaigns director Celine Charveriat said that while no developed country fought for a collective commitment in Doha to ensure public finance levels would continue to rise, the US bore particular responsibility for blocking progress on finance, loss and damage and other issues. “Poor countries came to Doha facing a climate ‘fiscal cliff’, and at the end of these talks they are now left hanging by their fingertips off the edge,” she said.

“The US made a down payment on climate finance with its Fast Start Finance, but in Doha it was time to pay the mortgage and they did not deliver. The EU was incapable of exerting sufficient leadership in these negotiations because they couldn’t get their house in order on everything including 30 per cent reduction in emissions, the carryover of surplus emissions under the Kyoto Protocol and public climate finance. This year droughts in the Sahel, US and Russia saw food prices rise and hunger spread, but rather than rising to the challenges posed by climate change, we saw a drought of climate action from rich countries in Doha,” Charveriat added.

"Even typhoon Bopha hitting the Philippines during the talks didn't stir them to action,” complained CIDSE's climate policy officer Emilie Johann. “Developing countries were forced to accept an empty outcome. Governments might be able to live with this agreement, but people - the world's poorest in particular - and the planet cannot. Instead of new emission targets, Doha gave us a one way ticket to a world in which climate change is beyond our control. Because of the inaction of our leaders, global temperatures continue to rise rapidly, beyond the +2 degrees Celsius science indicates is the threshold of catastrophic climate change."

“We need more ambition from all major economies to reach a comprehensive climate agreement and create a level playing field for business across the globe. We remain committed to the fight against climate change but in light of the lacklustre results from UN climate negotiations, the EU must rethink its own energy and climate policies. Technology should be the driving force to deliver on energy cost-competitiveness, security of supply and climate action with the ambition of maintaining a strong industrial base in Europe,” said BusinessEurope Director General Markus Beyrer.

Although some progress was made at Doha, the current responses are totally insufficient for initiating Just Transition policies to a sustainable, low-carbon economy, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) said in a statement.

"The United Nations is nonetheless still the only forum capable of organising a multilateral process to fight against climate change.  The timeframe of this process is now clear: 2015 is henceforth the target date by which a new, legally binding world agreement must be approved. The ETUC is calling on governments to adopt more ambitious domestic policies, hoping that they will abandon selfish short-sighted strategies and will put the common good and the Just Transition at the centre of their work."

Timeline: 
  • 2013-2020: Fund-raising due to begin to capitalise the Green Climate Fund.
  • By Oct. 2014: IPCC to deliver fifth scientific assessment of climate change.
  • 2015: COP17 parties to agree a new legal framework agreement for a second round of emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol.
  • 2020: New global climate treaty due to come into force.
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