The Doha Bulletin: A summary of two weeks at COP18

Author: Sébastien Burgess, born in Paris in 1989. Graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Conservation and Resources Studies. Lives in Mexico City where he works as a cartographer on local environmental projects and sports commentator. Has been involved in environmental activism since his college years and is a proud member of CliMates since its creation in 2011.
Follow me on Twitter @BurgessSeb

The thrilling 12 days at Doha for COP18 has brought a set of interrogations for me that I will probably need to digest through the coming months.

I’m torn between three major dilemmas, which I will describe as such:

  1. the high level of expertise needed to master the intricacies of the UNFCCC process vs. passionately advocating for climate justice on strict ideology and in effect being evicted of this very process;
  2. keeping faith in multilateralism vs. being tempted to advocate for a “G20 for climate” which flies in the face of equity;
  3. very related to point (1) – abdicating to the UNFCCC paradigm which in effect is pushing for an ultra-commercialization of not only the climate but other common goods such as forests vs. becoming a pawn in this system which in return gives you more leverage to change it.

I could obviously write a book about each individual point, but I’m purposely thriving to write down a few thoughts on this notion as the issue at hand is obviously still fresh.

Expertise vs. Ideology

The UNFCCC framework is complicated, to say the least. It is the result of years of expert research and meetings and is only deeply grasped by a selected few. The very concepts of the Kyoto Protocol or REDD+ for example are subdivided in topics that experts often spend their careers on – just think of the innumerable literature that has been produced around clean development mechanisms (CDMs), or of the complexity that talking about intellectual property rights or technology transfers entails.  Climate change calls for major paradigm shifts in the way we produce, consume, trade, in other words, the way we go about our lives.  Experts and negotiators are very well aware of the urgency of the situation, they are fully conscious of the widening emissions gap for 2020, of the dire consequences of a +2C degree world and that the clock is ticking to find answers fast. Yet, and I noticed this happening to me as well, it is very easy to get sucked into and devoured by the “UN Machine”, to get consumed by a very technical meeting on joint implementation (JI), to get riled up about Poland’s AAUs, to despair over the lack of progress on Article 6, or to ponder about the closure of the AWG-LCA track and to forget about the reason why we’re here in the first place which is to… fight climate change.

Many members of NGOs, on the other hand, take a more aggressive stance based on ideological claimsand mechanically take themselves out of the negotiation game. On that note, while « ideologically » usually has a negative connotation, I actually tend to agree more with Greenpeace or Oxfam’s position on the climate change issue than with the path that the UNFCCC process is leading us to. Quite unfortunately, no one wants to listen to someone advocating for a fundamental paradigm shift (such as a 40% of GHG reductions for Europe, dividing the U.S. carbon-footprint by 5 by 2030, or unilaterally ending all fossil fuel subsidies), that is bad for business and hampers economic growth in the framework we abide to today. What is not mentioned enough is that party delegates are, before anything else, public servants defending national interests. A delegate’s mandate is to first and foremost defend the economy and the livelihoods of his fellow citizens, not to save our planet from global warming. I think there is a real mix-up made around this topic and the delineation of a negotiator’s mandate, and I feel that it of very little use to keep harassing people whose stances are fixed before the COP18 by political agendas and ministries.  This explains why negotiators are so precautious about making any form of substantial decisions at UNFCCC meetings: the repercussions on their countries’ economies could be enormous (or put more simply, whatever decision they take could be rejected by their national Parliaments).

blogsebdohaGreenhouse gas emission scenarios for AB1 with emissions peaking in (a) 2015, (b) 2020
and (c) 2025.

Source: Anderson K. and A. Bows (2008). ‘Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2020 emissions trends’   Philosophical Transactions A of the Royal Society No. 366

– Deforestation low: DL
– Deforestation high: DH
= Dark purple curve, low DL; black curve, low DH; blue curve, medium DL; red curve, medium DH; light purple curve, high DL; green curve, high DH.

These graphs show the mitigation efforts which will be required to advert a +2C rise in global temperature.

Developed countries economies are like speeding cars that need to make a quick turn to avoid a wall that’s fast approaching. They still have the possibility (but time is quickly running out!) to take a managed and progressive turn to avoid that wall. Solutions could include (cross-sectoral planning of their economies, (sorry to my right-wing friends here but the invisible hand just won’t cut it here!), generating a switch to less carbon-intensive sources of energies, elaborating innovative carbon pricing systems, and finding real ways to create additional and new sources of funding for adaptation.) Of course, they can also sit and wait for the day where the people in the driving seats will be forced, in order to avoid the wall, to take a very sharp turn, a turn which would create dramatic levels of social suffering and an immediate cut to all form of liberties (first and foremost the liberty to consume), as eco-fascist states would basically have to dictate what we buy, how we move, what we eat in order to achieve immediate and drastic cuts in GHG emissions in order to avoid an absolute collapse of the global ecosystem.

We can’t even levy the puniest of taxes on aviation and maritime activities, so I’ll let you play with your imagination to figure out what the type of civil strife we’d go through if someone dictated what type of food to eat. I still have enough faith (or naivety…you tell me!) to believe that human ingenuity will prevail sooner or later, and that we will avert a complete crash which would in effect lead to a near extinction of the human species as we know it.  But to go back to civil society, many like-minded environmentalists are asking for what I would call “sharp turn” measures, which if applied unreasonably fast would have disastrous impacts on economies, especially in the globalized context we are in today. Delegates and negotiators are simply not mandated to take far-reaching emissions cuts measures or spending pledges for adaptation that, back home would put in danger growth rates, deficits, and jobs back home-not to mention their own. The whole issue for climate change activists like ourselves is to be able to tactically place ourselves on the “climate change exchequer”. Do we want to become UNFCCC-geeks at the risk of losing touch with issue at hand, or radical activists at the risk of losing any form of political leverage?

Finally, if it wasn’t clear enough, we are certainly not on a “smooth turn” path right now, we are clearly and univocally heading towards a situation where we’ll have to make a “sharp turn” before 2050 if not earlier.  Making a smooth turn implies much greater ambition than what we are seeing today which makes our activism all the more necessary.

UN-wide multilateralism vs. a “G20 for climate”

An African delegate jokingly told me that the United States and China should get together in a climate G2 and solve on one end the mess that one has created (the U.S.) and on the other the mess that the other one is about to create (China) and that Africa was but collateral damage.  The United States before the start of COP18 also suggested that part of the agenda be moved to the Major Economies Forum, where the 19 countries responsible for 80% of world’s emissions could meet and talk about actions for reducing emission. These ideas, which by no means should be taken seriously at the moment, reflect a growing frustration over 20 years of failed attempts to remotely come close to substantial outcomes at the UNFCCC level.  The UN process, by nature, seeks to give a space for all member parties-which, despite its noble motives, significantly slows down any form of decision-taking. The result of this is that COPs (or at least what I got to witness at COP18) can become a space of deadlock, which could in extremely broad terms be described as follows:

  • Developing countries systematically go back to the common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) notion (see segment 2 of my blog), to their shared imperative of eradicating poverty before all, their right to development and of the greater need for the adaptation fund. Not much can be asked, indeed in terms of mitigation from a citizen from Liberia who consumes 0.1 tons of CO2e a year compared to the average American’s 23 annual tons of CO2e emissions.
  • Developed countries systematically reject their shared historical responsibility (and will continue to do so) and push for a system where everyone must be on board in terms of mitigation (by everyone they also mean the BASIC countries, China in particular). This view has prevailed for now, as the Durban Platform is a system which should have « legal force » for all countries.

Unfortunately, these discourses are so often repeated on an hourly basis, at every single meeting and on every single subject that they quickly lose their argumentative punch. This worrisome perspective stroke me while I had the honor of representing France during a plenary session for ministerial speeches, during which I realized that after the 20th consecutive speech, the Marshall Islands, Mozambique, and Liechtenstein were each given 8 minutes of speaking time to expose their view on the topic (that’s a two day process by the way, 193countries get a word), I had become insensitive to calls for more money for Africa, to messages on the threat of sea level rise to the survival of small Pacific islands, or to the plea for more global cohesiveness for emissions reductions (and voluntary emitting historical responsibility) for Europeans.

This is a serious problem, it becomes increasingly difficult, as the days go by at the COP, to get emotionally “moved” and what you quickly get is a crowd of cynical and anesthetized people-usually good-willing and aware, but who become sour and basically know what to expect from a delegate simply by looking at which country he or she comes from.  As expressed in my expertise vs. ideology section, this further puts people out of touch with the very real and concrete implications of climate change. It also gives a reason for delegates to not budge from their stagnant positions: if my working peers keep their grounds and repeat an argument which is so far removed from what I’m willing to work with and that I’ve heard 19 times in the past hour, it gives me no strong incentive to fundamentally change mine. This is a broad generalization of course as compromise and unlikely alliances do happen, think about the European Union, Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)- and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) coming together in 2011 to push the Durban deal through. However as a trend, there is a historical complacency around the COPs which calls into question the very structure and processes of the framework.   I have a tough time believing that climate change can be solved in smaller committees (read: in a Western-dominated group of usual suspects (read: G20) that keep talking about mitigation efforts and magically forget their responsibility in the mess we’re in today).  Climate change is a global challenge which will have to be handled collectively and inclusively. Yet it is tempting to believe that smaller groups could deal with it better and that it is urgent to discuss a fundamental reform of a UNFCCC process that has now proven throughout the years to be inefficient.


The final elephant in the room is that the UNFCCC is constructing a model right now which is primarily based on compensation and not on net reduction of GHGs. Moreover, the current paradigm is pushing towards an ever-increasing commercialization of the natural space: we are not only putting a price on carbon, but also on forests and trees, and the concept of payment for ecosystem services (i.e monetizing services rendered by natural phenomena) is fast expanding.

This means that we are not dealing with the root problem, which is insatiable consumerist habits on a finite planet.  Climate change is merely being reframed into a financial market problem.  CDMs have alternatively been called “Community Disempowerment Mechanisms”, “Commodity Development Machine” or “Chinese Development Mechanism” (48% of CDM finance go to projects are in China). We are seeking to put a cash value on trees, aquatic ecosystems, mangroves, and bee pollination in order create the new commodity market of the 21st century, which will be passed on the false illusion that we are dealing with climate change when we are in reality playing into the hands of the system that created the mess in the first place. Despite the few cries from the ALBA group, primarily Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba and the occasional indigenous NGO contingent, this issue mostly goes unheard in the COPs. The next frontier for climate profiteering is geoengineering, which goes from the controversial (carbon capture and storage, ‘climate ready’ GMO crops) to the potentially catastrophic, including and not limited to: ocean fertilization with iron, solar radiation management (SRM) by blasting sulphate particles in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, Artic ice covering , firing silver iodide in clouds to produce rain etc…

CliMates in the future

Despite my heavy criticism of the COP18 process, this was above all a tremendous and enriching learning experience for me, and an opportunity to meet incredible people who often offered me new perspectives on how to think about climate change. It’s a beautiful and deeply human forum with its qualities and its flaws, which brings together thousands of people from all cultures and walks of life around a topic which we are all passionate about. In a way, CliMates is a tiny microcosm of this dynamic. 2015 is going to be crucial year as a new climate treaty is to be signed and hopefully provoke a major paradigm shift. As I’ve said before, this gives us three years to continue discussing, researching, LEARNING, and coming up with innovative solutions to climate change. I would like for us to become a reference for this crucial COP21 which is set to be take place in Paris. I believe it is an interesting framework to use and work with as we contribute to the push towards putting climate change on political maps everywhere.

by Sébastien Burgess

Une réflexion sur “The Doha Bulletin: A summary of two weeks at COP18

  1. On a global collapse, read Ehrlich:

    I share your view on the process which is very slow and driven by national interst. I think however that these are not the biggest obstacles since meaningful treaties have been ratified under the UN in the past (i.e Montreal Prtotocol for example). I believe that the real challenge lies in the scale of the impacts of climate change on nations and on the contribution of every sector of the human enterprise to this problem.

    On the commercialization or monetarization of natural capital, I think that beyond the ethical issues, we have to acknowledge that economic theory is the driver of politics today and so research on environmental economics (or even better ecological economics) is essential.

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