Blog Post

Doha in Context: A Brief History of Climate Negotiations

Jan 8, 2013 | Daniel F. Morris

The 18th round of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations concluded last month in Doha. Expectations were low, but reviews have still been mixed. But for those who aren’t insiders, understanding the talks – much less identifying success or failure – is very hard because of the complexity that’s accumulated over the years.  Here, we’ve put together a very brief history of climate negotiations that will help put the results from Doha in context.

In 1992, 192 countries signed the UNFCCC at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Signatories to the UNFCCC agreed to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” a thoroughly vague commitment that included no specific greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions. Signatories did specify however that developed countries “should take the lead in combating climate change,” thus cementing the common but differentiated responsibilities among countries that still complicate negotiations. Article 3 of the UNFCCC created a list of developed countries—deemed Annex 1 countries—that included the United States.

The UNFCCC signatories—the Conference of the Parties or COP—first met in Berlin, Germany in 1995. COP 1 produced the Berlin Mandate, which led eventually to the Kyoto Protocol (KP) in 1997. The Mandate committed Annex 1 countries to quantified GHG emissions reductions while exempting non-Annex 1 parties, further solidifying the divide between developed and developing countries.

This divide led to political opposition in the United States. The Senate unanimously approved a resolution that opposed committing the U.S. to reductions without similar action from developing countries. Consequently, the U.S. was the only Annex 1 country to sign but not ratify the KP—the U.S. therefore cannot participate officially in ongoing negotiations related to the KP.

For countries that did ratify it, the KP set a goal of 4.2% average reduction in GHG emissions below 1990 levels by 2012. The KP was significant, but by the mid-2000s the absence of the U.S., its coming expiry in 2012, and growing emissions from developing countries showed a clear need for a new agreement.

Negotiations in the years between the passage of the KP in 1997 and it entering into effect in 2005 focused on the design of the KP and its flexibility mechanisms. The Bali Roadmap that emerged from COP 13 in 2007 began to shift the dynamics of the negotiations. Under the roadmap, developing countries agreed to work toward mandatory GHG emissions reductions, while developed countries agreed to work toward more aggressive cuts (25-40% below 1990 levels) by 2020. Here’s where things get complicated—two negotiating tracks exist to formalize these commitments. One, the Ad Hoc Working Group for the KP (AWG-KP), was tasked with establishing KP rules, structures, and targets and applies only to parties to the KP. The other track established at Bali, the Ad Hoc Working Group for Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA), was designed to get developed and developing countries to commit to more long-term GHG reductions (as the KP had failed to do).

Work in both tracks at COP 15 in Copenhagen and COP 16 in Cancun helped shape the Copenhagen Accord and Cancun Agreements, in which both developed and developing countries pledged to take action, but at levels of ambition many found disappointing. Last year, at COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, all parties agreed to continue the KP while simultaneously working toward a new agreement to be completed in 2015 that commits all nations to emissions reductions. The new legal structure is intended to enter into force by 2020, and a third negotiating track—the AWG for the Durban Platform—was created to reach this goal.

The most recent COP 18 in Doha extended the KP to 2020, though still only with developed country participants (and fewer of them). Also, the AWG-LCA track completed its work, though it fell short of the ambition outlined by the Bali Roadmap. The AWG for the Durban Platform is now the track responsible for crafting an agreement where all parties commit to reductions—a welcome streamlining of the negotiation tracks in the eyes of many observers.

In summary, Doha streamlined the process for securing commitments from developed and developing countries and moved it away from bifurcated responsibilities. It was the latest step in progressing from the old world of negotiations that generated the KP and the new world of negotiations that has been built incrementally since the Bali Action Plan.

As work switches now to the Durban Platform track, confusion and apprehension lingers among negotiators about how to bring together all the pieces together to form a cohesive agreement under the AWG-DP by 2015. As Joseph Aldy and Robert Stavins note, the pace and ambition of current negotiations call for "fundamentally new proposals for future international climate-policy architecture," a call that should be answered by think tanks and academics hoping to see further commitments and real action from the international climate negotiations.