Shifting gears in Doha

I recently replied to a question on the National Journal blog: “Should international negotiators abandon the top-down multilateral system to confront climate change and find another way?”

You can ready other responses at the National Journal.

Here is my response: True enough, the Doha climate talks will produce no big breakthroughs. Compared to the last three conferences – Copenhagen, Cancún and Durban – Doha is indeed a pretty ho-hum affair.

That is no doubt disappointing to anyone still looking to the U.N. climate negotiations to deliver a quick, decisive response to the challenge of global climate change. In actuality, though, the diplomatic humdrum in Doha marks a long overdue shifting of gears that could, in time, produce a far more practical approach.

Since the start of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) two decades ago, there’s been tension between two competing models, and over that time, parties have experimented with both.

The “top-down” approach of binding targets-and-timetables is reflected in the Kyoto Protocol. As part of last year’s deal in Durban, Kyoto does in fact survive, at least for now. Europe and a handful of other countries will take a second round of binding emission targets (adoption of a formal amendment to that effect will be the headline achievement in Doha). But these targets cover only about 15 percent of global emissions, and this is almost certainly the last round for Kyoto.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen the emergence of a parallel “bottom-up” framework commonly referred to as pledge-and-review. Starting three years ago in Copenhagen, some 90 countries, including all the major economies, have made explicit pledges to limit or reduce their emissions by 2020. Their progress is subject to international review, but the pledges are strictly voluntary.

Neither model is delivering the strong action we need. Kyoto promises greater rigor, but encompasses a small and shrinking share of global emissions. The bottom-up approach has drawn broader participation, but the pledges fall far short of limiting warming to the goal of 2 degrees Celsius.

Is there a third way?

Also as part of last year’s deal in Durban, governments launched a new round of talks called the Durban Platform with the aim of reaching a comprehensive new agreement by 2015 (to apply starting in 2020). As we explore in a new C2ES report, this new round affords parties the opportunity to weigh the relative merits of top-down and bottom-up, and try to craft an alternative that borrows the best of both.

Doha, then, is year one of a four-year negotiation. While it’s much too early to anticipate the shape of a 2015 agreement, one clear lesson of the past 20 years is that we shouldn’t look to the UNFCCC, or any other forum, to deliver a single sweeping solution to such a multi-faceted global challenge.

Another key lesson is that multilateral agreements can go only as far as the domestic political will of key countries will allow.

In Doha, it’s important that the United States signal its continued commitment to its Copenhagen pledge (reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020) and to finance for developing countries. The more critical task, though, is not at the negotiating table. It’s back at home, putting in place the policies that will drive down U.S. emissions and, in so doing, pave the way for a stronger global agreement in 2015.