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After Doha, Maybe It's Time To Rethink the Global Climate Conference?

J. Mijin Cha

The latest UN climate talks came to an end this past weekend with little to show for it. As Kate Sheppard writes at Mother Jones, Doha “failed to meet even the low expectations that had been set for the negotiations.” One of the main pieces to come out was an agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol, the only binding treaty on greenhouse gases, for eight years. However, the Protocol will only cover about 15 percent of global emissions, as several countries announced even before the talks began that they would not sign on to the Kyoto extension.

To put into perspective how low both the expectations and outcomes from Doha are, there is relief that the U.S. didn’t actively block a proposal by small island nations to discuss loss and damage from climate-related disasters. Negotiators are claiming progress because there seems to be an opportunity to open discussion on a new treaty. In other words, success is being defined as a lack of obstruction and a possible opportunity to talk about a climate treaty in the future. At a time when global greenhouse gas emissions are at a record level and the world continues to experience extreme weather events that cause billions of dollars of damage and the loss of life, these outcomes are not only underwhelming, they border on the offensive.

Even if more countries sign onto the Kyoto extension, it wouldn’t come into force until 2020, which means any new greenhouse gas emissions cuts wouldn’t start until then either. Considering that most existing emissions plans are inadequate, waiting until eight years for meaningful action guarantees more severe impacts from climate change will become reality. The climate is already changing and the main hope now is to minimize the impacts. Not taking action until 2020 sets us back even further than we are now.

Perhaps it’s time to admit that these big global conferences are not the way forward. The opportunity for countries to use one another as scapegoats for justifying inaction is too great. The US will never agree to emissions cuts if China doesn’t agree to do the same. China is resisting being listed as a developed country so they don’t have the same emissions reductions obligations, even though they are now the greatest emitter and their economy will soon be the biggest in the world. With these dynamics, we will never get the level of action that we need.

Instead, we should focus on getting meaningful climate policy adopted domestically. For instance, a global carbon tax would result in both emissions reductions and generate revenue for mitigation and adaptation projects. Investing in renewable energy and the green economy is good for both economic growth and emissions reductions. Encouraging energy consumption would save consumers money and also reduce carbon emissions.

These are actions that countries can take now and they will have more impact than waiting eight years for a treaty that is likely to be weaker than needed.