Doha: It kept the show on the road – but only just

It seems that UN climate change conferences suffer from performance anxiety: the more they're watched, the worse they perform. So unlike the train wreck negotiations that glared garishly in the media's spotlights in Copenhagen in 2009, it was heartening to see that the most recent conference in Doha made modest, if underreported, progress on many fronts. But while Doha incrementally advanced some technical and institutional elements of the negotiations, there remained a sense of frustration that the work would deliver too little, too late.

A suite of decisions were adopted at the conference, which have been collectively termed the Doha Climate Gateway. A month after the final gavel closed the conference on December 8th, it's worth reflecting on the key outcomes of the eighteenth Conference of Parties (COP 18) and what we can expect in the near-term.

Major outcomes

Advancing the Durban Platform

In Doha, parties confirmed their commitment to Advancing the Durban Platform, and have begun to chart the 36 month course that will lead the delegates to Paris in 2015. The Durban Platform was agreed in 2011, and cemented support for countries to achieve more ambitious emission reductions by agreeing a new, legally binding treaty in 2015 that would take effect in 2020. The Platform is notable because it's an agreement that involves action from all 194 countries, rather than just rich ones.

While the Durban Platform was widely hailed as a success, putting 194 fragile eggs in one Parisian basket is a potentially risky choice. The agreement has also been criticised for its late start-date. It will be much more difficult to start bending the global emissions curve in 2020 and still remain below an average global temperature rise of 2°C (the widely acknowledged threshold for avoiding dangerous climate change). Nevertheless, inclusive and coordinated global action on climate change is probably a good thing, and right now the best way to achieve it is by moving the Durban Platform forward.

Extending the Kyoto Protocol

Delegates narrowly avoided the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol by agreeing a second commitment period that will run from 1 January of this year to 31 December, 2020. This kept Kyoto instruments like the Clean Development Mechanism functioning, and continued to hold participating countries to their binding emission reduction commitments. Kyoto's second round covers 15% of global emissions, and commits participants to cutting emissions by an average of 18% below 1990 levels by 2020, with specific targets outlined in a Doha amendment to the Kyoto Protocol.

Even fewer countries will be bound by the second commitment period compared to the first, leaving countries like the US (which never ratified Kyoto at all), Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and Russia without internationally binding targets. The modest ambition and limited scope of the second commitment period has led some to claim that Kyoto's extension was a  pyrrhic victory.

But supporters of the extension not only point to the symbolic importance of the rich world keeping its promises, but more concretely, to its importance for future agreements. Simply put, if Kyoto wasn't extended, many developing countries wouldn't have signed up for the Durban Platform, which would have stymied progress towards a future agreement.

Pledging and disbursing finance

Doha signalled the end of the three-year period during which $30 billion of fast-start climate finance was to be committed by developed countries to help fund mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. The end of fast-start finance let analysts review rich countries' pledges and assess the degree to which their commitments had been met. The World Resources Institute added it up and concluded that about $34 billion was pledged and about $28 billion had already been actively made available (though cloudy definitions made it hard to say whether all the money was additional or equitably disbursed).

Moving the international climate finance agenda forward to 2020 will present a greater challenge, however, as developed countries aim to raise and mobilise $100 billion per year. The commitment was reconfirmed in Doha, but raising $100 billion annually and disbursing it effectively and equitably is no mean feat.

Despite its own economic woes, Europe committed another $6 billion to keep climate finance flowing in 2013, but global economic uncertainty prevented developed countries from accepting a 2016 mid-term target of $60 billion per year.

To manage disbursal, The Green Climate Fund, a multilateral fund created by the UNFCCC, was reconfirmed as the best outlet to channel climate finance. Its board only met twice in 2012, but it was asked to expedite its work this year.

Supporting technology transfer

In Durban, the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) was established to facilitate technology transfer and technical capacity building in developing countries. In Doha, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) was officially selected to lead a consortium for the next five years and fully develop the CTCN. It will be a demand-led facility that coordinates international, national, regional, and sectoral technology networks; stimulates the development and transfer of technology; and provides advice and support for training, identification of technology needs, and technology deployment. Again, the CTCN inched forward, but very sluggishly.

Including "loss and damage"

One other issue that lived to breathe another day was text on so-called "loss and damage" associated with climate change. This item is of key concern to developing countries, especially least developed countries, whose agriculture is especially vulnerable to the increased likelihood of floods and drought, and low lying island states, whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels. It is also among the most contentious issues for developed countries, who fear that loss and damage provisions might open the door to lawsuits for every natural disaster that could be linked to climate change.

As a compromise, developing countries kept the issue alive in the set of Doha Climate Gateway documents, but developed countries expunged any text regarding compensation or the establishment of a separate loss and damage fund.

Streamlining the process

Over time, the number of negotiating tracks running in parallel at the UN climate conference had ballooned to seven, which, even for the most informed delegates, was often too much to manage. In Doha, the process was substantially streamlined by closing the working groups on the Kyoto Protocol and on long-term cooperative action. From now on, the Durban Platform will be the only negotiating forum for the 2015 agreement.

This was an important procedural step forward, as it helps to clear the decks for more focused negotiating in the future.

What it means going forward

Given the stubbornly gloomy global economy, a leadership change in China, a presidential election in the United States, and its admittedly modest goals, this conference could be branded a limp success. But the pace and scale is not enough. Even Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said that "the international negotiations are moving steadily in the right direction, but alarmingly slow."

There is hope going forward, as national and subnational mitigation targets continue to be set, renewable energy costs fall, the value of energy efficiency gets recognised, and the prosperity of developing countries grows. But it's still unclear whether the UN's platform will be strong enough or governments committed enough to support an effective global agreement in 2015.