DOHA, Qatar—A grueling U.N. climate conference closed Saturday with countries pumping eight last years of life into an anemic Kyoto Protocol while making way for a new system that will force all nations to take responsibility for global warming.
After a midnight dispute between the United States and vulnerable countries over compensation for extreme weather events that left one hardened island diplomat in tears and an hours-long standoff between Russia and Europe over a loophole that allows governments to trade their way out of cutting carbon, conference President Abdullah Bin Hamad al-Attiyah speed-gaveled in the "Doha Climate Gateway" deal.
The package promises to create by next year a system that could someday see rich nations paying billions more dollars for disasters that can be linked to climate change. It also vaguely assures poor countries that current climate funding will keep flowing and grow as nations look for ways to mobilize a promised $100 billion by 2020.
"We did pass the bridge between the old system. We're now on our way to 2015, the new regime," said E.U. Commissioner for Climate Change Connie Hedegaard. "It was definitely not an easy ride. Definitely it also was not a beautiful ride. Definitely it was not a fast ride. But we did manage to cross the bridge."
U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern also praised the final product, noting that diplomats accomplished an unspectacular but important job in resolving leftover issues like finance and technology. Only with that done, he said, could countries leave a Kyoto system in which only a few wealthy countries are bound to cut carbon and enter the uncharted territory of demanding legal obligations from all nations.
"It's going to be very challenging," Stern said. "There will be growing pains in this process."
But African leaders, island nations and low-lying states hit hard by storms, typhoons and other weather disasters said they were bitterly disappointed that the deal does not take a single extra ton of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Nor, they noted, does it promise a dollar more to help the countries that did not cause climate change to prepare for the consequences.
"Those who are obstructive and self-serving need to realize we are not talking about impacts on how comfortable your people live, but whether or not our people will live," Nauru Foreign Minister Kieren Keke said to sustained applause.
"It's the weakest text I have ever seen. It's a travesty of the process and commitments," said a deflated Farukh Khan, Pakistan's lead negotiator, just before the package passed. "It can be summed up in two words: We'll talk."
Russia is gaveled down
Throughout the conference, U.S. and E.U. leaders described this 18th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. climate convention, or COP18, as a transition meeting.
With the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol ending this month and countries like Russia, Japan and Canada refusing to join a second commitment period, developing countries insisted on seeing the remaining participants beef up their emissions targets.
They failed. Those countries that did agree to stay in Kyoto for a second commitment period -- the 27-member European Union, Australia, Switzerland and eight others -- kept their emissions pledges low. Those nations account for about 15 percent of global emissions. The United States has never been a party to Kyoto and did not join.
But the needs of vulnerable countries were sidelined entirely as E.U. leaders scrambled for hours first to appease Poland and other Eastern European leaders who wanted to be able to carry over billions of dollars' worth of surplus carbon credits into Kyoto's second phase. Then they had to persuade Russia not to blow up the process on the same issue.
After more than four hours of afternoon delay Saturday during which Russia, Belarus and Ukraine were discussing options, negotiators hurried back just before 7 p.m. into the plenary hall. Over Russian objections, al-Attiyah gaveled through each part of the package, declaring "It is decided" to applause after each passage.
"It is difficult for me to believe that you didn't hear the sounds of the nameplate when I banged it on the table within, which is not in line with Russian diplomacy," Russian negotiator Oleg Shamanov said. He reserved the right to appeal the Kyoto decision, which al-Attiyah merely noted for the record.
The European Union, Australia, Japan, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway and Switzerland all made political declarations that they would not purchase the assigned amount units (AAUs) carried over from the first commitment period.
U.S. collides with island nations
Meanwhile, a new issue called "loss and damage" threw the United States back on its heels.
Vulnerable countries demanded a process to address the effects of extreme weather events on their lands and the consequences of damaging effects of climate change that cannot be avoided. The United States, fearing such a mechanism would open it up to liability, pushed back hard.
Talks became so heated that a Barbados negotiator walked out of a closed-door ministers' meeting just before 1 a.m. with tears in his eyes. Island nations threatened to go home with nothing rather than accept defeat on the issue, and talks continued past 3 a.m. in small huddles.
Ultimately, the Doha Gateway Package compromises, calling for a decision in 2013 on "institutional arrangements, such as an international mechanism" on loss and damage.
"The United States couldn't accept having a mechanism, and [islands] couldn't accept it being ruled out," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "This keeps it on the table."
Stern insisted the United States didn't change its position on the issue, saying "It's a negotiation." The final agreement, he said, "met somewhere in the middle."
What did draw U.S. objection was a single line in the preamble of a document charting a path on the new post-2020 global emissions deal. The offending passage said work "shall be guided by the principles of the Convention" -- a seemingly innocuous and bureaucratic phrase that is loaded with subtext.
Stern said in objecting to the line he wanted there to be no question that, come 2020, all countries would be legally obligated to cut carbon.
"People can read that in a way that is not fully consistent with what happened last year," Stern said. "What we don't want to see are any kind of code words that are designed to change the mandate of the Durban platform, or in any way walk it back."
Jennifer Morgan, director of climate and energy policy at the World Resources Institute think tank, said, "I think countries got to where they needed here in Doha to open a new chapter in the negotiations. But it wasn't pretty."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500