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No one expects a breakthrough at this year's World Climate Conference in Doha. It will boil down to one key question: On what terms will the Kyoto Protocol be extended?
Extreme heat waves, rising sea levels and droughts in developing countries in tropical zones are on the way if the international community fails to take action, claim scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change in a recently published report for the World Bank.
"Without further commitment and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world will warm by more than 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures," they write in the report.
Greenhouse gases are thought to cause global warming. They absorb outgoing heat radiation from Earth that would otherwise escape into space. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide.
Doha and the two-degree target
Countries participating in the 2010 climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, agreed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. That is just consistent with the target to which representatives at the United Nations' Framework on Climate Change committed themselves, which was to avoid a "dangerous" disruption of the climate system caused by humans.
No one expects any big promises to be made to reduce emissions at the climate conference, which runs from November 26 to December 7, 2012 in the Qatari capital Doha. The reason is that many countries had already made commitments to reduce greenhouse gases at the last climate conference, said Sven Harmeling who is responsible for international climate policy at the environmental organisation Germanwatch.
"Because several countries have aligned their national laws to these commitments, it's hard for them to make any adjustments if they aren't sure whether or not they will be able to achieve their initial goals," said Harmeling.
New commitments, if any, are only expected to come from developed countries, Harmeling told DW.
"There are nearly 100 countries that have made no climate announcements within the last year, including large countries like the Philippines and Thailand as well as countries in the Arab region such as Saudi Arabia and the host country, Qatar," Harmeling said. "But there are certainly signs of hope that a few surprises will come."
Agreed but not really agreed
The success or failure of the climate conference in Doha will depend on how the Kyoto Protocol will be extended. Under this agreement, which went into effect in 2005, industrialized nations pledged to reduce their combined emissions of main greenhouse gases by at least five percent against 1990 levels over a five-year period from 2008 to 2012.
This first commitment phase expires at the end of the year, but Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute, doubts that an agreement on details on the protocol will be reached in Doha.
"I view the negotiation situation ahead of the conference as if we're in a diplomatic stand-off," Edenhofer told DW.
Actually, the extension is a done deal. Nations agreed to it at the climate summit in Durban last year. That is to say, they agreed to extend it without agreeing to any details, such as duration and carrying over bonus points. The focus of the Doha conference will be on agreeing on details, such as extending the protocol to 2018 or even 2020.
Disagreement in detail
The EU is calling for the second commitment period to run to the end of 2020, when a new legally binding treaty could go into effect. The treaty will also require developing and emerging countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Other countries only want the protocol to be extended for five years to 2018.
"The small island states say, 'we want only a five-year commitment period because we're worried about extremely unrealistic climate expectations being established for eight years,'" said Harmeling.
The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), including countries such as Nauru and Grenada, are especially threatened by rising sea levels caused by global warming.
More symbolism than substance
The failure to agree on details for extending the Kyoto Protocol would be a fatal sign for politicians and environmental activists. After all, the Kyoto Protocol is the only agreement that contains legally binding requirements for reduced emissions.
Even if all the nations agreed to details for extending the protocol, their decision would remain a largely symbolic gesture. It is highly likely that only Switzerland and Norway, in addition to the EU, would adhere to a second commitment period - countries that are responsible for about 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The United States - the largest CO2 emitter in the developed world - never ratified the protocol in the first place.