Harrabin's Notes: Broken engagement

In his column for the website, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin reports from the UN climate talks in Doha where there is unease at the lack of political engagement with the process.

Spider Tangled web: will climate talks be able to make progress in Doha

To reach the climate conference rooms in Qatar on Tuesday, ministers from around the world had to traverse the stride of a giant sculptural spider straddling the main entrance hall.

It's an unfortunate symbol for negotiations trapped in their own familiar web of rhetoric.

Everyone agrees emissions should be cut. Everyone thinks someone else should do the cutting. Everyone has very good reasons why they can't cut their own.

John Ashton, the world's first climate change diplomat - appointed by the UK - recently retired from his post. He told me what's lacking, especially this year, is leadership from the top.

"In negotiations when it gets tough everybody wants to show their bosses back home what a good deal they're getting for their country - so it needs leaders to unblock it.

"But for last 15 years I can't recall a time when there's been less political attention for dealing with it - just when there needs to be growing political attention.

"By this stage of one of these conferences Tony Blair or Gordon Brown used to be asking 'who can I call to unblock the problem?' One hopes this is also top of Mr Cameron's mind but not many people think it is."

Mr Ashton believes politicians have failed to grasp the threat to economic business as usual if emissions continue to spiral.

"You have got tangible problems which are very obviously not being addressed," he said.

"We are continuing to lock ourselves into a high carbon economy and we are getting lots of examples of what's going to get worse if we don't get on that low carbon pathway very quickly.

"We've had the American drought pushing up food prices round the world causing real problems for the poorest people; with Superstorm Sandy we've seen examples of how the world's biggest economy is still vulnerable.

"In Britain we have 20,000 people who are facing the prospect of no flood insurance and the insurance industry pointing out this is going to get worse. The view in our Treasury and governments round the world is that it's not for governments to compensate people against damage arising from climate change."

Compensation is an increasingly hot issue in the talks, with small nations demanding the inclusion in any 2015 agreement of a "loss and damage mechanism" whereby rich nations would pay them to rebuild from, say, extreme storms.

Mr Ashton said politicians had to adopt a new mindset: "What's the plan for getting off the oil hook - oil prices getting higher and more volatile over the past few years? What's the plan for reducing vulnerability of our food system to climatic extremes? What's the plan for dealing with the rising risk of floods and the insurance consequences of the rising risk of floods?

"These are the kind of things that politics is there to fix - and I think the feeling is round the world that politics is not fixing those problems. It's jolly dangerous because it creates a vacuum -and extremist and populist voices can come in to fill it."

Steady as she goes

Some of the negotiators in Qatar privately share some of Mr Ashton's sentiments but they are paid to stick to their national interest.

Even the EU, leaders at previous climate conferences, are taking fire for refusing to cut emissions further - they're being held back by eastern European nations led by Poland. One delegate told me the EU is nervous of a vote here which would set Poland against its European colleagues and add to the EU's current turmoil.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU's climate chief, is annoyed at the generally slow progress of negotiations. But she said she believed these talks could make headway in preparing a new global agreement by 2015 that involved all nations, rich and poor, tackling rising emissions. "Some people might be tempted to despair," she told me. "But then where would we be?"

The talks are held together by Christiana Figueres, chair of the UN process. She is exuding an air of weary frustration. "I am optimistic because this process has proved that it can deliver. It's delivering very slowly but steadily," she sighs.

When I point to recent reports from the World Bank and International Energy agency calculating that on current trends we have no chance of keeping within the 2C temperature threshold set by political leaders, she agrees. But she counters:

"Those reports also said we do have the technology and financing available to stay within the limit, should we have political will and move fast enough.

"So this conference needs to be very firm step forward to making sure we don't cross that two degrees."

At this stage of proceedings there is not a great deal of optimism about that. Delegates are often optimistic in public and pessimistic in private. The fear is that the ground for the great over-arching deal planned for agreement in 2015 will be insufficiently prepared as nations coast through the next few years with apparently plenty of time ahead.

There is such cynicism among some delegates that a few want these negotiations to crash so badly that the talks are suspended. That, they believe, might shock politicians into action.

The spectre of a different outcome is raised by Mr Ashton. "It was the Doha round of trade talks that turned the negotiations into a 'zombie process' - neither dead nor alive. There's a real possibility that these talks could do the same for climate change."

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