Doha, Qatar - The 18th United Nations climate change conference (COP 18) opened in oil and gas-rich Qatar Monday with a call for urgent action as major reports cite increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and continued rise in global greenhouse gases.

Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres said the conference in the Gulf Arab state has the opportunity to move outstanding issues into the implementation stage.

Among them are the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol – the only existing and binding agreement under which developed countries commit to cutting greenhouse gases – from lengthy negotiations to implementation as of January 1, 2013 and commitment of financial support to developing countries which countries have agreed must reach a level of US$ 100 billion a year by 2020.

Negotiators will also have to reach an effective, fair and ambitious universal climate agreement that is to be adopted in 2015 and to enter into force from 2020.

About 17,000 people from 194 countries will attend the two-week long meeting at the Qatar National Convention Centre for the latest round of talks on climate change.

At the formal opening, Figueres said the conference is unique since it will usher in major milestones for processes launched in two previous Asian Conference of Parties (COPs) in Kyoto and Bali.

“Under your guidance, and with important input from the subsidiary bodies, CMP 8 (Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol) will mark the closure of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and launch the Protocol into its next period of implementation,” she said.

“Under your guidance, and with important input from the subsidiary bodies, COP18 will move the Bali Action Plan from plan to action, from design to the full and effective implementation that expedites urgent response to climate change and enables much needed financial assistance and technical support for developing, while clarifying the path forward on important pending issues.”

The newly elected President of the Conference of the Parties (COP 18/CMP 8), Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, Chairman of Qatar’s Administrative Control and Transparency Authority, urged the conference to stick to agreed timetables and speedily implement already agreed decisions.

“Climate change is a common challenge for humanity. We must work in earnest for a better future for present and for future generations. We have a precious opportunity over the coming days, and we must make full use of it. Many delegates have stressed the importance of finalizing work on time, and
that requires that we all show flexibility,” he told international delegates.

Civil society organizations attending the conference also expressed increasing concern that Doha is a crucial year if the UN process is to yield a global, science-base, principled and legally-binding agreement on climate change from now until 2020.

“Doha is a crucial turning point to address the planetary emergency of climate change. With the current lack of specific targets, adequate finance or real commitment, we are condemning ourselves to a terrifying 6-degree future,” said Meena Raman, Negotiation Expert, Third World Network.

The latest UN climate change conference opened as international reports warn that greenhouse gases that are warming the earth are reaching record levels. However, all reports underline that the technology, the funding and the policy options to remain below the 2 degrees Celsius goal are already available, provided that governments and societies take the necessary action rapidly enough.

The World Meteorological Organization said the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011. Between 1990 and 2011 there was a 30% increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping long-lived gases.

Since the start of the industrial era in 1750, about 375 billion tonnes of carbon have been released into the atmosphere as CO2, primarily from fossil fuel combustion, according to WMO’s 2011 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, which had a special focus on the carbon cycle. About half of this carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, with the rest being absorbed by the oceans and terrestrial biosphere.

“These billions of tonnes of additional carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will remain there for centuries, causing our planet to warm further and impacting on all aspects of life on earth,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Future emissions will only compound the situation.”

“Until now, carbon sinks have absorbed nearly half of the carbon dioxide humans emitted in the atmosphere, but this will not necessarily continue in the future. We have already seen that the oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of the carbon dioxide uptake, with potential repercussions for the underwater food chain and coral reefs. There are many additional interactions between greenhouse gases, Earth’s biosphere and oceans, and we need to boost our monitoring capability and scientific knowledge in order to better understand these,” said Jarraud.

The Emissions Gap Report 2012, coordinated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Climate Foundation, and released days before the convening of the Climate Change Conference in Doha notes that if the world stays on a business-as-usual trajectory, more drastic and expensive cuts will be needed after 2020.

If the world does not scale up and accelerate action on climate change without delay, emissions could rise to 58 gigatonnes (Gt) by 2020 – far above the level scientists say is in line with a likely chance of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius this century, according to the UNEP report.

Another report by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, on behalf of the World Bank suggests time may be running out to temper the rising risks of climate change.

“Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided,” warns that the world is on track for a 4°C warmer atmosphere marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.

Moreover, adverse effects of a warming climate are “tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions” and likely to undermine development efforts and global development goals. The report, urges “further mitigation action as the best insurance against an uncertain future.”

More than 100 ministers are scheduled to attend the high-level segment of the meeting, which begins on 4 December and ends with a decision-making plenary on 7 December.

The opening of the high-level segment will also be attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Linda Hutchinson-Jafar is Editor of Earth Conscious Magazine

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