BERLIN In the Qatari capital of Doha, the decisive phase of the UN Climate Conference has begun. Ministers and government representatives from over 190 countries have until Thursday to adopt concrete measures to save the world’s climate. Part of the ritual at conferences like this is that shortly before the end of negotiations, the opposing fronts – industrial countries against developing and emerging nations, vacillators against trailblazers – tighten ranks.

Until now, one of the trailblazers has been the European Union. Its 27 member states committed to reducing climate-relevant emissions by 20% by 2020 – a goal that has nearly been reached, hence international pressure on Brussels to keep up the good work and continue to set the example by raising the goal to 30%.

But EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard is curbing expectations that the European climate goals will be notched up, and because of that the Doha conference threatens to fail. This kind of grim scenario is a normal occurrence at climate conferences.

This is the 18th conference since the Rio Earth Summit’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992. And these regular conferences have developed into mammoth undertakings.

Non-governmental organizations, churches, trade unions, and representatives from both the business and the scientific communities send observers, while more than 1,500 journalists are accredited.

This year again, there are more than 20,000 participants. Parallel to the official negotiations, there are hundreds of workshops on everything from soil conservation to fighting poverty.

Representatives of German companies were also in Doha to market their climate-friendly technologies.

“Wake up and act”

On Wednesday, the German Minister of the Environment, Peter Altmaier, arrived in the desert emirate. Germany enjoys a high level of respect at international climate conferences because its federal government has set ambitious domestic climate goals. The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change was decided on at the first climate meeting in Berlin in 1995 and approved two years later.

It expires at the end of this year, and in Doha it is supposed to be extended until 2020. Only after that would a brand new climate agreement come into force.

[Photo: sallie_shatz, provided courtesy of IISD]

Altmaier’s expectations of the 2012 conference have been dampened by the fact that, as he wrote in an article published in the Bild newspaper, "there is a lack of political will and public support.” The current pace of international climate protection is "woefully inadequate," the Minister wrote, adding that all countries must finally "wake up and act" and that Europe and Germany should assume leading roles.

Altmaier intends to support the 30% goal for Europe despite the Brussels block. Greenpeace is calling for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to give Altmaier a strong mandate to see the goal through and bring a new impetus to the negotiations.

As a rule, climate negotiations are tough and slow. So far, the international community has only been able to agree on the smallest of common denominators, and even the heads of state who attended the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen couldn’t get more done.

Expectations for the 2009 conference were huge – but by the end of it, participants had agreed only on a non-binding agreement that actions should be taken to limit global warming to 2° Celsius above the pre-industrial level.

Since Copenhagen, resigned disillusionment has spread, even though the non-binding 2° Celsius target was formally adopted at the climate summit in Cancún in 2010.

As the 2012 conference got underway, the World Bank sounded the alarm – this too being a normal occurrence at climate conferences. By the end of the century, unless action is taken, the earth’s temperature could rise by 4° Celsius. There would also be a danger of devastating droughts and flooding.

Jochen Flasbarth, president of the German Federal Environment Agency, who is part of the German delegation in Doha, said that the World Bank’s warnings “sent the right signal at the right time” and that the bottom line of the report was that it was still not too late to act.

With regard to the extension of the Kyoto Protocol and a new agreement after 2020, Flasbarth said that only if Brussels agrees to the 30% challenge, can the EU continue to be perceived as a strong and persuasive voice in climate change negotiations.