Franz Litz: Thoughts on Doha and the “Theatre of the Absurd”

Franz Litz is a Professor of Law and the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center. He is currently at the COP18 climate talks in Doha. Here is his on-the-ground perspective of the talks:

Greetings from Doha!

I wish this article from the Economist (Theatre of the absurd: After three failures, this year’s UN climate summit has only modest aims) were less true.

The city of Doha is the poster child for nearly all that is wrong with our drive to grow at any cost.  The city’s skyline—as architecturally interesting as it is to some–consists of skyscrapers that are at 50% occupancy with several more under construction. The Qataris seem to think that the economy isn’t using up resources fast enough, so they are building things no one needs in hopes the need will follow. Why would the UNFCCC lend its imprimatur to this place that is ready to put lots of carbon into the air just for a chance to be the convention center and sports destination of the Middle East? Can the road to a zero carbon economy go through this unsustainable city in the desert with its half-empty skyline built to rival Manhattan?

The Economist goes a bit far in suggesting that the COP18 meeting is as absurd as the city hosting it. COP18 is a carbon-intensive affair, for sure.  And no monumental breakthrough is expected to come out of this meeting. But what is the alternative?  Sit home and “phone it in”?  Wait for the climate to fix itself?

For my part, I am trying to justify the CO2 emitted to get me here by presenting a soon-to-be-released report I authored with a World Resources Institute colleague, Nicholas Bianco.  Our legal and technical analysis shows that the United States can meet its greenhouse gas reductions goal (17% below 2005 levels by 2020) if the Obama Administration pursues aggressive policies under the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon pollution.  This is an update of the report we did two years ago that was very well received across dozens of delegations and by the UN Executive Secretary herself in Cancun—the year that Congress failed to pass climate legislation and many other countries were ready to walk away from their commitments to act.

We’ve briefed numerous delegations again this year here in Doha. The study is still in the final stages of extensive peer-review. We hope the study will be a roadmap for U.S. advocates  and government decision makers on what policies to pursue, as well as a signal to the international community that the U.S. can do its part and so they need to do their parts as well.  (Spoiler alert: the biggest reductions come from regulating existing power plants, eliminating HFCs and preventing methane emissions from natural gas systems.)

There is no telling whether the carbon exhausted to get us here will prove carbon well spent.  I’d like to think that building confidence across other delegations that Obama has the power to move things in the right direction will lead to greater action in other countries, thereby more than offsetting my contribution to atmosphere. Probably just a rationalization. More likely is that I have to be one of the silly optimists who believes we’ll change course as a world community one of these years and take the steps necessary to reduce emissions across all economies everywhere.

Is this all “theatre of the absurd” as the Economist dubs it?  Time will tell.  If only we had more time.




  1. Wil Burns

    Can you place me on the distribution list, if there is one, to receive the finished report? would be very helpful for my classes. wil

  2. Annecoos Wiersema

    I’d love a copy of the report too. Thanks. Annecoos

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