While South Africa is preparing to host a U.N. climate change conference in November, two other nations are locked in a behind-the-scenes battle to accommodate the massive summit in 2012.
The bid for the 18th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) pits South Korea -- an emerging leader in the global quest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- against Qatar. Many diplomats hope that activism by Qatar, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, may convince other oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf to take climate change more seriously.
The Korea vs. Qatar competition has lasted nearly two years, and so far, neither country has shown signs of backing down. At a recent meeting in Bangkok, both countries launched a mini lobbying blitz, with representatives approaching environmental activists and negotiators alike in an attempt to consolidate support. Anxious UNFCCC officials have called for a decision by June -- but three diplomats close to the discussions say the decision might not come until November -- and may for the first time in UNFCCC history require a vote.
"It's unusual," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "As far as I can remember there hasn't been a time when there's two competitors this late in the process."
The cost of accommodating a U.N. climate conference can be exorbitant. Both last year's meeting in Cancun, Mexico, and the 2009 summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, cost the respective countries upward of $100 million -- not including security -- for things like conference logistics, transportation, public diplomacy and extra staffing.
And in some cases -- like in Copenhagen, where country leaders helped create outsized expectations of what could be achieved -- the host government can take a major beating from the press. There, as attempts to forge a new treaty fell through and controversial draft agreements leaked out, a national ad campaign to "Turn Copenhagen into Hopenhagen" became an international joke. Some journalists redubbed the Danish capital "Nopenhagen."
Korea voluntarily accepts tough targets
But the benefits include more visibility on the world stage. The U.N. climate change conferences have become major annual attractions among environmental activists, the renewable energy industry and scores of international development and energy agencies. Heads of state and even movie stars have been known to show up.
Countries often vie for the privilege of hosting the conference, the location of which is offered to different regions of the world in a rotating order. The Danes, hoping to see a new treaty signed in their nation, maneuvered out of order to have the 2009 conference in Copenhagen by footing some of the bill for conferences in Poznan, Poland, and Cancun. Meanwhile, when the wheel spun to the Latin American region, Mexico lobbied for months behind the scenes to convince Peru to drop its bid.
But this time, observers said, the contest has split the Asian and developing country delegations and upended the quiet diplomacy and back-channel horse-trading that usually accompanies such decisions within regional groups.
Analysts say the approaches of South Korea and Qatar to the climate change negotiations could not be more different. Each country, observers noted, would offer distinct advantages and disadvantages as host, and each has strong supporters. So sensitive are the deliberations that neither Korean nor Qatari government officials would talk on the record about their respective bids.
Korea, the fourth-largest economy in Asia, has vowed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent below business-as-usual growth over this decade. The voluntary target comes to about a 4 percent cut from 2005 levels -- a reduction that President Lee Myung-bak acknowledged would involve a "short-term burden" but predicted would ultimately bring Korea greater benefits.
While Korea is the world's 16th-largest emitter, the country is not obliged to reduce carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. In addition to its voluntary targets, Korea has imposed sweeping clean energy plans that include a 20 percent renewable energy target by midcentury and an investment of nearly $1 trillion into current- and next-generation clean energy sources.
"From the Korean side, you have one of the most progressive countries in terms of commitment to fighting climate change," said one diplomat who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. For Korea, the diplomat said, vying to host COP 18 "is really kind of a recognition of a policy that has been very much at the top of the level of ambition."
Qatar's quiet but large ambitions
Nevertheless, the diplomat said, the G-77 has been reluctant to throw its support to Korea, because members prefer to see the conference in a developing country. Korea is a member of the group of middle-income countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Qatar, meanwhile, has played a quieter role. Activists say the position of Qatar, a top oil-producing nation, has long been overshadowed by other OPEC countries that have tried to block treaty talks. In recent years, though, Qatar has made a serious attempt to put climate change at the front of its agenda.
At the 2009 U.N. General Assembly, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar, called the impact of climate change on the planet a "pressing challenge" that threatens world civilization. And just a few months ago, the country launched a major Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute focused on alternative energy and sustainable development.
"Qatar has been associated with the position of Saudi Arabia, which is considered and is obstructionist. But what's interesting about it is that countries that are obstructionist would not want to host a negotiation," said Wael Hmaidan, executive director of IndyAct, a Beirut-based environmental group.
"Qatar hasn't been an active country negatively or positively, so it's interesting that they're asking for this," he said.
And yet, Hmaidan and others said, Qatar has international aspirations and has been working hard to attract events to Doha. Last year, it hosted a U.N. meeting on endangered species. It will host the World Energy Cities Partnership in December, and it recently won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
"We haven't heard much from Qatar on climate change, but they certainly have wide political aspirations in terms of foreign policy," said another diplomat in the United Nations' Asia regional group.
Who steers the agenda?
Indeed, asked at a recent meeting in Hamburg, Germany, about the bid to host the UNFCCC meeting, the Qatar energy institute's executive director, Rabi Mohtar, said, "I believe the push is to get that going as a precursor to the football games."
The notion of a climate change conference in an OPEC country sparked tremendous excitement in the UNFCCC, and for some time, Qatar was considered the front-runner to host the climate conference. Supporters of hosting COP 18 in Qatar said it could be the start of a fundamental and important shift in energy thinking throughout the Middle East.
Analysts said the decision means more than simply whether diplomats will be eating kimchi or kabobs for a couple weeks. As the issue of climate change claims a bigger role on the world stage, the host of a COP increasingly plays a key role in steering the negotiations.
"The host country does matter. It determines who is the overall shepherd of the process, and in some sense, it can ultimately set the conditions for what is to be achieved. So you want to have somebody who is strong in the seat," said Schmidt. Still, he added, "It's always been more important what the meeting produces than where it's held and the symbolic impact of that."