Durban blog: Higher stakes in play at climate conference

Last Sunday night, flash floods killed eight people in and around the city of Durban and left thousands homeless. Just one in a series of recent extreme weather events here in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province, it probably wouldn’t have crossed most people’s radar screen were it not for the fact that thousands of foreign delegates had just arrived in town to attend the annual International Conference on Climate Change (or ‘COP’ in United Nations’ jargon).

The deaths all occurred in Durban’s poorest settlements, while people staying in the more affluent areas of town – like me – were by and large sheltered from the worst of it  (miraculously, given the sheer volume of water that fell, my bedroom didn’t even leak). Although it’s obviously impossible to make a direct link between a single flash flood and climate change as a whole, the incident was a tragic reminder that, when it comes to protection from the elements, some human beings are more equal than others.

Adaptation to climate change (ie, how to enable populations exposed to the rigours of the climate to develop survival mechanisms) is just one of the major issues on the table at this year’s COP, aka COP17. Countries have until the end of next week to ensure that progress on this and climate mitigation (ie, emissions reductions) is sufficient to ensure that faith in the UN process is maintained and agreement is reached on key elements to limit man-made global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Of course, this being an inter-governmental process involving hundreds of countries, positions vary greatly as to what would constitute success on both of these fronts. At one end of the spectrum, you have bodies such as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) which, as the territories most existentially threatened by climate change, come across as being more progressive than some members of the NGO community. At the other end, you find big emitters such as the US and India, which are currently acting as a stumbling block to setting comprehensive legally binding targets for reducing emissions within a timeframe which would make not going over the 2°C mark a realistic proposition.

Somewhere along that spectrum, you find the European Union, arguably the most progressive ‘developed’ negotiating bloc, which is pushing hard for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol and has reportedly decided to play hardball at this year’s COP, fed up with years of coaxing nations towards an agreement only to be sidelined at COP15 in Copenhagen and since.

COP17 President Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, right, with UNFCCC’s Executive Secretary Christiana Figures

Naturally, Parties’ positions aren’t set in stone year-on-year. At this COP, for example, China – the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide bar none – seems to be playing an increasingly constructive role while previously holier-than-thou Canada has provoked outcry by making repeated hints that it will withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol entirely (earlier this week, to hoots of derision, Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent made the surreal assertion that “There is an urgency to this […] We don’t need a binding convention, what we need is action and a mandate to work on an eventual binding convention”).

A sense of surrealism is a common theme running through these talks. Perhaps it’s the completely arcane language you have to master in order to follow even the basics of what is being discussed; perhaps it is the Libyan delegate’s apparent offer to solve the global climate crisis at a stroke by supplying the world with wind power from the Sahara desert (maybe I misunderstood); or watching the delegate from Syria discussing the niceties of carbon markets while his Government takes a hatchet to democracy and human rights back home …

In any case, COP17 certainly feels different to last year’s meeting in Cancún, where Parties were so terrified of another Copenhagen-style fiasco that they spent the entire two weeks assiduously avoiding conflict. The stakes are a bit higher this year – it’s not going to be enough to merely salvage the process. Countries are going to have to get into specifics and, as I mentioned above, even the more dove-like Parties are gearing up for a fight.

Next week the ‘high level segment’ begins; this is where the political (as opposed to technical) negotiations take place – expect a few sparks to fly.