SCCS blog from Durban climate change negotiations - week 1

Week 1 from the UN climate change talks in Durban

Lang Banks and Lexi Barnett at UN climate change conference

DAY 5 by Lang Banks - Friday 2nd December 2011
International talks to save the world's climate seemed to move up a gear today. More draft texts began to appear on a variety of key issues allowing the many observers present to begin to better understand where the negotiations have got to.

Sadly, the answer is - not very far it would seem.

The battle to save a series of measures such as the Green Climate Fund - a fund that would channel 100 billion dollars a year to helping poorer countries fight global warming and its impacts - will now have to continue on Saturday. After a year of pre-talks the Fund really should have been a 'slam dunk' here in Durban. However, some countries have either dropped the ball on this or there is some serious feigning of injury by others who don't really want to see progress and are simply stalling in an attempt run out the clock.

The Fund was one of the key themes of the European Union press conference today. Its chief negotiators said the EU had already put aside the money and wanted to see the scheme up and running as fast as possible. Sure, they acknowledged there were some wrinkles, but they also said they believed these could be ironed out. The priority they said was to ensure that the green light to establish the Fund was given at these talks. The longer the delay the worse the consequences for us all, they warned.

Up until now the EU has always been considered a leader on climate. However, many here want them to up their ambition on the scale of their emissions reductions. They responded by saying "even if Europe were to shutdown this Saturday it wouldn't be enough to save the climate" and that "we need others on board." They have a point, but the reality is that the EU are well on track to meet their pledges under the Kyoto Protocol so raising their ambition would not be that difficult and would send out signals that could help unblock things here.

Meanwhile, quietly stalking the corridors of this conference is another story about the outcome next week of a legislative debate in Brazil on that country’s landmark Forest Code law. Big changes to the law are under final consideration by lawmakers in that country and will almost certainly have an impact on what happens here in Durban. If passed, the changes would mean that Brazil will not meet its international climate change reduction commitments.

Worse still, they could jeopardize the UN's entire Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest degradation (REDD+) mechanism and with it global carbon emission reduction efforts.

The important point it reveals is that the fate of the world's climate will not and cannot be decided solely at international gatherings like this. It's the actions that do or don't happen back home in each and every country that counts. That's why Scotland's world-leading climate change targets and 100% renewable electricity target matter so much. It's why I looking forward to the arrival here soon of Scotland's Minister for Environment and Climate, Stewart Stevenson.

• Lang Banks works for WWF Scotland and is representing the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland coalition while in Durban

Read the ECO newsletter for Friday 2nd December


DAY 4 by Lang Banks - Thursday 1st December 2011
Today began and ended with pizza.

At our early morning team catch-up a colleague recounted a speech given in a session the previous day.

Describing the current discussions on the key principles guiding the negotiations here in Durban one Egyptian delegate offered up the following story:

“Two people ordered a couple of pizzas. One of them ate up the first pizza leaving only one. Then the two people started fighting over the remaining pizza.”

It was clear that the pizzas were shorthand to describe the ability of the world's atmosphere to safely deal with the carbon emissions released so far by humankind before dangerous climate change takes hold. And, yes, developed countries like the UK have effectively gobbled up half that global capacity in only a couple of hundred years.

As a result, we now have to spend time creating complex international agreements, like the Kyoto Protocol, and attending conferences like this each year to argue about how to divide up the remaining, but continually shrinking, capacity. The thing is though, now we have to share that remaining capacity with poorer, less developed nations. The problem is that some developed nations just don't want to do that - irrespective of the dire consequences for everyone on the planet.

This very point was made by the next delegate from Grenada who neatly added: “It doesn’t matter how many pizzas there are on the table if there is no one left to eat them”. Spot on, I thought.

Sadly, what we have here in Durban right now is just as the Egyptian delegate described it - a bit of fight.

Whether it is the Green Climate Fund, action to protect the world's forests or even plans whether or not to extend existing commitments, some countries just don't seem prepared to give even a little. As a result we're rapidly approaching the end of week one with little clarity on what world leaders and government ministers will have on the table to discuss, let alone agree on.

In spite of the lack of progress inside the talks themselves my day seemed to be no less busy with story pitches to the media, numerous side events to attend, press conferences to cover, report back and tweet on. My day inside the conference venue ended just after 10pm having stayed on to support and brief a South African colleague prior to her taking part in an informative and engaging live debate with Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne - who is expected to arrive in Durban this weekend.

Hindered from departing the conference venue by a torrential downpour I didn't make it to my hotel until close to 11pm - well after the restaurant had stopped serving. Thankfully, just as I had conceded going to bed having not eaten since breakfast, a colleague returned to the hotel with the remains of his pizza. However, unlike some of the nations here, he kindly offered to share it with me.

My optimism that progress on tackling climate change can eventually be made suddenly came flooding back.

  • Lang Banks works for WWF Scotland and is representing the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland coalition while in Durban.

Read the ECO newsletter for Thursday 1st December


DAY 3 by Lang Banks - Wednesday 30th November 2011
This morning I began to wonder if the strikes taking place across the UK had magically turned up here in South Africa as our so-called regular shuttle bus to the UN climate change talks failed to materialise. After waiting patiently for over an hour we opted for taxis for fear that the entire two-week event would be over by the time we got there.

The first task of the day was finalising arrangements for this Thursday evening's live online debate with the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, involving colleagues from here in Durban. Hundreds of questions have been submitted already.

Next up was a meeting with the first group of UK journalists to arrive here. They tend to hang out together when at these types of events and so they were pretty easy to find at the end of a press conference held by the European Union. It was good to meet the regular attendees again and put faces to names of those new to UN processes.

During the early afternoon news filtering through from the UK that Edinburgh-based explorer Cairn Energy had failed to make a commercial discovery of oil or gas in its Greenland campaign was greeted with broad smiles by many.

Unfortunately, that was pretty much the end of the good news today. As evening approached it became clear that early hopes of putting to bed the much needed Global Climate Fund - a fund that would channel 100 billion dollars a year to helping poorer countries fight global warming and its impacts - were beginning to unravel.

In a long and occasionally tense session, country after country spoke for and against swift adoption of the Fund.

The mood in the conference was briefly lifted when a speaker from Singapore compared the Fund to a camel - aka a horse designed by committee. Nevertheless, Singapore still backed swift adoption of the Fund.

However, despite having had a year to agree a text, in the end, the conference agreed to continue to further deliberate the draft negotiating text. There are genuine fears that re-opening this negotiating text will seriously undermine the chances that the Global Climate Fund will be finalised here in Durban. This would mean that there is no mechanism into which money could flow, a key issue for developing countries. This would be a major blow to these talks.

It sort of puts my frustration with the fact that my bus back to the hotel at 9pm also failed to materialise into perspective.

Fingers crossed for the rest of the talks that the good news finally begins to start turning up more like buses should i.e in threes.

We could certainly do with it here in Durban.

Read the ECO newsletter for Wednesday 30th November


DAY 2 by Lang Banks - Tuesday 29th November 2011
The mood here in Durban has changed just a little, but sadly not in a positive way. Things feel a little overcast. Not because of any deliberate action by any one country, but probably more to do with the dire lack of action by those most responsible for the impacts of climate change to help move these talks forward.

If I tell you that perhaps the most decisive thing to happen today was the decision to award COP18 - the next set of international climate talks - to Qatar, then you'll understand the lack of clear progress that has been made in the first few days of these talks.

This glacial progress came against a backdrop of news from the UK's World Meteorological Organisation that this year is on track to be the 10th warmest on record despite La Nina weather system which has been cooling global temperatures.

The only other notable happenings today came from the very nations most likely to be trashed as a result of climate change. Both AOSIS - the coalition of small island and low-lying coastal countries - and the African group of nations made pointed comments at those countries dragging their heels here on action to curb emissions.

One colleague even suggested to me that AOSIS used some of the strongest diplomatic language they had ever heard in their many years of covering these negotiations.

Perhaps the most important statement came from the African group of nations who said they "would not allow African soil to be the graveyard of the Kyoto Protocol."

I hope for all our sakes that they succeed.

Read the ECO newsletter for Tuesday 29th November


DAY 1 by Lang Banks - Monday 28th November 2011
The start of UN climate change talks are usually sedate, but nevertheless confusing, affairs as negotiators, delegates, press and NGOs alike all attempt to find their bearings as well as working wifi connections and electrical sockets.

The first full day in Durban was no different, although the sheer number and size of the conference buildings and exhibition spaces is somewhat intimidating. Delegate acclimatisation was not exactly helped by the sudden rise in temperatures and humidity in Durban - which followed a night of unusually heavy rain and flooding.

However, these were not the only temperatures rising here today. Many delegates could be seen quietly fuming following reports that Canada plans to announce its formal withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol some time before Christmas and after the end of these talks. Those fears were not exactly eased by an interview given to reporters by Canada's environment minister Peter Kent who said "Kyoto is in the past" and then went on to describe the decision by Canada's previous government to sign-up to Kyoto as "one of the biggest blunders they made."

It is hardly surprising therefore that Canada was the recipient of not one, but two 'fossil of the day' awards - given out by NGOs in recognition of spectacularly unhelpful actions by nations in the battle to stop climate change. Canada - effectively a lifetime achiever of 'fossil' awards - is likely just to add these latest ones to their groaning trophy cabinet.

However, not so the recipient of the day's third award - the UK - who received a 'fossil' following revelations that UK Ministers have done a deal with the Canadian government to support the entry of dirty tar sands into the European fuel supply chain, thus hampering proposed EU legislation designed to reduce the use of the most climate-damaging fuels.

The UK is usually seen as a progressive force at the UN climate talks. It would be a great pity indeed if actions by the self-proclaimed 'greenest government ever' back home critically undermined the UK's ability to hold its head high here in Durban, where it is vitally needed to help pull a deal together to save the world's climate.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this particular issue might just come up during this Thursday's live online debate organised by Stop Climate Chaos with the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne.

So, ever the optimist, I look forward to what the next day will bring. As former South African president and anti-apartheid legend, Nelson Mandela, once said: "It always seems impossible until it is done."

I couldn't have put it better.

Read the ECO newsletter for Monday 28th November


DAY ZERO by Lang Banks - Sunday 27th November 2011
I'm hoping the weather here in Durban right now is not a guide to how the UN climate talks will pan out over the next two weeks. However, the rain, thunder and lightning of today do certainly seem to match the low expectations many seem to have had until now.

Nobody is expecting a full global deal out of Durban but plenty of progress could be made if the major players worked at it. If all goes well we should get a number of technical aspects signed off. But, while the global financial crisis continues to rage, many of those who could make the difference here are somewhat distracted.

We really need to see significant moves towards a second set of targets for the Kyoto Protocol - since it still remains the only international agreement in town with any teeth. Sadly, however, countries such as Japan, Canada and Russia have already indicated they're not yet ready to take part.

Given the accelerating greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, and the huge gap between where we are heading and where we need to be, each of the governments and their delegates coming to Durban need to be prepared to rise to the challenge. As one colleague neatly put it: "We need to see negotiators embrace the spirit of the new South Africa within the talks: change, respect and compromise."

There are some grounds for optimism. Despite the sterile international debate, plenty of countries, including Scotland, are getting on with reducing emissions and aiming for zero-carbon economies. China is making huge investments in renewable energy and has energy-saving targets better than most European countries. There is also growing discontent from the smaller and poorer nations of the world who come away every year with little hope that their country will escape the direct consequences of rising sea levels, floods, droughts and storms. You have to wonder how much longer they will put up with this.

There is also extra pressure on diplomats this year because the meeting is in Africa, a continent whose people probably face the greatest threat from climate change.

It's definitely going to be a long, but very interesting, two weeks.

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