Durban is a pullulating town with an over-built seafront and surfing-sized waves. It doesn’t feel like Africa, it feels more like Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia. I’m trying to work out if that’s a good or a bad thing. But while I do there’s everything and nothing going on here at the United Nations climate talks.
The first week of the talks is always a little dull because the technocrats are in town pulling tiny parts of the negotiating text apart and putting it back together. It’s the kind of thing that excites policy wonks in the thick of the UNFCCC but to anyone outside the process it’s a pretty hard sell.
But to be fair, even from the litter of runty first weeks this one has been a weakling. Some of the highlights included Bolivia making some positive noises on a tax on shipping fuel (a CAFOD favourite as a way to raise money to help poor countries cope with climate change); the design of the Green Climate Fund looking like a goer; and the EU giving the US what for during a press conference addressing the future of the Kyoto Protocol.
See what I mean? But interestingly when the talks reach hiatus (because difficult decisions take time and subtle negotiating, and sometimes negotiators only have the power to agree so much before the big guns rock up in week two), often the progress void gets filled with speculation from observers (including NGOs) and media who are desperate to unpick what is going on even when nothing is happening.
Thus, on Saturday, when I walked into Durban’s International Convention Centre café the tension was tangible, yet after conversations with different huddles there were few concrete summit decisions to pin those frustrations on.
I suppose it’s the nature of this particular beast – idealists willing the political realists onwards at a faster pace. Sometimes it’s like watching a boiling pan – with some of the more seasoned NGOs working hard to let the lid off periodically so it doesn’t blow.
But week two will bring catharsis, it always does. Monday and Tuesday will see a dozen heads of state rolling into town, along with other countries’ environment ministers. This doesn’t only increase the limelight on the talks, these guys and girls bring with them the full pack (or near enough) of negotiating cards to play with. It also brings into sharp focus who are the goodies and baddies in the talks because the first-week messengers are replaced by the horse’s mouth.
By the time of the high level session on Tuesday there will be heads of state or government from Ethiopia, Gabon, the Central African Republic, DR Congo, Senegal, Nauru, Honduras, Samoa, Monaco, Fiji, Niue and Norway. It’s an interesting and not unexpected mix with mainly African nations marking their continent’s hosting of the Conference of Parties 17 (COP17), (and we mustn’t forget Ethiopia’s Meles’s very close relationship with Europe at these talks), and small island states that are already experiencing devastating sea level rises and damage to ecosystems.
I’d also expect in week two that we’ll up the ante with at least one sighting of an early draft of the ‘Durban Accord’. This document was circulating amongst negotiators this weekend and will most likely find its way to the media if it hasn’t already.
And from a UK point of view Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne will be entering the fray from Monday, which, after Chancellor Osborne’s disparaging and desperately disappointing comments on climate action in his Autumn Statement, will certainly give both press and British NGOs something to concentrate on.
© Pascale Palmer is Senior Policy Media Officer for CAFOD. www.cafod.org.uk