Here is a taste of the lively expo and delicious ‘carts’ right outside the ICC. Life seems to be smiling upon us, hopefully that smile will extend to the negotiation rooms:

A lot of numbers get thrown around at UN climate change negotiations. 17%, the U.S.’s voluntary emissions reduction pledge by 2020. 20%, the EU’s own unconditional pledge to reduce carbon emissions. 40-45%, China’s pledge to reduce carbon intensity. But behind those weighty numbers are perhaps even more important ones: the baselines from which those reductions are calculated. The above targets were all announced at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, but are derived from different baseline years: 1990 for the EU target, and 2005 for the U.S. and China targets.

Such inconsistency in baseline years can lead to confusion at best, and distortions at worst. For instance, when we spoke with a prominent U.S. negotiator, he noted that at the time of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, the U.S.’s 17% below 2005 pledge was actually more stringent than the EU’s 20% below 1990 pledge, since converting the EU pledge into 2005 terms would bring the relative reduction to less than 17%. It’s a clever spin on the issue, but of course glosses over all the hard work between 1990 and 2005 that the EU did—and the U.S. didn’t do—to get a lower 2005 emission level in the first place. And of course, it’s a much nicer point for the U.S. to make than to convert its own target baseline from 2005 back to 1990, which would shrink reductions down to 3% (source at p. 9).

COP17 is, above all else, an exercise in words: wordsmithing, editing, and precisely crafted language with exquisitely imprecise meaning. The hours upon hours of meetings that compose the COP revolve around subtle linguistic gymnastics by thousands of professionals whose specialty is stretching or shrinking the distance between clarity and ambiguity to gain an advantage in the negotiations.

To an outsider, the first impression of the meetings is usually exasperation. In larger meetings, the agenda is often a series of previously prepared statements which can appear to be extraordinarily similar not only to each other, but also to statements given in previous sessions. The threat of climate change, “the need to take action,” “the importance of the most vulnerable,” and our favorite, “common but differentiated responsibilities” are repeated in different combinations until they appear to be simply drawn at random from a pre-selected list.

Speaking but Not Listening; Meeting but Not Engaging

After four days of COP negotiations it’s apparent that parties need to spend less time delivering statements they have prepared in advance and more time listening to and engaging with the statements of others.

Of course, this problem is as old as multilateral diplomacy itself.  Still, that doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome.  The COP Presidency seems to agree and hosted a traditional South African Indaba over the past two days to address the issue.  A meeting held by the Zulu and Xhosa peoples, an Indaba is meant to bring parties together to discuss a matter of great importance to the community, particularly problems that affect everyone, and to solve intractable or difficult collective challenges.  According to the…

Calls for Climate Justice at COP17

As with past climate negotiations in Copenhagen and Cancun, developing countries and developed countries at COP17 in Durban are sharply divided over the future framework for a legally binding treaty for mitigating climate change, and are struggling to operationalize finance mechanisms to help countries adapt to problems like rising sea level, flooding, and drought.

While I’ve spent most of my time at COP17 inside the negotiations as a member of the Maldives delegation, overarching critiques of the process from those representing civil society, youth groups, and indigenous groups have piqued my interest.  These critiques are expressed through side events and demonstrations, and are decrying the snail’s pace of UNFCCC negotiations, highlighting the huge power…

If some of the meetings you are attending are like the ones I’ve been to, there are dozens of people, but only a handful of them actively engage in discussions. Power to those country delegates who want to have their voices heard! I suppose the next best thing is to listen to the discussion, take notes and report back.

However, some meeting participants seem too bored for meeting discussions. It occurred to me that maybe there should be designated seating at each meeting as follows:

  • Last row: for those who intend to be on Facebook
  • Previous to last row: Mobile devices
  • Next row: Email
  • Next row: Twitter
  • And so on, depending on the level of attention.

My most humorous conference moment came…

While the ‘climate negotiations’ keep going, thousand of people wearing fancy clothing are walking in and out of the meeting rooms, drinking latte or espresso, exchanging business cards and using the immaculate bathrooms at the Conference Center. Hundred of volunteers and personnel are working tirelessly to allow the smooth flow of delegates and non-government participants at the COP 17. In each bathroom there is at least one African woman cleaning each square centimeter of floor and walls. Palesa, a young woman from Durban, was resting on the wall with the broom in her hands. She was hired to work from 7:30 am to 7:30 pm every day for two weeks. Her submissive attitude and tired glance encouraged me to talk to her. After a brief introduction I asked her about…

International aviation and shipping represent a growing share of global GHG emissions. With the growing use of airplanes for tourism and of shipping for international globalized trade, miles traveled by both sectors are rapidly increasing, and with them fuel consumption as well.

One of the suggestions on the table to reduce emissions from these sectors, is to charge them with a small levy which would reduce demand for their usage, and raise new revenue for the green climate fund. Thus, a double dividend will be achieved – lowered emissions, and further finance for mitigation and adaptation projects.

At a side vent hosted by the international bodies representing shipping and aviation, they presented their opposition to the levy. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) argued that the levy would…

As some of you have probably already read, next year’s COP will be hosted by Qatar, with South Korea hosting a pre-cop ministerial meeting. I would like to point out a few obstacles this decision may pose to the integrity of the intentional climate negotiations.

First and most obviously, de facto splitting the COP means doubling its price, wasting precious time and a lot of emissions on moving certain delegates who accompany the ministers and participate at the cop, staff, and the ministers themselves, who will probably have to arrive at the COP to sign on its results in any case. Not the best example to set when negotiating ghg mitigation efforts.

Second, having the ministers meeting first and professional delegates translating their decisions to elaborate text

We couldn't help but notice the many air conditioners on full blast next to open doors in the Pavilion

Air conditioners on full blast next open doors at the Pavilion

There are many Pavilions and exhibition areas that accompany the climate change conference. Trying to escape the already harsh sun at 9 AM while waiting for one of the other students, I stepped into South Africa’s pavilion. I was immediately blasted with cold air from a row of air conditioners next to the many open entrances. It’s disappointing to see this common practice here where we are trying to solve the problem caused by wasteful behaviors. As environmentalists, we can’t feel guilty about every decision we make. However, we need to incorporate environmental considerations into our decisions…