Early hope for climate negotiations

Durban: Sawubona! – Hello! – from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa’s subtropical eastern seaboard. Safer than Johannesburg and more racially integrated than Cape Town, Durban feels like a comfortable city, flourishing in lush rolling hills on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Europeans settled in this Zulu kingdom from the 1820s, bringing Indians over at the end of the 19th century to work on the railways – the legacy is a tri-cultural influence in music, food and language. All the ‘Indians’ I’ve met here have Hindi as their mother tongue, yet neither they nor even their grandparents have set foot outside of South Africa.

City on the Indian Ocean

Black kites hang above the city, frangipani flowers are in fragrant bloom and surfers ride the waves off the city beaches. It’s hard not to fall for this clean and relaxed, African city. (Although there is another side to Durban.) The locals are smiling more than usual: with an extra 20-30 thousand visitors in town for the COP 17 climate negotiations, taxi drivers are working around the clock and every hotel and restaurant is fully booked. “I started work today at 2am,” one driver tells me, as he careens around a corner at 7pm, high on adrenaline or something more powerful. In the past two days, I’ve passed 5 junctions hosting serious car crashes, and the top discussion point on local radio is the question of why more delegates aren’t using the free city bikes provided by the conference organisers. This, incidentally, is in a city where car use is almost a necessity because public transport provision is so poor.

Hand-pulled rickshaws ply the modern streets

The conference centre behemoth is abuzz with happy-looking delegates, despite the negotiation pessimism. This is presumably because the pale and fraught looking people from the north are delighted to see the sun again, and the southern delegates are just glad to be away at an event where people are interested to hear their stories. All the usual agencies are here manning exhibition stands and issuing documents, from the influence-wielding scientific institutions and NGOs to the fringe campaign groups, some of which border on the loony. Among the delegates, the same rule holds. These annual, international climate conferences, which have been going for nearly two decades, have become an enjoyable lifestyle choice for some people. For others, it’s a frustrating process that sees the annual presentation of scientific findings increasingly caked in political excuse and delay.

Rachel Kyte of the World Bank is a reliably good speaker, unlike so many other delegates

There are some cool ideas on show, including a Korean university pilot project to make paper and biofuels from red seaweed plantations, which “avoids deforestation, provides marine ecosystem services and sequesters carbon”. Another project aims to avoid deforestation by poor people, who use timber to make charcoal fuel to sell for food, by replacing the wood with fast-growing bamboo – the charcoal produced looks like hollow rods.

Women face the biggest impacts from climate change and this year's conference has several events with the gender theme

In terms of the actual negotiations, there have been a few positive developments already, and it’s still early days because most of the parties are only arriving in Durban today. The push to pay (or ‘compensate’) poor people for conserving rainforests, rather than chopping the trees for charcoal, timber, agriculture, grazing and other lucrative pursuits, received a boost. Delegates have agreed a mechanism for measuring avoided deforestation in terms of the carbon stored in the living trees, and how this will be regulated and reported in a transparent way. This is actually a pretty important step. At the moment, individuals, corporations and industry that want to pay – or are compelled to through carbon cap policy – for their greenhouse gas emissions (‘offsetting’ them) use this ‘REDD’ system to fund avoided deforestation in the tropics, equivalent to the amount of carbon emitted.

Could vegetarianism save the planet?

The system is full of flaws and obstacles, but since it’s the only mechanism currently available to get polluters to pay for carbon storage, it is certainly worth pursuing. Later this week, delegates will try to thrash out the funding issues for the REDD system so that international agreement can be reached in a legally binding manner. They will almost certainly fail. But, in the mean time, the achievement made around the technicalities of how to measure and regulate the system, can be used in smaller-scale schemes between individual countries (such as Norway and Brazil) or subnationally between rich and poor states, such as California and Amazonas.

The development that has the biggest potential to overturn the entire stultifying UNFCCC process and render it a successful and progressive business, is the suggestion that China may be willing to agree to legally binding emissions targets. This would be such an exciting prospect, that I hardly dare report it. But in a couple of press conferences and interviews here, Chinese delegates (including Xie Zhenhua, who heads the Chinese delegation) have hinted that they would agree to caps from 2020 or even 2015. The wording is careful and, of course, key, so it’s not sure exactly what China means. If it is agreeing simply to the cuts laid out in previous agreement – ie, for ‘developed’ countries (as defined in the 1990s) to cut their emissions, while China continues its dirty development trajectory – then it is saying nothing new. But it’s possible that China is now willing to engage with this important process.

If so, then that would leave India – which would surely capitulate – and the USA as party poopers. The US has had China’s position to justify its own crazy selfishness (between the two countries, they emit 40% of global carbon emissions). Without a Chinese excuse, it would be isolated, taking a stand with the likes of Russia and Saudi Arabia. And it is likely that the rest of the world would simply continue the process of negotiations, making progress without US hindrance.

Right, I’m off for a tasty Bunny Chow.

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