Getting a real agreement at COP17

The 17th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (follow-on from the Copenhagen negotiations) will be held in South Africa in 2011 (there seems to be confusion as to whether it will be in Johannesburg or Cape Town).

The Indian minister of the environment said, after a meeting of the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) in Cape Town a few weeks back, that he expects a substantial agreement may be reached in SA, but not this year at COP16, in Cancun).

Will the COP decide on a treaty that is fair, effective and binding? I suspect this will depend on a few things:

We need agreement on the increased urgency of action, as suggested by the science. But we won’t probably have that, because the next report of the IPCC comes only in 2013. (It is absurd, given the urgency of the problem, that these reports come only every five/six years.)

We need really effective work in the negotiations by those countries whose negotiating positions bring the most integrity, such as calls for warming to be held to under one degree. If developing countries are to achieve what they need to achieve, they must have greater support, greater resources while working in the negotiations. All too often, it seems, developing country delegations are under-staffed, relatively lacking in expertise, and by the time negotiations are reaching critical stages, are often just too exhausted to keep up with rich countries who can supply relays of highly effective negotiators. (On behalf of my delegation,…”: A survival guide for developing country climate negotiators, by Joyeeta Gupta is a book and very useful online resource with many insights into how the negotiation process actually works.)

If global civil society wants to be really effective in the COPs, perhaps this is where its support is most needed, rather than sending hundreds of delegates as voteless, toothless observers. Perhaps the presence of civil society makes a small contribution in adding to the psychological pressure on delegates to reach a real decision – but as we saw at Copenhagen, it’s far from being decisive.

To reiterate: I suspect if civil society cut its own numbers in favour of funding support to developing country negotiations, it would probably be a far more effective contribution.

We also need greatly increased pressure on governments at home. In South Africa, for example, it is simply unacceptable that our government is supporting the call for limiting warming to two degrees. Two degrees of warming may be considered comfortable by the rich north, but for Southern Africa two degrees of warming will be disastrous. Our government is machine-gunning our own feet with this position.

Success at COP17 will depend on work done long in advance.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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