“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
UN Chief Climate Change official Christiana Figueres quoted former South African president Nelson Mandela in her opening speech to the 17th UN Climate Conference, which began Monday in Durban, South Africa. Figueres urged all parties to be flexible.
At the top of the agenda is renewing the Kyoto Protocol, an international and legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse emissions which is due to expire at the end of 2012.
Within hours of the opening discussions, however, Canada said it would not commit to a second term of the Kyoto Protocol and even moved to withdraw early, while China, a leading emitter, and the G77 group said their participation in a global deal depended on all developed nations signing a second Kyoto term.
The United States said China’s participation was a basic requirement for its own involvement, but provided no guarantee.
The European Union voted in favor of a second term, but stipulated that the largest emitters, US and China, should agree to legally-binding emission cuts by 2015.
The UN conference is attended by approximately 15,000 delegates from 194 nations.
Departing for Durban today, Environmental Minister Mohamed Aslam said the Maldives would not relent to any country during the talks. During the 12-day conference, Aslam said the Maldives would lobby for a new international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions and prevent a rise in sea levels.
“We can’t go on without finding a conclusion to this. The Maldives will lobby for and say whatever we have to say to any country it is that we will not be able to move forward without endorsing this agreement. Our survival will be our top priority,” he told Haveeru.
The last climate talks were held in Copenhagen in 2010 amidst great international excitement and pressure. However, the vague outcome–an accord with no binding articles – disappointed the public to the point of protests in Copenhagen.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem tried to correct public skepticism at the Climate Vulnerable Forum in Dhaka earlier this month.
“Today, conventional wisdom suggests that Copenhagen was a failure,” Naseem said. “I beg to differ. In my opinion, the Copenhagen Accord was not an admission of defeat, but the first step on the road towards a solution – a solution based on the vision laid down in the Male’ Declaration. That vision was simple: that global warming will only be halted when States realize the futility of arguing over whom should cut emissions, and begin competing to become the leaders of the new industrial revolution – a revolution based not on the finite power of coal and oil, but on the infinite power of the sun, sea and wind.”
Naseem called on conference attendees to push towards a climate-friendly resolution based on positive action.
Yet so far, Copenhagen’s results appear to haunt Durban.
“The main problem we face is that some countries don’t want to discuss a binding international pact,” Aslam said, echoing a key obstacle at the conference two years ago.
Aslam and other officials at the Environmental Ministry were not responding to phone calls for further commentary at time of press.
Presenting its annual report on climate trend at the conference yesterday, World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said 2011 caps a decade that ties the record as the hottest ever measured. In the past 15 years, 13 have broken records for high temperatures.
South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and the conference chair Maite Nkoana-Mashabane echoed the Maldives’ plea when she said that the world’s poorest countries – many of them in Africa – were dependent on swift action to stave off the catastrophic effects of global warming which affect them most.
South Africa stands to suffer high disease and mortality rates, longer droughts, intense flooding and decreasing biodiversity as temperatures rise. Agriculture would also suffer in a country where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty level.
BluePeace founder Ali Rilwan told Minivan News doubted politics would carry the day at Durban, but hoped that the public would begin to carry the issue at hand.
“I don’t think anything striking will come out of [the conference]. It’s been a ritual thing for what, 20 years? And Durban is not like Copenhagen, the excitement isn’t there, and the level of participation is also low,” he said.
Calling climate conferences “talk shows,” he said the Maldives “should pay more attention to what we can do at home. For a micro-state like the Maldives, by acting locally we could have a global impact.” But not much has been done to resolve issues threatening the country’s reefs, aquatic vegetation and mangroves, he observed.
When asked if the Maldives was focusing too much on international support, Rilwan said, “we need expertise and funding. And some international parties have given that. But we don’t see anything happening.”
Rilwan’s hopes lie with the people. “The people are getting stronger. We saw it at Copenhagen and we will see it at Durban as well. They are slowly losing faith in their leaders and instead are starting to network world-wide. I think they can push their leaders to be more active on climate change,” he said.
Indeed, “Occupy Durban” has gathered momentum. US-based The Huffington Post reports that the movement stems from frustration with world leaders, and that activists doubt the people are being accurately represented.
“We had faith 16 times before but no more…most of us are saying it’s a conference of polluters,” said Patrick Bond, a professor in the in the University of Kwazulu-Natal, who is part of the occupy movement. “If anything good starts to happen then Washington will sabotage it does it again and again.”
Activists have formed a People’s General Assembly in contrast with the UN’s General Assembly. One member pointed to the decision to hold the conference in an area known for South Africa’s petrochemical industry as a sign that public and political views were at odds.
While the official conference appears to side-step stated goals, the people’s conference is still articulating its purpose. “What we’re trying to do is reengage with politics on a people based level,” one activist told Huffington Post. “What we’d like to see is a much more non-hierarchical localized politics.”
The Occupy movement currently claims a few hundred participants, but those interviewed said they were hoping for thousands to turn out a rally scheduled for December 3.