COP 17 President Maite Nkoana-Mashabane speaks during a press conference with Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban.
DURBAN – “Do you think we’ll actually get anything done this time around?” asked the elderly man sitting at the head of the community table at our bed and breakfast.
This was my first conversation in South Africa with someone other than my colleagues. And almost immediately after introducing himself as a senior delegate with a major U.N. agency, the man summed up the debate over the UN climate negotiations at the Conference of the Parties (COP17) in Durban with one simple, blunt question.
“That depends on how you define success,” said our colleague Andrew Light, an international climate expert at the Center for American Progress. “A lot has already been done.”
Light’s answer sparked an incredulous response from the man, who argued that the feeble, incremental response to the global climate crisis by negotiators over the years in the U.N. climate talks was in no way a success. The conversation quickly escalated into a heated debate over how to judge progress at the Durban climate talks.
Without binding targets for aggressive emissions reductions, said the man, we are simply treading water as it continues to rise around us.
Of course, we all agreed. We wouldn’t be at the COP conference if we didn’t think bold action on climate is needed. But even with such a strong moral imperative, getting 194 countries with competing interests to craft a binding framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions has proven extraordinarily difficult.
Given that reality, Light argued the importance of celebrating incremental victories that allow parties to take steps toward a larger agreement. That’s the lens in which he sees the Durban negotiations. And as hard as it is to admit that we’ll probably only see marginal victories in the foreseeable future, those victories could add up to something meaningful.
So what does Light mean by “a lot has already been done?” Hasn’t everyone declared the process dead after the implosion of the much-hyped 2009 conference in Copenhagen?