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COP17: Week one summary

04 December 2011
COP17: Week one summary

COP17 takes place from November 28 to December 9, 2011, in Durban, South Africa, from where Damian Ryan our Senior Policy Manager is providing daily news, analysis and live tweeting. This is his summary of COP17's first week.

Week one of this year’s UN Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa, appears to have followed the traditional negotiating set piece. After a high level opening attended by President Zuma of South Africa, officials focused on the multiple work streams that make up a normal COP meeting. Their task (as always) has been to work through various agenda items in order to present draft decisions for ministers to further negotiate and agree in week two.

As explained in my pre-COP 17 briefing, the key issues under discussion have been: the future of the Kyoto Protocol; the ‘legal form’ of a new agreement to strengthen climate action by all countries; and operationalizing various elements agreed at last year’s COP16 in Cancun, particularly climate finance.

South Africa, as holder of the COP Presidency, introduced to parties its ‘Indaba’ process to help facilitate transparent and inclusive negotiations. Based on traditional South Africa tribal meetings, this process has been aimed at ensuring participation by all parties on all agenda items. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s Foreign Minister and COP President, has used the process extensively to assist the climate finance discussions, which she has focused on as a priority.

Despite the best efforts of the COP President though, the shape of any outcome from Durban remains far from clear. Parties for the most part have stuck to well known positions. The EU’s efforts to find a middle ground that both preserves the Kyoto Protocol and sets the scene for a new global agreement of some kind by 2015 to 2020, apparently failed to gain widespread support, not least from other major emitters. In short, it was a week of few surprises given the pre-COP messaging that had come out of most capitals.  

The first six days were not without a few points of interest however. Early in the week rumours out of Canada caused ripples through the conference. Unconfirmed reports claimed that the Canadian Government had decided to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol in its entirety (i.e. joining the US as a non-party).  While this was neither confirmed nor apparently denied, it was certainly not helpful to building an atmosphere of trust.

Perhaps the most significant development for the week though, was the emergence of the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) as a formal negotiating block. Although these countries have worked together closely ever since Copenhagen, they had not formally presented a joint position within the negotiations. In many ways this is an encouraging development as it creates for the first time a clear distinction between these major emerging economies and the much larger group of smaller and generally poorer developing countries. Whether this separation has any material difference on the negotiations will become clearer in the coming week.

The US did its part to lower expectations by reiterating its view that a formal legal treaty was unlikely and indeed unnecessary until 2020. Its deputy chief negotiator caused consternation and confusion amongst many observers by claiming that there were multiple ways to reach a two degree target after 2020. Such optimism flies in the face of the recent announcements from the International Energy Agency that failure to take action before 2017 would lock in a high-carbon global energy infrastructure, which would put the world on a pathway to three degree of warming or more.

India’s request to include agenda items on intellectual property rights, unilateral trade measures, and equitable access to sustainable development, also slowed the pace of negotiations as parties argued over whether they should be adopted. In a meeting already dominated by a range of sensitive issues, the inclusion of three further such items was no doubt seen by many countries as challenging to say the least.

As the week came to an end, the chair of the main convention track negotiations pulled together a consolidated document of all the different negotiating texts. Containing all the variety of yet-to-be-agreed proposals for individual issues, the 130 page document no doubt kept many negotiators busy over the weekend. With ministers now arriving, officials have just a few days to bring order to this and other documents dealing with the Kyoto negotiations.  

Further reading

For those interested in more analysis on the prospects for COP17, the following sources and are recommended.

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, is writing news and analysis throughout COP17, and providing a more in-depth post-COP Briefing after the events. Keep up to date on our website and by following him on Twitter during COP17.

Our international policy teams are have also commented on key regional positions in the lead-up to Durban; read about AustraliaChina, EuropeIndia and the US.

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