COMMENT: Why agreeing to disagree could be good news in Durban

Delegates at the UN climate change talks in Durban

Delegates are ready to listen at COP17 and not afraid to disagree (Source: UNFCCC)

By John Parnell
RTCC in Durban

The head of the Polish delegation Tomasz Chruszcow says that if a global binding deal on climate change is a marriage, then the talks in Durban should be about securing an engagement. That gives the COP17 delegates less than two weeks of courtship.

The analogy is a fitting one and early indications would suggest it is an accurate one. In Copenhagen, extreme pressure was placed on negotiators to seek out an agreement and put pen to paper before the fortnight was out.

Head EU negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger continued the metaphor saying that there was no value to be had in a forced marriage.

This seems an unlikely scenario.

The weight of expectation has been removed. Progress, toward a second Kyoto commitment or a new all encompassing deal, will be piecemeal. Whatever comes out of Durban, it will be the beginning of a longer process, so for now, everyone can just enjoy moving forward.

As a result, there are a surprising number of relaxed delegates wandering the halls. There is still room for the occasional joke and enough time to tuck into one of the many barbeques dotted around the fringes of the convention complex.

There was a word of caution issued by the COP17 president Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and a reminder that although expectations may be cautious, urgency remains and there is no room for complacence.

“The trust rekindled in Cancun is still very fragile,” she said. “But this fragile trust building process must continue.”

The negotiators I have spoken with seem accepting of the positions their ‘rivals’ have taken. There is almost an acceptance that scything compromises are unlikely and a new deal should be built to incorporate the differences of the Parties.

There are some early reasons for optimism. Domestic action on mitigation is near universal, perhaps for the first time since the UNFCCC negotiations began. Finding a flexible international agreement to encompass these is surely easier than the task facing negotiators at COP3 in Kyoto.

And Kyoto is one issue that will rumble on throughout the talks.

The United States has given a strong indication however, that it is more comfortable moving the Cancun Agreement forward than talking about Kyoto as a basis for a future deal.

The US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change John Pershing told reporters that “there’s a great deal in the Cancun Agreement that is the kind of thing that we like”.

“Cancun covers [countries responsible for] around 80% of emissions compared to around 15% in Kyoto. The idea of a system to tackle climate change without the major emitters cannot be an effective one,” added Pershing.

That’s a pretty simple standpoint from the US. If China’s (now legally binding) domestic commitments can come to the international table sooner rather than later, it would be a huge coup. But again, there are no expectations.

So what of Kyoto? The issue is a prickly one, particularly in the aftermath of Canada’s decision to pull out of the agreement all together. Unsurprisingly, the door of the Canadian delegation office was firmly closed.

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