Liveblog: Durban down to the wire

By Cindy Baxter 09/12/2011

3.20 am Sunday morning

The South African Minister took key people into a “huddle” for 10 mins.

“Can the world be saved in a tea break?”  tweeted @FionaHarvey from The Guardian.

Tea Break over… so. They have agreed “to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force applicable to all parties….” to be negotiated through to 2015 and be implemented from 2020.

Meanwhile, over in the Kyoto Protocol, the EU slipped back and agreed an eight-year commitment period, which would also take that through to 2020.   It’s up to governments to decide whether they want to submit pledges under that process by May next year.

So with the atmosphere in mind, and the steady march to 3.5ºC of warming, there’s nothing much here, yet, to slow that march.  The definition of the “legal” bit of this decision could mean anything – and I can see lawyers around me in plenary already working that out.   Will it be enough to bring the big emitters on board?

Will that be enough for New Zealand to make its pledge unconditional and continue with Kyoto? Or will our government continue to point fingers at the big guys? Given the work that Tim Groser did in watering down the text overnight, I doubt it.

But right now, I’m too tired to puzzle it all out. It’s certainly nothing like the strong climate action we need.

1 am Sunday morning

The main, informal plenary has started.  Let the fireworks begin.  The Governments are now discussing the main decision, a proposal by the President, the “Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.”

The text is not agreed.  Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner kicks it off:

“We are ready to be almost alone in a second commitment period for five years….Science tells us we are already late. Let’s try to have a legally binding protocol for the whole world by 2018.” 

Resounding and lengthy applause from the room.  Colombia joins in on behalf of the Alba Group.Also wants a legally binding Protocol.

Now India, the recalcitrant blocker.  Wants to keep the words ‘protocol, another legal instrument or a legal outcome” to stay in the text.  This is the problem.  These words, this text, is no different really to what was agreed in Bali in 2007.

Then comes Grenada, on behalf of the Small Island States:

“Now we’re being asked to accept something that is meaningless…If there is no legal instrument then we are relegating vulnerable economies to the whims and fancies of those who want to develop…While they develop, we die in the process.”

China joins India.  Others speak, but the US hides, is silent.  This is how they do it. Push in the back rooms and say nothing on the floor.

sigh.  The meeting will be adjourned soon, and then what?  No agreement?  Doesn’t look like anyone is going to cave any time soon.  It’s going to be a long night.

8.15 pm

For the real geeks, here are the texts for the Kyoto Protocol working group. The second one relates to the targets.

7.45 pm

Plenary has started. If you want to lose the will to live, watch it here.

Richard Black tweets:
@BBCRBlack -Very grumpy start to KP plenary #cop17 – docs not there, chairman chippy, Bolivarians loquacious. Looks like a long night

7.15 pm Saturday evening

A live blog is supposed to talk about what’s happening, as it happens, right? Well, it’s been all day and little has happened. 26 Ministers and one advisor each, ie, 52 people have been locked in a room all day, negotiating away the future of our planet.

We hear rumours, then they’re quashed. We hear talk of 2020, but of a deal to get governments to take action before then.  We hear talk of legally binding – then not. Plenary has been called and delayed four times. Now we are waiting for more text, not entirely sure what it is – will find out when they copy and distribute it.

Nasty stories of the dealings of our Minister, Tim Groser. He spent the night last night negotiating deals on the text for the LCA (Long term Cooperative Action) — the discussions over actions by developing countries and others not in the Kyoto Protocol, ie the US.  He has gone way beyond any mandate he has.  The Kyoto Protocol text this morning read as though it was written for Australia and New Zealand’s full list of excuses and loopholes that would apply to the entire world.

The dark forces of the US, China, India, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand had combined to gut the agreement of so many important pieces overnight. Over today we hear that Brazil has gotten better, as has China.

I don’t pretend to know all the pieces in play right now, but I’m going to go find out and update. Meanwhile Ministers are starting to leave. They have flights to catch. The more that leave, the less likely is a final agreement, as their negotiators won’t have the mandate to act on their behalf.

How about saving the planet, people, not your weekend?

Saturday morning, 1000 hrs Durban time

hmmm… not as good as I thought. The devil is in the detail and, given that half of the key decisions here are chaired by New Zealand, we have a massive responsibility here. I’m hearing that our Minister, Tim Groser, has played some very dirty tricks with the Kyoto Protocol text overnight.  Will update as I get more information, but it’s not looking good.

0745hrs Durban time

Woken up to a whole new day – there is new text out, that was tabled for the “Indaba” (a Zulu way of resolving conflicts by sitting a group of elders down and talking it out) Ministers’ meeting.

Just seen it – they’ve posted it on the front page of the UNFCCC website for anyone who’s interested.  NGO’s were told to go home – sleeping at the centre not permitted (sorta fair enough, I guess). Ministers left around 3 am.

The first decision (still in square brackets) would relate to:  “[Amendments and related decisions to secure a ratifiable second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.”

It extends the Cancun agreement, which is needed to ensure that the pledges (paltry as they are) put on the table in Cancun stay in.

BUT it also suggests a new “Protocol or another legal instrument applicable all parties”  to be negotiated by “no later than 2015.”

It takes into account all the industrialised country ( Japan, Canada, Russia, NZ, Australia et al) excuses for not extending Kyoto without other big emitters. But it  also, with a Protocol, would account for China and India’s refusal to take on legally binding without an extension of Kyoto.

This is all a lot better.  2015, while still late, gives us time to take action to keep warming below 2degC – just. Only just and expensive, but still a lot more possible than 2020 which is pretty much a death warrant for vulnerable states.

Ministers meet again in a couple of hours. More as it comes. 

Update Friday night (treating this like a live blog – see below for earlier update).

New text out today, but it was greeted with a veritable storm of protest from the Small Island States, the EU and the Least Developed Countries – a combined grouping of more than 120 countries, with more coming on board to oppose.

Why? The text proposes no further action until after 2020 – and that, to the most vulnerable, is like a death warrant.   Ministers were locked in a room for several hours, took a break and about to go back into the meeting. They’re expected to carry on way into the night and through tomorrow. China, India and the US are increasingly isolated as their block and delay tactics exposed (see further down for my earlier update).

Theatre  this afternoon as NGO’s “occupied” the space outside the main plenary, waving signs and chanting slogans like “Listen to the people, not the polluters,” and singing african songs.

Avaaz,, the Maldives Minister all took part, with other small island country ministers giving interviews of support from the side.   Greenpeace International head, Kumi Naidoo, a Durban local, led the chanting.  It all ended peacefully with the protestors being ejected from the meeting and their badges taken away.

"Occupy Durban" outside the main Plenary today

Privately, we heard that many delegates and others were happy with the protest, thinking it was long overdue.

More coverage over at the “Adopt a negotiator” blog and footage here 

There really isn’t much more to say right now, except a bit of gossip about the Russians, always ones to start a fight where there wasn’t one before.  The meeting had already agreed on the destination for next year’s travelling climate circus: Qatar.

But after their Ambassador (and two bodyguards) got beaten up in customs there last week, the Russians have decided to oppose now. Not entirely sure where this argument will end up, but one thing we all know: so many times over the years you think you’ve got agreement on something, then the Russians kick in.  This could be the “Russian moment” of Durban.

Update Friday lunchtime.

The last 24 hours have seen quite some UN theatrics and stand-offs.  I’ll go through it as it happened as the way it all unfolded was quite dramatic.

I got to the ICC conference yesterday morning to find that Tokelau was having a press conference. But nobody in the media really knew who Tokelau was, so I managed to find a few  to go along.  Tokelau has the ultimate in “vulnerable countries” stories, having run out of water altogether in the seven month drought they’ve had this year and I thought it made a good story.

The Ulu of Tokelau, Foua Toloa, told them that he’d started his journey with a 28 hour boat ride just to get to Samoa.   64 hours in total to get to Durban to help get a deal to save the future of his country. Incredible. I don’t need to tell his full story here – John Vidal in The Guardian did a much better job than I ever could.

Jo Tyndall, head of the NZ delegation, sat on the podium with him, and wouldn’t commit to helping them out in finding the finance for the $900,000 they need to finish the project. Things are looking better for an outcome on the Green Climate Fund here in Durban, so maybe that would make a difference, But when the BBC asked her to clarify her position on Kyoto, she refused to answer. We know that New Zealand has joined Australia in pushing back against Kyoto. She looked very uncomfortable, and so she should.

Meanwhile, things were going awry for the US in the main plenary, where the world’s environment Ministers were delivering their speeches.   As US climate envoy Todd Stern arrived at the podium, he was interrupted by 21 year old US student Abigail Borah, who stood up and made an impassioned speech.

“I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait. We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty. We need leaders who will commit to real change, not empty rhetoric. Keep your promises. Keep our hope alive.”

Abigail takes on Todd Stern

The key to this was the reaction. She got massive applause from the room.  And this was from  Ministers, not just their officials. To me, this was a “Bali moment” where the US caved in to the agreement in the face of hostile opposition.

Stern was visibly shaken. After his speech he came straight to the press conference room to clear up, he said, some “misconceptions”. Misconceptions that the US was blocking the way, and pushing for a delay on any more action until after 2020. He said he supported the EU mandate for a road map to negotiate a new treaty, said it as if this had been the case all along. (His office, though, later clarified his statement saying that he didn’t really, after all). But it looked good for a few seconds.

But when this proposition was put to Karl Hood, Grenada Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the Alliance of Small Island States, whose press conference followed Stern’s, he hit back.

“Let me see that in the negotiating room. Let me see that in the text. Let me hear him say that while we sit around the negotiating table putting the text together.”

A few hours later, the EU held a hastily put together  press briefing down in the basement media centre, standing alongside a with a wider group representing the most vulnerable countries in the world, the LDC’s (Least Developed Countries) and AOSIS, calling for the meeting to agree a mandate to negotiate a legally binding agreement by 2013 – the year that Kyoto’s Second Commitment Period begins. To include all major emitters. They later issued a statement:

“We believe that the world has had a lot of time to think. What we need is not more thinking. What we need is more action….
…This includes agreeing an amendment of the Kyoto Protocol for the second commitment period together with a robust mandate and roadmap for a legally binding instrument. The price of buying time is rising. Durban must deliver. The EU, LDCs and AOSIS are ready to undertake concrete obligations to manage the climate change challenge. We urge others to join.”

So will these others join? Will there be a split in the group of big developing country emitters (Brazil, South Africa, India and China)? Or will India stick to its hardline position with the US? What will the Africa Group do?

We know what a delay to 2020 for any further action would do.  Scientists from the Climate Action Tracker told us that earlier this week, and were clear about the costs of such a delay. Essentially, it would mean that to recover from the current pathway (leading to a 3.5ºC rise in temps) and get back to the 2ºC pathway, we’d have to cut emissions 3.8% a year globally, every year to 2050.

Delaying to 2015 would mean we’d cut off roughly half of our options, but 2020 is worse.

India have been arguing they are among the world’s most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. That their per capita emissions are among the lowest in the world (they’re not, but they are in the lowest third). Yet they still subsidise their fossil fuel industry to the tune of around 20%.

They want to see what the next IPCC report says. Erm … why? We know the science, and we also know that their most vulnerable would be even worse off under such a delay. They know damned well that this tactic will block progress here, just as their mates in the US know that.

It’s going to be a very rough ride in the next 24 hours. Expect this to go through the night tonight, through till tomorrow evening, if we’re lucky. Nobody quite knows what will happen. It could go either way.

What we do know is that every minute we wait, every minute these ministers argue, a relentless stream of CO2is pouring into the atmosphere. It doesn’t care who has the lowest carbon footprint, who has a president to re-elect next year… it just keeps on loading. The Ulu from Tokelau has a 64 hour journey home ahead of him. Let’s hope his efforts haven’t been wasted.