Mandy’s Matrix: The nitty-gritty of COP17 negotiations

2011-12-01 08:06

Negotiations are not for sissies; you need to have staying power to survive.

This is the key advice offered when I started asking around on how the nitty-gritty of COP17 negotiations, taking place in Durban, works.

We hear all the time these negotiations are “sensitive” and poor Environment Minister Edna Molewa was lambasted by government officials when she dared to say the European road map is a “good road map” – because countries are supposed to keep their cards close their chests.

But behind the scenes negotiators often plead boredom. Because the conference is a consensus-seeking effort, no one is allowed to be left out.

The downside of this is that there are many countries that make a point simply for the sake of making it – often repeating what was said before or telling delegates about issues they already know.

These negotiations have been in a stalemate for a long time, one negotiator said, because of the world economic order that has not changed and caused countries to harden their positions.

The developing countries, or emerging economies, such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil, have manned up in the past few years.

They insist they will not allow concessions on climate change to affect their development trajectory they want to grow at all costs.

Developed countries like the US see the writing on the wall. They know countries like China will take over as the world’s leading superpower in a few years’ time, and they don’t like it.

So, they figure, why should we cut China and its buddies some slack to our own detriment? An understandable point, but not an ethically sound one. Just because you don’t want to let go of your world dominance does not give you the right to stand in the way of others.

China, on the other hand, is the biggest polluters and although they have managed to build a whole new economy around green industries, there is no way they’ll be able to continue growing without the help of coal-fired power stations.

Coal is dirty and unsustainable, but it is also relatively cheap and quick to build power stations. Renewable energy sources are more expensive and the street cred that nuclear power had all went up in flames with Fukushima.

In the negotiation chamber things get understandably very tense. The difficult role for the COP president, in this case international relations minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, is to know when to let parties fight it out and when to call for a tea break.

Often sticky issues get taken to smaller meetings, because countries don’t want to be seen giving in and making concessions when other countries are watching.

“Let’s take this to a bilateral” is negotiation-speak for a country to have a private meeting with the COP president, where they try to find a solution to an issue.

So while every “and” and “but” and “shall” is being debated for hours on end, it is only the fittest that will survive.

Therefore the 15 000-delegate conference will in the end be whittled down to only about a dozen negotiators, who’s managed to stay the course and continue the battle.

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