‘We were there’

2009-12-29 00:00

PIETERMARITZBURG academics, Professor Roland Schulze and Sabine Stuart-Hill, returned recently from the 15th Conference of the Parties, or CoP15, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was held in Copenhagen. Schulze is a professor emeritus of Hydrology in the School of Bioresources Engineering and Environmental Hydrology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where Stuart-Hill is a lecturer. The school is regarded as the top African authority on issues of climate-change impacts on hydrological resources.

Sponsored by the Water Research Commission (WRC), they went as members of a team of scientists that included four climatologists from the University of Cape Town with whom they collaborate closely. “The fact that the WRC sponsored us shows not only the centrality of water and water-related matters to the impact of climate change in South Africa, but also that the funding authorities recognise this,” said Stuart-Hill.

“I refer to CoP15 as the ‘Copenhagen experience’ because that’s what it was,” said Schulze. “The conference took place in the Bella Centre that covers several hectares on the outskirts of Copenhagen. At any one stage during the two-week period, there were about 20 different things taking place: plenary sessions, negotiations, side events and product demonstrations in an exhibition hall and in the numerous other halls of the centre.

“There were four strands to the events that took place simultaneously. Firstly, the most publically visible proceedings which were the top-level negotiations between government delegations working to hammer out an accord backed up by the national delegations that did the preparatory work.

“Secondly, and also highly visible, was civil society, mainly in the demonstrations outside the centre. Some were humorous, some made good points, while others missed the point completely.

“Then there were elements of CoP15 that the outside world did not see, which are key to future negotiations and to mitigating effects of climate change. These included the scientific and commercial components. The scientific component involved scientists from all over the world exchanging ideas and latest findings, putting together project proposals for collaborative research and networking. The commercial element was the exhibition of climate change-mitigating technology, which was very worthwhile.

“I personally think the South African negotiating team was far too large — about 120 people — a huge team sent at huge cost to taxpayers. All we really needed was about half a dozen skilled negotiators, so the question I want to raise is ‘Could we have had a smaller team and come up with the same conclusions?’,” he said.

“Do we really have anything more than we had before the conference took place? Not really, I would say, but there were some positive elements to it, that do give hope for future negotiations,” said Stuart-Hill. “We have to acknowledge that China and India came to the party and got involved, although I’m not sure of India’s stand. And at last the United States seems to be preparing for relevant contributions. Another positive was the amazing role civil society played. It was represented not only by the demonstrators outside the conference, but in the presence of leaders like Desmond Tutu and Wangaari Maathai of Kenya, plus huge Internet activity around the conference. For example, there was a massive petition signed by people all over the world.”

According to Schulze, Africa seemed to want to use the issue of climate change to cover up some of its other woes and “South Africa needs to be careful of this agenda. You cannot blame bad governance and political issues on climate change. We need to make sure that the debate around climate-related matters remains about climate change and does not become a united nations for the world’s woes.

“South Africa aligned itself with the Third World, but I believe it should be positioning itself as the leader of Africa in this area. We learnt a lot at Copenhagen, but we also have a lot to offer.

“Some of the Third World negotiators made the unrealistic demand of capping global warming at 1,5 degrees Celsius. They seemed to be using this as a negotiating ploy to leverage funds from the adaptation fund. At some stage, the rest of the world is going to see through this tactic. South Africa and Africa have to be careful not to jeopardise their credibility by being associated with this kind of demand, which will be physically impossible to achieve from an atmospheric science perspective,” he said.

“I was disappointed that South Africa missed a valuable opportunity when it chose not to hold a press conference for all the international media present. Climate-change science is very advanced in this country and we have a lot to offer. My sense was that our delegation did not really make its presence felt in the negotiations or the plenary sessions, which was also disappointing, although it might have in what took place behind the scenes,” Stuart-Hill said.

“A lot of the science necessary to address climate- change problems has been done. What is needed is for it to be refined, communicated to policy makers, who then need not only to hear it but also to understand it. In future, I look forward to a bigger push by all of us to address climate change because it was clear that all sectors of society across the world were present and were involved: business, industry, governments and civil society.

“This indicates the importance of what went on in Copenhagen and the fact that people are waking up to climate change. After all, we are not just trying to save the planet, but our very existence and our quality of life,” she concluded.



•  The School of Bioresources Engineering and Environmental Hydrology has been awarded a three-year project to help develop and implement a national strategy for tackling climate change in the water sector.

• Meetings with the scientist who headed the impacts and vulnerability studies of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

• Networking with other top scientists from around the world.

• The Dutch presentations on water, which were relevant to South Africa.

• Witnessing how the massive event unfolded.

• Presentations by the Dutch delegation, which included water matters and adaptation as a priority.

• The close relationship between scientists and policy makers/negotiators in the South African delegation — “I personally had two long consultations with negotiators”.

• Attending sessions with Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangaari Maathai.

• The role played by civil society leaders, such as Desmond Tutu.

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