Cloud over preparations for COP17

Four months before South Africa hosts COP17, concerns are mounting that the country is lagging behind in its preparations.

Four months before South Africa hosts the United Nation’s big climate-change conference in Durban, concerns are mounting that the country is lagging behind in its preparations.

This comes amid accusations that tensions are running high between the department of environmental affairs (DEA) and the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) over responsibilities. Because of international protocol, the environment department handles the content of the climate change conference and Dirco the logistics.

Greenpeace’s Melita Steele, who is also part of the civil society steering committee for COP17, said it was only now, in July, that Dirco was ready and the confusion over which department was responsible for what seemed to have been sorted out.

This week sources in the environment department and Dirco voiced their concern to the Mail & Guardian about the planning of the conference.

“It’s a mess, the ministers are fighting, and we [the country] don’t even have a website. We are not communicating enough on the subject.”

Sources at the environment department and close to Minister Edna Molewa said her biggest concern was the possibility of failing, not because she did not do the job, but because President Jacob Zuma’s instruction that Dirco should take over leadership of the conference caused confusion and delay. “If things don’t go well during the conference, the DEA will take the blame not Dirco. This is an environmental issue, why should Dirco organise it?” asked the source.

All the departments involved in the COP17 planning meet every Friday and brief Dirco on preparations or their new initiatives, but according to internal sources, “there is absolutely nothing” to show for it.

Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela and his counterpart in the environment department, Albie Modise dismissed these concerns, describing the meetings as fruitful.

On how Molewa felt about this, a government source said: “Annoyed, hence the tension.”

South Africa’s hosting of the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban in late November has been described as an even bigger event than the Fifa World Cup last year and the country will come under intense scrutiny during the conference.

But Monyela has dismissed the fears, saying that South Africa is further in its preparations than Mexico was in the case of COP16 hosted in Cancún. “We are happy with our progress and we are gearing up for the big ‘100 day till Durban’ launch,” Monyela said.

He and Modise, said South Africa was on track with the campaign to promote the conference among ordinary South Africans, in spite of fears that many are unaware of its significance.

Dirco had little experience in the climate change area when the COP17 presidency was handed over to International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in February and has been playing catch-up for six months to get itself properly aligned with delicate climate-change politics as well as organising the conference with the UNFCCC.

The appointment of Nkoana-Mashabane is in line with international best practice and her experience as a diplomat will serve South Africa well in the negotiations to get critical parties such as China and the United States talking. Instead, it is Dirco’s handling of logistics including transport, accommodation, venue and accreditation for delegates and the media that has come under fire. Molewa will head the South African negotiation delegation and will be responsible for content during the negotiations.

Monyela and Modise dismissed the tension, saying the sharing of responsibility between the two departments is not unique to the South African conference.

“UNFCCC protocol calls for international relations to organise the conference. There was nothing surprising about the president’s decision,” said Monyela. “That is the protocol internationally. This was definitely not a snub.”

Senior government sources within the environment department and Dirco said it was understandable that Dirco needed to “support” the DEA because it was an international event, but it shouldn’t take over the event. They said the environment department was “far ahead” with preparations until Zuma’s announcement.

Government officials and service providers are also worried that critical tenders still haven’t been issued because of the handover.

“There was an advert in the paper for expression of interest in a project-management tender, but after we applied, we heard nothing,” a service provider said. “Time is becoming critical.”

But Monyela said Dirco was in control of the arrangements and that all the necessary tenders had been issued. The remaining tenders would be handled by the department of environmental affairs. He said no tender had been advertised to select a host broadcaster, because the SABC had already been chosen.

Modise and Monyela said the first phase of creating public awareness had begun this month with adverts explaining climate change. “You can’t expect South Africans to understand COP17 if they don’t understand climate change,” he said.


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