Perhaps it is Fifa World Cup syndrome — a combination of complacency and a blasé attitude — or just South Africans’ tendency to wake up late to big things, but at the moment there is absolutely no apparent recognition of the importance, scale and intensity of the event that South Africa will be hosting in a year’s time.
The Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — or its shorthand “COP17” — which will be held in Durban in late November 2011.
Durban the city of choice
The choice of Durban was confirmed by Cabinet with a quiet announcement last week, against fierce competition from Cape Town and Jo’burg.
It would be interesting to know the reason, because there is a whiff of pork-barrel politics about the decision to go with the KwaZulu-Natal city, in spite of the excellence of its International Convention Centre. It is a big deal.
And, like the Fifa World Cup, a fine opportunity. And one that could just as easily be messed up. Just ask the Danes.
“Copenhagen” means something now even to a person with no interest in climate change politics or deal-making. For a year, as the stakes and expectations rose, Copenhagen was constantly in the news in the run-up to COP15 in December 2009.
Those expectations were largely dashed.
No new treaty could be agreed. Instead, a political accord was hastily put together amid great acrimony in the final hours of the conference, as the largest number of world leaders arrived in the small but convivial Danish capital.
Arguably, the presence of those presidents and prime ministers “saved” the occasion, because without the imperative to spare their political blushes, there might not have been any sort of agreement.
This is one of myriad small and great choices that will have to be made by the UNFCCC secretariat and Pretoria in the next year: what sort of COP do they want it to be? They will also have to decide how to handle the non-governmental part of the conference.
COP17 the biggy
Again, speak to the Danish. They were “too nice” and gave accreditation to more people than the conference venue could hold (by a factor of four), which led to massive frustration as thousands queued for hours in the freezing cold.
At least Durban in December will be more climatically congenial. But between then and now, in December this year, Cancun, Mexico, will be the host of COP16, for which the expectations are as remarkably low as they were implausibly high a year ago.
Most people who are in, or close to, the climate politics game say that “COP17 will be the big one”. Cancun, instead, is intended to offer a road map, an attempt to iron out more of the details that stand in the way of a comprehensive treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
World leaders will not be dusting off their cozzies to visit the Mexican seaside resort. But what about Durban? Should expectations be ramped up or carefully managed? And what lessons can we apply from both Copenhagen and our own Fifa World Cup experience, because COP17 is undoubtedly a “mega-event”.
In the case of the Fifa World Cup the host country hosts the event, but Fifa really runs the show. Or at least takes all the big decisions that need to be taken. In the case of UNFCCC, it is slightly different: the host is expected to play a major role in the running of the process.
This is a daunting challenge, given the complexity of the negotiations, not to mention their significance for the future of humanity.
The Danes partly screwed it up. As University of Cape Town academic Harald Winkler puts it in a recent article in the journal Climate Policy: “The inept chairing by the Danish COP president exacerbated tensions rather than bringing the parties closer to agreement.”
In the hot seat
Who will be in the hot seat in Durban? Clumsily, government has had three different environment ministers in the past 18 months: Marthinus van Schalkwyk was replaced by Bulelwa Sonjica, who was summarily dismissed recently and replaced by Edna Molewa.
Was this wise? Molewa has a year to get on top of a massive brief, against the backdrop of negotiations that have a long institutional memory and in which relationships between key individuals are crucial.
One of the criticisms made of Sonjica was that she did not prioritise the international arena, failing to pitch at more than one important multilateral gathering.
In turn, there is talk that Dirco — the department of international relations and co-operation — is positioning itself to seize the poisoned chalice and be the lead department for COP17.
Who would be the best person to chair the process and be the face of South Africa for 10 long days and nights?
Who can cajole the Americans and the Chinese into line?
Who can handle the rumbustious G77 firebrands, who use the UNFCCC to tilt at all manner of windmills?
Not to mention the Bolivian-led “Alba” states’ grouping, which is offering, with increasing velocity, an alternative vision of climate politics?
These and other questions need to be resolved sooner rather than later if South Africa is not to make a fool of itself in a year’s time.
Richard Calland’s new book, The Vuvuzela Revolution, written with Lawson Naidoo and Andrew Whaley, will be published by Jacana in early December