COP17 in Durban - A foregone conclusion?

Well, this sure feels familiar.


Last year about this time, as I prepared to travel to Cancun, Mexico with a group of students and faculty for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations, the outlook was grim. Following the 2009 failure of the 'Hopenhagen' conference to deliver on any of its much-hyped expectations, Cancun was lamented as Dead On Arrival. Friends and colleagues familiar with the UNFCCC process cautioned me not to get my hopes up, that the Cancun conference was going to be a complete bust. Nothing would get done, they all said.


So as I got my travel documents in order and prepared for the conference, I was also mentally preparing myself for the inevitable disappointment that Cancun promised to be. And sure enough, as the two-week-long conference dragged on, word on the street seemed to confirm the world's expectations. The stream of rumors and murmurs coming out of the negotiating rooms seemed--to me, at least--to vindicate all those naysayers.


The pessimism was infectious, I must confess. It seemed to make perfect sense that this whole UNFCCC process--to which I was a complete newcomer--was bound to fail. A group of bureaucrats and policy wonks coming together to a resort town to hash out a solution to one of the greatest challenges the international community has ever faced? Yeah, right.


At sunset on the final day of the conference, I posted, along with my colleague Emily Kirkland, a somewhat premature obituary for the COP16. Our snarky zinger was the closing sentence, "It would appear this process has a habit of leaving things unfinished."


What happened next surprised most people--one after another, the countries in attendance expressed their support for the "Cancun Agreements" and praised host country Mexico for cultivating an atmosphere of transparency and pragmatism. Despite everything we had been led to believe up to that point, Cancun was something of a success.


The caveat, however, was that a lot of the most important decisions would need a great deal more tinkering down the road to COP17 in Durban.


Well, now the run-up to Durban has begun, as the happily-ticking clock on the Conference website makes clear, and I feel like I've been transported back in time to 2010. This time, the future of the Kyoto Protocol is on the line (it has to be pushed into a second commitment period or will expire at the end of next year), and all I hear is talk about is how unlikely everyone is to agree to its continuation. The Green Climate Fund, one of the great victories of the Cancun Agreements, seems similarly stalled.


Still, though, based on last year's experience, I can't help but be guardedly optimistic that something might come out of all this.


What, I imagine, has it been like for those who've attended the roller coaster of these UNFCCC meetings for the last 17 years??


With Durban beginning tomorrow, I hope the Climate and Development Lab's blogs here at Global Conversation and at InterCambioClimatico will give a flavor of how all this goes down. We aim to give a blow-by-blow accounting of the process, and will surely be letting our pessimism and/or optimism shine through.


With so much at stake, it would be disingenuous not to show a little emotion, right?