Climate talks in the basement
By Georg Ismar and Simone Humml Dec 10, 2011, 22:02 GMT
Durban - The underground garage at Durban's conference centre seems an unlikely place for climate history.
Water drops from the ceiling into small black buckets. Several figures emerge from the white plastic walls of makeshift offices. Ah - it's the Polish presidency of the European Commission and representatives from African states.
Germany's Environment Minister Norbert Rottgen is behind them, barely visible.
Suddenly, a gaggle of cameras and microphones pushes them nearly back into the European Union Pavilion. Spin doctors put out the word that a historic alliance had been sealed - that the EU and nearly 100 low income and island countries would stand side by side. Together, they build a strong majority of more than 120 of the 193 countries discussing in Durban the global climate crisis.
A bit later in the makeshift German delegation office under the Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre, Roettgen speaks into a microphone propped on a bucket, saying that 50 of the least developed countries (LDC) have joined the alliance, plus the small island states that are drowning in the Pacific and elsewhere(Aosis).
And how are the BASIC states - Brazil, South Africa, India and China - reacting? 'That's not a monolithic block any more,' Reottgen says, referring to a key block in the climate talks.
Everything in Durban is fluid, borders disappear, whether it's the provisional structures in the underground garage or the climate change architecture.
Climate talks often devolve into intricate seminars, taught in specialist language. Intricate lines are drawn between 'legal' and 'legally-binding.'
'I'm getting a binding headache,' complains an American journalist at the end of a day covering climate talks.
What is an 'alliance' between the rich and poor? Is it a fog of propaganda? Or does it really mean something?
'The United States is nervous,' says Martin Kaiser, who heads international climate policy for Greenpeace Germany. A deal is possible, but it's also possible that in the end it will all fall apart, Kaiser said.
US chief climate envoy Todd Stern has the 'distinction' - as he put it afterwards - of being heckled by a protester while he delivers the formal US speech during the plenary session. The chair of the session sits for several seconds while the demonstration unfolds, and while loud applause follows - apparently for the demonstrator.
Immediately afterwards, Stern moves up the US press briefing by two hours, reacts strongly to what he said were misconceptions about the US blocking talks, and indicates a shift in the US position - a little nearer to that of the EU.
Hours afterwards, his spokeswoman takes a step back, noting in a statement that Stern had not said the US supports a legally binding agreement - a key point of conflict with the EU. The diplomatic two-step echoes China's retreat earlier this week from its Sunday advance toward accommodation.
Delegates report power fights within the Chinese delegation - those who want to block a new legally binding agreement and those who don't. The Chinese hold almost daily briefings on their booming renewable energy industry and on their measures to reduce emissions and even build domestic carbon markets. Sometimes, say Greenpeace China activists, they even shut down factories and close streets to traffic.
Durban talks late Friday were extended another day into Saturday after the first draft agreement was rejected by a large number of negotiators. The EU wants a new comprehensive global legally-binding agreement by 2015. China and the US say they're quite happy with their current voluntary emissions reductions until 2020 - then they might be ready to talk about a 'legal' agreement - without the binding.
Again, Greenpeace's Kaiser: 'No deal in Durban would be better than a pseudo-agreement that pretends to be consensus, but behind the curtain is empty and will lead to a 4-to-6 degree temperature rise.'
On Friday, a new option floats around: a postponement of the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Durban, and a continuation in Bonn or somewhere else in 2012. The same thing happened in 2000, and the final set of talks produced the final version of the Kyoto Protocol that nations ratified.
For protesters outside the conference hall, Durban will bring too little for the future. They hand out stickers saying: 'COP 17 - 200 million deaths from climate change.'