Is the party over?

Saturday, December 10, 2011 • Suvi Virkkunen

The popping of balloons startled me as I wandered gloomily around the exhibition centre late last night. This was where every process outside the official negotiations had been taking place for the past two weeks. Until a few hours earlier, these had been stalls of bright publicity materials for NGOs, universities, UN agencies, governments, side-events and stunts. It was a place full of colour, noise, activity and anticipation.

But throughout the day, more and more white walls showed their bleak faces as posters, placards and publicity materials were taken down, announcing the official ending of the COP. By the end of the day the exhibition hall was a ghost town, with only a few activists lying on the floor taking a nap. Meanwhile, ministers convened until after midnight in an attempt to thrash out their differences and come to a deal.

This morning we arrived at the conference centre where the official part takes place, anticipating an important day. The results of the overnight negotiations and draft texts on all outstanding issues were expected, as well as a "big picture" global strategy to address climate change.

There was the promise of a plenary session to take us further at 10 am. But by noon, a few hours before the ACT delegation was due to leave South Africa, a first reading of the new texts revealed the confusion in which these negotiations have been mired for the past 24 hours. A great deal has still not been agreed and there is little clarity on how the process is going. Meanwhile, rumours about who is about to give in, who is not and which ministers are leaving (including the Gambian representative, chair of the Least Developed Country Group) are rife.

Will this COP end today? Not by the time we, the remaining ACT secretariat staff, leave in two hours. It’s sad that we won’t witness the final outcome of the Durban climate change conference after putting our hearts, minds and energy into this process for weeks and months. But even sadder to think that this might end in disaster for the people on whose behalf we are battling – the tiny Pacific countries that endure salinated water supplies and rising sea levels, the people in the Horn of Africa who are going hungry, the population of El Salvador contending with the aftermath of record rains.

Civil society activists and government delegates alike are busy speculating whether the ministers will decide something today, the last remaining hours of December 10. One option is to stop the clock and simply continue working as a COP for the next months. Not here in Durban, but as a COP nevertheless. For some, this would save the ministers from presiding over a conference marked by almost complete failure. But for others it would mean a prolongation of a problem that urgently needs solutions, now.

Is a weak and slow-moving process worse than no outcome at all? Maybe a 'COP bis', with better decisions in a couple of months, is a more favourable option than signing up the international community to a rushed deal that will in any case not save the world from unmanageable climate change.

The sound of a piano playing down the corridor calms me as I race to write in the dwindling time left. The music helps me focus on the important issues and get out of the panicky mode I’m in after too many days of too little rest. I hope somebody is playing to the ministers too. And that they realise they too must focus on the vital issues. That they demonstrate leadership in the quest for justice.

Suvi Virkkunen is ACT Alliance's advocacy officer

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This blog chronicles day-to-day happenings at the UNFCC in Doha, Qatar in 2012 and Durban, South Africa in 2011.

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