A PROCESS as complex and as vexing as the United Nations (UN) climate-change negotiations currently taking place in Durban raises a thousand questions, many of which cannot be satisfactorily answered. But here are three: What is the state of multilateral international governance on the climate - is Durban its death knell or its saviour? Is the specific outcome of the Conference of the Parties (COP-17) negotiations all that matters and the only way of measuring success of the COP-17 meeting? And how has SA done as host?
There are some promising signs that something useful will emerge. There is a reluctance among most leading nations to abandon the Kyoto Protocol; political commitments to a second Kyoto Protocol period are now expected when COP-17 winds up in Durban tomorrow.
Borrowing the approach of both previous COPs - in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun last year - further political commitments will "bridge" any gap between the end of the Kyoto Protocol in a year's time and a second formal commitment period. In addition, some kind of adaptation road map will be delivered; and the Green Climate Fund will be established, with an interim secretariat given a year to finalise everything and to begin the daunting task of capitalis ing the fund towards the Copenhagen target of $100bn by 2020.
Funding for adaptation in Africa is urgently needed. Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, who co-chaired the UN committee tasked with designing the Green Climate Fund this year, said last Friday that "the whole COP would be a failure" if it could not finalise the fund.
These steps will satisfy neither Greenpeace nor development economist Patrick Bond. Nor should they. Those who seek decisive, legally binding emissions targets, encapsulated in a new international treaty, were always likely to be disappointed.
Of perhaps the greatest importance politically, China may be persuaded to make pledges that it will ratify at home - which will further isolate the US, whose toxic domestic political environment gives President Barack Obama and his negotiators virtually no room to manoeuvre, but whose approach is increasingly positioning it as the greatest global climate pariah .
At this rate, Obama will leave office on the wrong side of history - though some have sympathy with the view that while the US has used up the most carbon space and therefore has the greatest differentiated responsibility, it is politically unacceptable for US taxpayers' money to go towards making China even more competitive.
The complexity of international climate politics has been deepened by greater fragmentation and by the global economic crisis. The BASIC group of countries (comprising SA, Brazil, China and India) that was formed hastily, but significantly, in the dying hours of Copenhagen, is an influential but perhaps now less united group, with a knock-on effect on the already embattled coherence of the formerly nonaligned G roup of 77 countries plus China.
As their economies grow and transform rapidly, so their interests shift, different norms emerge, and some BASIC members are aping the behaviour of established developed countries. Those rich countries no longer consider themselves rich; the sovereign debt crisis has introduced a new realism into the positioning of developed, donor countries. Results, not restitution, are the primary focus.
In this context, of economic nationalism and trade protectionism, the UN system was under intense pressure in the past two weeks. So any semblance of accord, or progress, will be welcomed by most multilateralists.
Expectations for Durban were remarkably low in any case. So, virtually any agreement will be considered an accomplishment for SA and, specifically, the host president of COP, International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana- Mashabane. Despite a chorus of doubts in the months running up to Durban, she has pulled off a solid performance.
She has been diligent, patient and has won the respect of the great majority of the negotiating parties, who have been given ample space to articulate their interests. Behind the scenes, in the informal consultations, she has applied pressure where needed, though her department has inevitably had to draw on the experience of the veteran team of negotiators from the Department of Environmental Affairs.
But moving beyond the formal negotiating space of the talks, what is clear to everyone - COP veterans and newcomers alike - is that COP is now a whole lot more than just the international treaty negotiations. The "wider COP" is an extraordinary multi stakeholder melting pot of people from all around the world, who come to exchange ideas, to network and to build momentum behind their own efforts and innovations. If a legally binding international treaty represents Plan A, then this cacophony represents Plan B. As the father of new economics, Simon Zadek, has noted, this is where the real action may be found - irrespective of the multilateral negotiations. The world has to change, and people are making a plan.
On the edge of the negotiations, a thick outer layer of side events, mini-conferences and other forums and consultations were taking place in the past two weeks. Civil society campaigners sat next to CEOs, with ministers and diplomats on the other side. With sincerity and energy, difficult problems about how to transform economies, build resilience in the face of severe climate change, and get the incentives and the institutional instruments aligned were discussed.
As well as focusing minds, COP promotes fresh thinking. Last week, for example, the South African government published a fascinating new report on green jobs, researched by the Industrial Development Corporation, the Development Bank of Southern Africa, and Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies . With self-evident delight, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel welcomed this contribution to "evidence- based policy making"; the report asserts that 462000 net new jobs can be created in the formal economy in the long term (98000 in the short term), most of them in natural resource management. Sitting alongside him was Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who was equally enthusiastic. Like Patel and Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, he has now got his teeth firmly into the concept of the green economy.
After a painfully slow start, things are beginning to move on renewable energy, with the announcement of the South African Renewables Initiative hopefully providing further international investment impetus.
Eskom is under pressure - and rightly so. COP has focused attention on its practices and approach; fossil fuels cannot be the long- term future. In Durban, everyone present could cite China's enormous investment in renewable energy; they see opportunity and necessity in equal measure. Things are moving at national and sub national level in many places. And next year, Gordhan will have his chance to show leadership in this area, by introducing a decisive new carbon tax.
So, to judge COP-17 only by the formal outcomes would be to succumb to a one- dimensional analysis. It may not be happening fast enough, and stakeholders are not yet having to make the sacrifices necessary to permit the necessary economic transformation, but globally, Plan B is unfolding.
. Calland is Associate Professor in Public Law at the University of Cape Town.