12/01/2011 01:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2012

Refereeing the UN Climate Games

Qatar has won the toss for hosting the UN's next climate talks. So it gets to host the UN in 2012, before hosting football's World Cup in 2022. What better rehearsal could the Qataris have for meeting the complex demands of hosting international games players than hosting the UN's climate negotiators?

The 2011 Climate Games -- sorry, the 2011 UN climate talks -- are being held in Durban, South Africa this week and next. If the UN's Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 were anything to go by, Durban will have its full share of diplomatic headaches.

They won't be just the complexities being brought to its shores by other nations: South Africa's own position is complicated enough, given that it has three difficult climate games of its own to play -- simultaneously.

Game one: South Africa will need to juggle its role as a participant with that of being the host-cum-referee. Not an easy combination when each of the participants is so competitive and pushy about getting the best deal for its own country, while being the host means South Africa will have to nurture the conference process as a whole so that it can come to a productive conclusion. Or at least, to make sure it doesn't end up with a bleeding, shameful mess on its hands, as the Danish government did at the Copenhagen climate talks.

Game two: South Africa has a major internal tension to deal with. No, it's not a simple clash between choosing to eradicate poverty or to reduce climate change. Tasneem Essop, formerly a South African politician on environmental affairs (and now the head of climate advocacy and strategy for WWF in South Africa), says the government's national plan tackles poverty, unemployment and climate change all together -- killing three birds with one stone -- by creating 300,000 green jobs. Sounds great.

But it's not quite as simple as that. In countries where most of the people have suffered centuries of oppression and underdevelopment, as South Africa's people have, governments need urgent access to huge energy supplies if they are literally to "empower" towns and villages across a vast terrain by bringing electricity to them. Luckily, South Africa does have a huge energy supply of its own. Unluckily, it's coal.

How can South Africa resist reaching for the black fire within its borders? Coal has been providing as much as 88% of South Africa's primary energy mix. It's a little awkward to host the climate talks while keeping so many coal fires burning. Eskom, the state's energy company, has said it is committed to reducing that proportion to 78% by 2012 and to 70% by 2025. But that's still a lot of dirty energy being pumped into the atmosphere.

Game three: Time was, the countries of the world used to be divided up between two clubs: a small club for rich "developed" countries, and a much larger club for poor "developing" countries. But now there's the BASIC group, composed of Brazil, South Africa, India and China, and it's no longer clear to which of these clubs they should belong. They seem to have one foot in the poor countries' club, while the other foot wedges open the door of the rich countries' club.

More prosaically, the majority of their people remain very poor though their economies are growing rapidly -- as are their greenhouse gas emissions. But this half-step out of the poor countries' club has given the US the chance to play another game, an opportunity it has seized with relish.

The U.S. has historically polluted the atmosphere with many times more greenhouse gas emissions than any other nation, and it continues to add to it at a frightening rate. In global warming terms, it has always been, and remains, far and away the world's biggest culprit. Nevertheless, it is refusing to budge -- 'til the BASIC group is bound by restraints similar to its own.

This is extraordinarily unfair. Not only have the BASIC countries have put very few emissions into the atmosphere historically, they have also made major concessions in terms of energy intensity (energy intensity measures a national economy's energy efficiency).

According to Praful Bidwai, author of The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future, "China and India responded to such pressure in 2009 by voluntarily pledging to reduce the emissions intensity of their GDP by respectively 40-45% and 20-25% by 2020. The emissions savings would be higher than the emissions reductions promised by most northern countries."

And they have gone even further, agreeing to make binding emission reduction agreements as soon as their impoverished people have fulfilled their basic human needs -- just not yet. Nonetheless, the U.S. insists on playing an unedifying game of "We won't 'til you do." It justifies this approach as "legal symmetry," erasing from its mind the many ways in which the U.S. and the BASIC group are not symmetrical.

The U.S.'s chief climate negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, loves to rub in the fact that China is now the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter -- missing out the inconvenient truth that the geographical area of the world that is known as "China" contains many times more human beings than the area known as the U.S. The Hinkle Charitable Foundation reckons that "when compared to 1.3 billion people of China, the 290 million people in the U.S. emit over seven times as much, per person."

Logically, what Pershing should be feeling dismayed about is the fact that the U.S. emits nearly as much as a country many times more populous. But logic is rarely the point in these climate talks: rich country negotiators finding yet another excuse to drag their feet is. South Africa, with millions of people still living in deep poverty, cannot (and should not be forced to) take on the responsibilities that should clearly fall to the members of the rich club.

So, as the South African government plays host to the 2011 climate talks, it will have much on its mind. President Jacob Zuma said at its opening that climate change is "a matter of life and death." That's straightforward. Almost nothing else at the climate talks is.