12/02/2011 08:34 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2012

Letter From Durban

Durban, South Africa -- The conversation here about the formal negotiating track of COP17 ranges from gloomy to cynical. The lack of American leadership is palpable. Most disturbing is that Todd Stern, the U.S. negotiator, on behalf of the Obama administration, is pushing very hard to delay beginning global negotiations on an eventual climate protection regime until 2020 -- even though there is virtually unanimous scientific agreement that what matters most is not the world's trajectory after 2020 but the pathway we take over the next nine years. A letter signed by 16 groups to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton challenges the U.S. negotiating positions on legal mandate, the Green Climate Fund, and long-term finance.

So getting away from the formal negotiating process and focusing on the opportunities that the world has to move forward is almost essential to maintain sanity. This morning my sanity fix comes from a spirited dialogue on how to make good on the UN's promise that 2012 will finally be the year in which the world seriously tackles the shameful reality that 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity.

It's not because they can't afford the daily cost -- the poor spend about four times as much on the miserable light they get from kerosene lanterns as they would need to equip their homes with a modern home solar system. But they can buy kerosene, in a bottle, by the day -- and at the moment they would need to pay for ten years' worth of solar electricity at a time. They can neither afford the upfront cash nor access the kind of public-utility model that you and I take for granted. (You didn't pay the costs of the power plant and transmission lines that electrify your house on the day you moved in -- but for those off grid, until recently, there was no other choice.) The poor don't light with kerosene because it is cheap -- they are poor in part because they must rely on expensive kerosene. And they stay trapped in poverty because without electricity it is very difficult to break into the economic mainstream.

But now the cost of solar cells, batteries, and LED light bulbs has plummeted, so off-grid solar is far cheaper than it was even two years ago. And neat new technologies are enabling companies to distribute solar systems that can be routinely topped up like cell phone minutes, so that the poor can pay as they go, rather than up front.

Former Irish President Mary Robinson argues this morning that to rescue climate diplomacy we need to nest it in the broader context of sustainable development -- that successors to the Kyoto climate pact need to be seen in the context of next year's Rio +20 conference. She believes that if the EU and other advanced countries see emerging economies commit themselves to moving forward on a broader and more domestically energized green-development agenda, then they will be more likely to raise the ambition of their own climate goals. Here at Durban, the Sierra Student Coalition is beginning exactly that kind of foundation building, working on trainings in campus organizing with Chinese, Australian, and South African youth, and reaching out to Latin youth to prepare for RIO +20.

Jay Naidu, the pioneering South African labor leader and later one of Nelson Mandela's cabinet members, who managed the cell phone revolution here, argues passionately that the world now has the technologies, the funding, and the capacity to end, once and for all, the scandal of households without modern energy -- but that what we lack is popular demand: "We need a global movement around the right to energy security. Now that we have the tools to give everyone electricity, failing to provide it is simply not acceptable.

So although the formal negotiating process is a disappointment -- particularly the U.S. role -- the opportunities we face keep increasing, along with the challenges. Can Durban be the turning point?