20 November 2011


I've been meaning to do a pre-Durban blog post for the last week or so but pre-Durban times have been quite busy so I'm now writing this from Durban. I'm here for COP17, I finally made it! As soon as it was announced that South Africa was hosting COP17 my first thought was "I'm there". I didn't care how or with whom. Sure enough, soon after that I joined the Green Campus Initiative (GCI) at UCT and we got round to planning how we'd be present in Durban for the talks. Alongside GCI action, I've been trying to get into the talks all semester, attempting to secure a place through various organisations. So after months of uncertainty and plans hanging in the air, I'm here and I'm so glad. So let me give a little overview on what's happening and what I'm doing here.

Firstly, GCI - we're here to represent the youth of South Africa at COP17 and to take part in the civil society events as well as COY7 - the  seventh Conference of the Youth. I have so much to say about COY! It's happening this weekend, right before COP17 and after two days of COY7 I am overwhelmed.

COY7 Day 1:
We started off with various ice-breaking activities - lots of mingling and networking and get-to-know-each-other games. I was immediately struck by the diversity of the people attending the conference. While briefly volunteering at the registration desk I was hearing accents from everywhere - Australia, New Zealand, England Scotland, Nigeria, Sri Lanka etc. We were registering people from youth organisations from all over and I suddenly realised how international COY actually was. Throughout the day, I started to learn more about COY. It's entirely organised by the people who have attended it in the past. For instance, this one was mainly put together by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) and the UKYCC. These people are so inspiring.

The first speaker took us on a short walk to Pigeon Valley Park, just down the road from Howard College - the University of KwaZulu Natal campus where COY is being held. The park is in the process of being declared a nature reserve. The area it covers is only about 10 hectares but it's amazing to see a practically tropical forest in the heart of the city. The people managing it make an effort to ensure that there are no alien species in the area and that all the plants are indigenous. Because of their efforts, the park, as small as it is, boasts over 100 bird species. The message was all about sustainability and conservation in an urban environment and Pigeon Valley has definitely got it down. As far as climate goes, the forest is also an obvious regulator - the moment you walk into the park's gates, the temperature drops by a good couple of degrees. Durban's urban greenery is such a great sight to see!

The rest of day 1 included a workshop on how youth-led community-based actions can make a  huge difference on a larger scale. It was led by Caroline Howe from UNICEF who is so energetic and passionate about what she does. She started off with the question "how many world leaders do you think are arriving in Durban for COP17 feeling inspired by initiatives they've seen?". She told us about how she managed to get waste compost programs going in Delhi. She started off small, with a little compost pit in her neighbourhood. Eventually, the system ended up in one of Delhi's biggest, fanciest hotels. And that was her main message - if you have the inspiration to get a community-based project going, and if you can prove that these projects can be implemented at a larger scale, then you can show the leaders that it is possible to make a significant change with a bit of ambition.

The event that was the highlight for me, however, was the crash course workshop on the UNFCCC. It was led by a UKYCC member who just knew everything about climate policy inside out. I was completely in awe of how he broke down something so complex into an arrangement of post-it notes on the floor, displaying the structure of the UNFCCC. Have a look at the UKYCC's website: http://un.ukycc.org/ and look especially at the resources tab for a taste of how good these guys are at what they do.

COY7 Day 2:
I missed the morning sessions today, which I'm really upset about because I heard there was some amazing stuff from the We Have Faith group (more about them them below). My first session today was a workshop on climate literacy led by a guy from Germany called Kjell. After yesterday's UNFCCC workshop I was worried by how little I knew and decided to go back to basics. Kjell started off by saying climate change and the politics around it are such complex issues, it often feels like having a book but not knowing how to read. His solution to this was to create a "climate change alphabet" in the form of a wiki site that outlines all the basic components of the issues surrounding climate change in a easy to understand format so that people can become "climate literate". It all sounds very basic, but it's such a great concept, and so useful to have it all put into a nutshell.

We then broke into working groups, I chose the 'mitigation' group where once again, I was in awe of the expertise around me and stayed quite silent for fear of embarrassing myself with my lack of knowledge on all the legal details of COP17. The working group will hopefully continue to meet in the next two weeks to plan actions we want to carry out at COP. Once again, I was completely inspired by one of the UKYCC members. He told us about a metaphor he heard that was used to describe the UNFCCC. "The UNFCCC are like a bunch of kids standing at the top of a waterfall. All of them want to be brave and take the plunge, but they're waiting for one of the 'big kids' to go first and jump". I loved it.

Outside of COY, from tomorrow onwards, I'll be the local leader/mentor for four children from India. They were chosen to attend COP17 with the Indian delegation through a thorough selection process run by the Ministry of Environment and Forest's Centre for Environment Education (CEE). So tomorrow they arrive in Durban and they're mine until the 3rd. With them, I'll be at COP and attending various sessions.

After the kids leave on the 3rd, I'll stick around for a couple days. Three GCI members also got accreditation to attend through the UCT delegation (check out their blog: http://www.cop17plusthree.blogspot.com) so we'll still be doing things together after COY. Plus, like I said, today at COY we established working groups that will hopefully be taking action during COP so that should also shape up in the coming days.

I'm excited about what COP will bring. It's such an amazing opportunity and I feel so privileged to be a part of it. It's not everyday that such a huge conference takes place right on your doorstep. On top of that, COP17 holds so much weight at this point because this is the last year of the first commitment phase of the Kyoto Protocol. From 2012, we need a new legally binding framework and COP17 is the last shot at getting that in place. I'm going to stop there though because to be honest, having witnessed the ridiculous expertise of the other COY participants, I've realised how little I actually know about climate policy and the whole UNFCCC process so between now and Monday, I've got a lot of catching up to do. Maybe I'll do a blog post once I know more and I'll try put some of the key COP17 issues into a nutshell if I know them well enough by then.

As an aside, I must also say - I never liked Durban too much when I first came here about three years ago, but after just two days here I feel like I've seen so much of the city and it's really changed my mind. It's such a beautiful, green place and from my experiences so far, the people are so friendly! I feel so proud to be an honorary South African right now, I'm absolutely in love with the spirit of this country, and the whole continent too in fact. The city's greenery is also a great opportunity to do some birding alongside all the COP madness. Already 6 species up with my spanking new Sasol book - chuffed!

After a lot of digression, back to the title of the post. I've been thinking a lot about environmental activism in recent months. I've been feeling uncomfortable about something that I haven't been able to put my finger on until now. I've learnt that, in the environmental movement at least, it's so easy to lose sight of the meaning behind the word "activism". From what I've seen in the last two days and will probably see much more of during COP, it's actually more about being proactive. There's a huge difference between the two in my opinion. What I've seen so far at COY has made me feel a little embarrassed of myself actually...I'd say I'm one of those more passive ones who likes to label myself an activist but I don't actually take much action. At COY however, there is a group of over 400 young and enthusiastic pro-activists. They've come from all over the world, with such diverse backgrounds to meet in Durban and make their voices heard at COP17. A lot of them are at COY purely out of interest which is amazing, but there is also a large number that are accredited and will be attending COP17 as part of various youth delegations. What's impressed me the most has been the professionalism and expertise of the Youth Climate Coalitions from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. From the way they all speak about these issues, I'd never guess they're in the same age range as me. Their dedication and knowledge has been truly inspiring. They are true youth leaders. Another thing that's been absolutely mind-blowing is the We Have Faith - Act Now for Climate Justice African youth caravan. About 150 participants from 19 African countries traveled all the way from Nairobi to Durban through 6 countries to come to COP and make their demands heard. They've done this in the form of a petition which they will hand over to Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the faith rally tomorrow.

This whole Durban experience has already been so inspiring. That's probably evident in the amount of times I've used the words inspire/inspired/inspiring in this post. If I were to go back to Cape Town tomorrow, before COP17 has even started, I feel like I've learnt so much and I'd be taking back so many lessons. I now know what activism is really about, what the youth are capable of and what the meaning of leadership is. It's so easy to approach these climate talks filled with cynicism. A few days ago I was filled with thoughts on how COP is just a way to politicise the science behind climate change, how we make all these demands to our leaders to act and solve the issues but come negotiation time, they just end up arguing over irrelevant details, numbers and figures, bargaining with each other. I still do feel that way to an extent, but COY has pushed those feelings right to the back of my mind because I'm now filled with optimism. If a bunch of young people passionate about the issue can make this much noise, surely all hope isn't lost. It all sounds very wishy-washy, I know, but I'm feeling very energised and, yeah, you guessed it - inspired right now.

This post is so long and scattered, I apologise, it's 3am and I delayed it enough already so I decided I had to write it now.  More to come!

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