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Durban Climate Change Conference: Why COPs Are So Much More Than Politics

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The majesty of the rounded hills in the vastness of Zululand takes your breath away. If you know the rolling Down lands of England they are somehow familiar, yet different. They are higher, clothed in a dark green of sub-tropical bushes and trees, and marked with clusters of square houses, each home companioned with a reed-roofed roundhouse. The hills are symmetrically smoothed from millions of years of weather erosion.

Just this week published in Science, is the discovery of the world's oldest human bedding from a cave in Kwazulu-Natal, at 77,000 years old. Where this ancient landscape runs into the Indian Ocean is Durban City and its suburbs, only 100 years old and home to three million people. For the past fortnight, another 10,000 people came to Durban from across the world over to discuss what to about manmade climate change.

One thousand of these 10,000 are government representatives of the 193 countries come to decide what to do next about the Kyoto Protocol, the ultimate aim of which is for nations to agree to be united in putting limits to global warming. The remaining 9,000 came to talk about what to do about climate change. About half of these are from UN intergovernmental organisations, such as the UN Environment Programme or the International Maritime Organisation. The other half are from non-governmental organisations representing all aspects of civil society: youth, trade unions, women, businesses, environmental campaign groups, and Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organisations. This is me. I am a RINGO, representing the research of the University of East Anglia and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. I've been to a few COPs (Conference of Parties), and to the last three in a row, Poznan, Copenhagen, Cancun, and now Durban.

Based on these numbers, the negotiations are a side-event to the other COP business of knowledge sharing and networking. We each have an exhibition booth from which to showcase our organisation's knowledge, in my case the Tyndall Centre's research outputs and postgraduate teaching. We can also apply to host lecture side-events and discussions. From my experience this was the COP with the least science presented, but it is the science events that draw the crowds. COPs are about politics, but in the additional non-governmental organisations and businesses, there is a force for change more powerful and long-lasting than politicians.

What new science was revealed? ICIMOD, the mountain research institute in Nepal, launched their report on glacier retreat. They are retreating pretty much everywhere and retreat is accelerating. The UK's Met Office Hadley Centre released their work for 24 countries on climate change observations and impacts. They are observing climate change in most of the areas they looked at, and predict more.

Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research showed their latest Climate Action Tracker analysis that reveals the atmosphere is on course for an average warming of 3.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Recent similar studies by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Energy Agency show the same results.

Not showcased at COP but timed to coincide: The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich analysed the global energy balance to show that 74% of warming since 1950 is due to manmade emissions. The Global Carbon Project revealed in their annual update that the global economic depression was but a blip on reducing carbon emissions, having increased by half in the past two decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change three weeks ago published a special report concluding that climate change is influencing extreme weather.

A topic new to me at COP was ocean acidification - the other half of the CO2 problem. Ocean acidification with higher levels of carbon dioxide is straightforward chemistry. When CO2 is dissolved in seawater, it makes carbonic acid. There is now more carbon dioxide in the oceans and the measure of acidity is higher than it has been in 20 million years. Every molecule of CO2 that goes into the atmosphere will be in the oceans at sometime.

Carol Turley's projections, from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK, are showing a completely corrosive arctic by the 2050s, a 50% corrosive antarctic, and that tropical waters will no longer have a balance between coral growth and coral erosion. I'm particularly interested because I'm pretty keen on fishing. I'm careful about water-saving and what washing powders and chemicals I allow down my plughole into rivers. This is something I have personal control over at no expense and lifestyle inconvenience, but if everyone else is using biological powders and flushes away their contraceptive oestrogen, then my actions are making no difference. Similarly, to uncouple fossil fuels from economic productivity does require global agreement and national regulation.

I left the COP on Friday when it officially ended. The negotiators worked another 36 hours to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol is not yet dead. Next year's COP will be in Qatar, the country with the world's highest per capita emissions and gross domestic product. It is also the location of the US's Combined Forward Headquarters and Air Operations Centre. Qatar is not the obvious place to demonstrate that national wealth is achievable without emissions, or conflict, but if Zululand's demonstration of the destiny of man was not environment enough, then perhaps the techno-city of Dohar will deliver more.