Durban, South Africa is the setting for the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The two weeks of meetings will draw representatives of 194 countries and nearly 12,000 delegates. The delegates are expected to include several heads of state and government, ministers, UN officials, members of civil society and journalists. COP 17 is scheduled to run until December 9.

The COP 17 agenda includes efforts to make progress on a new commitment period for carbon reduction under the Kyoto Protocol and to provide assistance for developing nations facing the worst effects of climate change. Nonetheless, COP 17 is not expected to make much progress on either agenda item. In the current global economic crisis the linkages between emission reduction and economic growth will make any progress on emission reduction a hard sell for politicians and governments back home. Given the likely failure to achieve these big-ticket agenda items, what accomplishments can we expect in Durban? According to the UNFCCC, the discussions will seek to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, agreed at COP 13 in 2007, and the Cancun Agreements, reached at COP 16 last December. What does that mean? Delegates in Durban will be addressing relatively small and, to many, arcane questions of process and finance. Negotiators, having entered the United Nations climate talks at Copenhagen two years ago with grand ambitions and having left with disillusion, are now defining expectations down and hoping to keep the process alive through modest steps. Last year in Cancun, Mexico, delegates produced an agreement that set up a fund to help poor countries adapt to climate changes, created mechanisms for the transfer of clean-energy technology, provided compensation for the preservation of tropical forests and enshrined the emissions reductions promises that came out of the Copenhagen meeting. Delegates in Durban will look to produce similar outcomes.