By Pilita Clark and Andrew England in Durban

He was young, he was from French-speaking Senegal, and his English was excellent. But at the end of yet another briefing in English at the UN climate talks this week, he made an urgent plea. “This subject is so technical it makes it very difficult for those who speak English as a second language,” he said. “So please could we have translators at the next briefing?”

Good luck, muttered a nearby native English speaker. “We can’t understand most of it either.”

Complex jargon is a feature of UN climate talks, a uniquely perplexing gathering that demands knowledge in specialties ranging from science and international law, to finance and economics.But the peculiar ways of these talks have been particularly striking at the conference in Durban, the last chance for the world to agree a second round of pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions under the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty before the first round expires at the end of next year. Many feared Kyoto could die on African soil, a harsh irony for the continent where climate change could exacerbate a myriad of other social and economic problems.

For the most part, the South African hosts made sure the conference ran smoothly for most of its attendees, though officials from the European Union and other large countries spent most of the conference underground in a large converted car park beneath the convention centre. South Africa also brought its own national flavour to events with the “indaba”, a Zulu word for the smaller more intimate gatherings organised by the hosts aimed at finding a deal.

Still, even the most able organisers could do little about the talks themselves. On Friday, the third item on the programme for the main conference negotiations was “adoption of the agenda”. In other words, two weeks in and negotiators had not even formally approved the agenda. More pertinently, the draft negotiating text the conference was supposed to be negotiating into a more succinct final document was still more than 130 pages long on Wednesday.

The arcane ways of the UN process itself can baffle even those accustomed to the difficulties of international negotiations and development politics. Trevor Manuel, the former South African finance minister, recalled one previous UN meeting where a document was pulled off the table because it was not numbered according to UN rules. “I said, ‘I’m an African. I come here to negotiate for the world’s poorest. Mr Chairman, please explain what I tell the people in Africa when I go back there and say we couldn’t resolve financing for development because we don’t know how to number paragraphs.”

But even when smaller groups, such as the G20, meet to discuss carbon emissions, they do not do much better. “It’s the politics, not the process,” says Tim Gore of Oxfam. This is no doubt true. The main stumbling blocks in Durban were those that have bedevilled global climate talks ever since they began in earnest nearly 20 years ago.

China and the US, the world’s two largest emitters respectively, are still loathe to make the first move on ambitious legally binding targets to cut their carbon pollution. The EU, long the global climate champion, still wants to do more than it can persuade the rest of the world to agree to. This stalemate seems likely to continue for many years to come. So perhaps it makes not much difference that some of those at the talks have little clue about what is going on.

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