Natalie Jones: On Equity. (Or, why the UNFCCC process is fundamentally messed up.)

I’ve now had a week at COP and I’ve come to realise that, despite the massive complexity of the talks – divided into various subsidiary bodies and workstreams, taking place in various settings from massive plenary halls to “informal informals” in the corridors (leading one to slow one's steps when passing a huddle of pink badges and try to unobtrusively point one's ears towards the conversation) – at the heart of everything are issues of equity. Everyone agrees that climate change is an issue: the talks are fundamentally about how the problem should be resolved, and, more importantly, who should do what. Equity is why these negotiations have been going on for over 20 years.

However, equity is an elusive concept. As a result of the huge national interests at stake, global geopolitics and patterns of imperialism and oppression dominate the negotiations (a potential part II of this post might address this point). More concerning, however, is that they are also embedded in the very structure of the UNFCCC process. The way the process and structure of the talks is set up replicates and reinforces wider structural oppressions. With a playing field so skewed, how can the negotiations be fair?

Although it’s easy to imagine in theory how this might happen, actually being here has opened my eyes to the way the set-up of the negotiations inherently disadvantages some parties. Here are some ways that I see that occurring - this is just one perspective, and I'm sure I've missed others, but the sheer list of issues here is still a bit frightening.

1.      Representation and delegation size

At the most basic level, there are major barriers to access for many countries. The sheer cost of being here is huge – travel, the cost of living, and accommodation.

Some countries have huge delegations (the US delegation is estimated to number at least 50), and some countries send only a few negotiators. The level of representation in no way reflects the country’s population size, level of vulnerability to climate impacts, or level of capacity. Instead, it reflects who has power and wealth, and who does not.

Delegation size is one key factor determining how effective a negotiating team will be at representing their country’s interests. It’s not necessarily the deciding factor – other factors might be skill, knowledge, resources, team dynamics, etc – but it’s quite significant.

The negotiations are incredibly complex, containing a huge amount of technical detail within many different workstreams. The smaller the delegation, the less likely it is that there will be a collective understanding of the entire process.

An Ethiopian NGO representative, on a party badge rather than a non-government badge, said to me that because his government cannot afford to send enough negotiators, NGOs partner with the government to support the negotiators on issues where they have limited expertise.

Incredibly, some countries – for instance Nigeria – have no negotiators present in Warsaw. Not one person is there to defend their vital interests (although, surprisingly, in Nigeria’s case this seems to be the result of a decision by the government itself – so possibly an unrelated issue).

2.      Room allocations/facilities

The facilities accorded to each delegation vary wildly. The United States, China, and the European Union have massive pavilions, with reception desks, coffee-making facilities, private viewing rooms, couches nobody else is allowed to sit on (trust me - I've tried), and areas to hold their own side-events and workshops. The New Zealand team has a small office which can barely fit all of us youth in stakeholder meetings. Other countries share offices. Of course, though, facility size is somewhat related to delegation size.

Edit: Since I originally published this I learned that facilities are directly related to how much a country can afford. Wifi, space, couches, printing facilities, kitchen facilities, side-event rooms: countries get these "features" if they pay for them. I now understand just that much more why the once multitudinous red beanbags in the corridors have been slowly disappearing ... into the depths of the delegation offices.

{C}3.      {C}Negotiations run over time

Negotiations are scheduled to end on the last Friday of the conference. Often, however, the last session runs overtime, extending non-stop into Saturday or even Sunday. When this happens, many poorer countries still have to leave on Friday – because they can’t afford to change their scheduled flights or stay in expensive hotels for another night. NGO representatives have been known to take over abandoned country offices on the last, long night of negotiations – simply because those negotiators are no longer there. The big powers, of course, have no such issues.

Much of the important decisions are made at the last minute in this high-pressure, late-night environment – but some of the most vulnerable states cannot afford to be there. They aren’t at the table, and so they can’t fight for their own interests at this crucial moment. This is, quite frankly, unjust, and I was quite shocked (though not exactly surprised) when I heard this.

{C}4.      {C}Closer to home …

The New Zealand government delegation contains two representatives from Tokelau, a New Zealand dependency. Tokelau is a small island state, so, as could be imagined, has fundamentally different problems and priorities than New Zealand. For Tokelau, the very future of the country is at stake in the negotiations.

However, I’m of the understanding that the Tokelauan representatives are not allowed to speak independently from New Zealand policy in the negotiations. This is quite incomprehensible – why should Tokelau be bound by New Zealand’s policy lines? They should have an independent voice and be able to represent their own interests in the talks.

Edit: 5. Location

I thought of this issue on the tram home after writing this post. The COP location rotates on a five-yearly cycle. It must visit the following regions in order: Western Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia & the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

You may notice that Europe features twice on this list. This may have made sense in 1992, when Eastern Europe comprised economies in radical transition. Now, in terms of travel cost, it makes no sense at all. The Pacific region does not even feature. Granted, only Australia would likely ever have the capacity to hold such a massive conference - but Asia and the Pacific could be grouped together. In any case, a re-jig is needed. 

6.      {C}Visas

Civil society faces similar access challenges. While NGOs have only a limited voice in the talks themselves, they play hugely important roles in both policy and transparency. They lobby for progressive policy, and scrutinise the talks, holding parties accountable, to some degree, for what they do here.

However, again, civil society representation here is skewed by existing structural barriers. Cost is again a barrier to access – but visa issues are much more concerning. This year, Poland refused visas to more than 100 civil society and media representatives from Nigeria and Kenya – apparently for no good reason. These people held official accreditation to attend the conference, but were excluded from engaging in the talks. They were denied access to the conversation and a seat at the table. Apparently this is not a new issue – it has arisen before, in particular at the annual intersessionals in Bonn, Germany - and as such, it is particularly disheartening that it has emerged again.

What now?

With such pervasive and entrenched issues – and there are most likely others of which I’m unaware or have forgotten – how can equity prevail in the outcome of this process? How can we possibly achieve climate justice? What possible hope do these negotiations have of reaching a just and equitable agreement? I can’t see any clear fixes, save for perhaps a fund to address access and representation issues.

In addition, wider questions arise – questions of values and ethics. We all want a 2 degree (or less) world – but does this end justify absolutely any and all means? Can we have a 2015 agreement without justice – and, conversely, can we have justice without a 2015 agreement? Is staying within a 2 degree world worth it if our means of getting there, our method of mitigation, entrenches and deepens existing inequalities?

I have met people this week whose answer to this last question would be a resounding no – and I understand why they hold that opinion. I’m not 100% sure of what I think, but I do know that if we move to a 4 or 5 degree world, those existing patterns of structural inequality will still be there. They’re not going to disappear, especially if we remain locked in inertia over a global agreement. The impacts of this level of climate change will be much more serious for all countries, they will affect some regions much more than others - and as such, a 4-5 degree rise has much greater potential to reinforce existing inequalities and oppressions than a 2 degree rise. Equally, however, this does not justify a completely utilitarian approach. I'm not sure where the middle ground lies.

A final note: the youth constituency

The youth constituency is no exception to issues of representation and oppression. Since the conference is in Europe, the clear majority of youth hail from Europe or North America. We frame things in terms of “Global North” and “Global South” – which are in themselves highly problematic terms which tend to unwittingly replicate the Annex I/non-Annex I divide. We tokenize. We make ourselves feel good by allowing spaces to speak, or a seat at the table, but then we don’t really listen to what is said. Sometimes trying to be anti-oppressive is in itself oppression. Listening, awareness, and a conscious effort to learn and understand where other people come from, and even an effort to understand basic world history, are essential elements of a just youth movement that have been all too lacking. We don’t deal with intersectionality well at all.

As a related point, language barriers alienate many from the youth constituency – and we’re missing out on valuable perspectives because of it. Native English speakers are incredibly privileged, but we take the hegemony of the English language for granted.

In recent days many youth have been doing a ton of soul-searching around these issues, and I think we’ve made some crucial strides in terms of recognising the problems. Solutions will take some time and a lot of work – but I think that we can resolve these issues within the youth climate movement. With the UNFCCC, however … I’m not so sure.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

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Posted on November 19, 2013 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2013.