So they walked – what else?

Walk out COP19

Walk-out of NGOs at COP19 in Warsaw / Source: Oxfam International

Last weekend, the nineteenth UN conference on climate change (Conference of Parties – COP19) ended with an agreement reaching the minimum expected target: to continue preparing a new agreement to be adopted in 2015, among other things.

Walk-out of NGOs

Even though the conference results won’t linger in the public memory for long, maybe the public will remember the conference for another reason: the walk-out of many NGOs one day before the end of the conference.

Criticising the slow pace of the negotiations and the impending failure of the conference a few hundred members of observer organisations left the National Stadium in Warsaw, which was the venue of COP19. This walk-out touched off a response in the media greater than all the coverage of the previous two weeks of negotiations.

Role of civil society at COP

The walk-out drew the public’s attention to the organisations of civil society at the COP. But what is civil society’s role at this conference? Why did some organisations stay? And what do they do for two weeks in a conference hall with delegates from almost all the countries in the world?

During the first week of negotiations I attended the COP and got an impression of their work – an issue I had not thought about beforehand.

The most obvious aspect of their work is to observe the conference proceedings. Many organisations report directly from the COP via social media or blogs to inform their supporters and the wider public about the progress of the negotiations. Besides that, they talk to the media to spread their view of the negotiation process and to position their demand in the public perception. They play an important role in bridging the gap between the very technical discussions on terms like adaptation, mitigation or Loss and Damage on the one hand and the potentially interested but not well informed public on the other hand.

Since civil society organisations are not driven by profit in the way business and industry are, it is vital that they be present to counter the existing fossil fuel lobbies. Civil society needs to play this role in order to ensure that the people without a voice in the process are represented.

Furthermore, the COP is always a big reunion of all organisations that work in the field of climate change. Therefore it also serves as a yearly opportunity to strengthen alliances with other organisations and to get to know new players in the wide field of climate change.

Influence on the negotiations

An important aspect I was not aware of before the conference is the way in which civil society organisations try to influence the outcome of the conference on the spot. Organisations try to arrange meetings with delegates of different nations in order to directly influence the statements made in the meetings and, through that, the starting points of negotiations.

During NGO briefings by delegations, civil society is kept informed about the state of the process but at the same time gives input to the respective delegation about its view on the upcoming negotiation rounds. Occasionally, the segregation of civil society organisations and state delegations disintegrates: for example, when a delegation asks for support to put public pressure on a blocking party, or when organisations require a clear public statement from the delegation so that their demands won’t go unheard – a collaboration to ensure their interests are represented that I had not expected before.

Another very interesting aspect is the participation in delegations of members of civil society. As not every state has the financial resources to reach the level of proper representation necessary to find its way within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), some delegations draw on the expertise of civil society to be represented at COP. Some even invite experts from other countries to be part of their delegation as policy advisors: for example, Australian scientist Ian McGregor and Canadian opposition parliamentarian Elizabeth May took part in the Afghan delegation.

Great importance for the success of UNFCCC

All in all, civil society plays an important role in the process of UNFCCC. It serves as a counterbalance to the strong forces of industry lobbying and industry influence on the negotiations. It is true, however, that civil society did not succeed in influencing the outcomes of Warsaw enough to make them adequate in tackling the challenges of climate change.

Perhaps we can draw lessons from the Montreal Protocol process: Adopted in 1987, the Montreal Protocol to limit ozone depleting substances is considered one of the most successful international agreements of the twentieth century – and one of the more inclusive international processes that allowed for full participation of civil society. This was made possible by a small and inclusive forum, open access to critical meetings and regional workshops, disclosure of briefing documents, civil society having a formal seat at the negotiating table, and having a say in the appointment of technical bodies.

In the run-up to 2015, civil society plays a crucial role for the successful outcome of COP21 in Paris when a new agreement, including all parties of the UNFCCC, shall be adopted.

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013