Participation & Governance

Who has a voice at UN Climate Talks? UNFairPlay’s work supporting small delegations at the UNFCCC

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With many parallel meetings, negotiators from smaller delegations are under-represented. Some Least Developed Countries (LDCs) canonly send a few delegatesto the talks, and so struggle to attend all meetings. Translation only available in certain meetings adds a further disadvantage. UNFairPlay offers to attend meetings and report back to enable smaller nations with less ability to attend all of the talks. Helena Wright tells us more.

For several years, I have supported the UNfairplay campaign which calls for equity and justice in the UN climate talks. The campaign was triggered by concerns that developing countries are being under-represented in climate negotiations. Since about 85 percent of the world’s young people live in developing countries, this is a particular issue for young people. We also know the impact of greenhouse gas emissions will be felt for generations to come.

At the Doha climate change conference this month, the Kyoto Protocol was renewed, but this only covers 15% of global emissions. The pledges on finance are weak, and there will be no global treaty until 2020. Is the process at the UNFCCC itself unfair and unequal, skewing the results to the interests of the most-polluting countries?

With many parallel meetings, negotiators from smaller delegations are under-represented. Some Least Developed Countries (LDCs) can only send a few delegates to the talks, and so struggle to attend all meetings. Meetings also favour those who speak English, with translation only available in certain meetings.

There is also unequal participation of young people. The ‘Connected Voices’ project, launched by the New Zealand youth delegation highlighted the 1.5 billion youth who were not being represented. At the talks this year, UN security evicted a student, and only gave permission for a few protests in limited spaces. This led the New York Times to report (wrongly) that there were: “ no passionate youth doing skits”.

Under 18-year olds were also banned from the conference, despite the fact that climate change has massive impacts on children. In fact, many children from small islands risk losing their whole country underwater in a world that is 2 degrees warmer.

In the final plenary, Nauru, representing the small islands, argued the weak agreement may lock us into 3 degrees of warming, well beyond the 1.5 degree limit needed to protect small islands.

Young people ask delegates "What will be your climate legacy?" Credit: Helena Wright
Young people ask delegates “What will be your climate legacy?” Credit: Helena Wright

Injustice in the Process

As I interviewed delegates this week, many highlighted the exhausting, and frankly, demoralising process of negotiations.

Swaziland mentioned this in the Plenary, saying that the meetings on agriculture were“done in the early hours on Friday night, and small delegations like from my group extend beyond our capabilities and have less representation from our group”.

This inequity heightened in the final hours, as talks dragged on overnight for 36 hours of legal wrangling. With three tracks of negotiations going on at one time, it was a daunting prospect for any delegation! Arguably, one success of the conference in Doha was that the three tracks were simplified into a single track of negotiations.

Documents were not printed out this year, reportedly saving 150 trees by going ‘paperless’: but what about delegations who did not have time or resources to print the documents in advance?

Yet, it is also more difficult to reach agreement with more parties -as the UN requires consensus. The “balanced outcome” (described by the EU) too often means a weak outcome, dominated by the lowest common denominator.

Is participation a factor in the outcome? Or is it more due to lack of ambition?

The EU announced their emission target would not increase from a 20% reduction by 2020. This target is pretty weak when we consider the EU reached this target already. What the EU is effectively saying, is they will do nothing until 2020. By then, for many young people and future generations, it could already be too late.

Even more important than the process, could be the failure of ambition and leadership. The World Bank has reported that we are currently heading towards 3 or 4 degrees of global warming, and may be crossing ‘tipping points’ in the climate system.

Countries need to pull together. And the victims of climate change, including young people, need to somehow make their voices heard.

While delegates did agree to discuss ‘loss and damage’ in Doha, this is a frightening admission we are going beyond the limits to which we can adapt. And young people will have to bear the brunt of the consequences.