Climate Justice and Democratic Decision-making at COP28: what needs to change
Climate justice requires genuine participation of underrepresented groups in decision-making at all levels. The vast majority of the world’s population live in the Global South. And yet, UNFCCC processes, including COP28, have long been dominated by actors from the Global North- who represent a minority.
Currently, non-governmental actors from the Global South face significant challenges participating in UNFCCC negotiations and decisions, contrasting sharply with the substantial representation from organisations and countries in the Global North. While some engagement is observed from youth, women, indigenous peoples, and local communities, their participation needs to be improved and more.
On 3 December 2023, the Voices for Just Climate Action alliance (VCA) held a UNFCCC side event at COP28 to discuss challenges and opportunities to democratic decision-making in spaces like COP. Speakers included VCA local civil society partners from Bolivia, Brazil, Kenya, Indonesia and Zambia, including youth, women, indigenous peoples, government and the Climate Champions Team.
LOW LEVELS OF PARTICIPATION
73% of all admitted observer organisations to the UNFCCC are from industrialised countries (Annex 1):
Source: UNFCCC, 2023
Inclusion at COPs is an issue across all levels of participation. Faith Lumonya, from Akina Mama wa Afrika, highlighted that of the 133 world leaders present at COP28, only 15 of them are women. And of all the COP presidencies since COP1, only 4 of them have been women.
Many of the speakers highlighted that actors from the Global South in particular face numerous barriers that impede their involvement in UNFCCC decisions. The technical language, financial limitations, logistical complexities, and limited expertise on critical issues are among the obstacles they confront. Insufficient coordination among stakeholders and reliance on voluntary participation further complicate the process. As Hon. Twaambo Mutinta, Zambian MP and Co-Chairperson for the Zambian Parliamentary Caucus on Environment and Climate Change (ZPCECC), said, “we cannot talk about climate change without adequate democracy”.
Language inclusion in UN processes often means having documents and interpretation of official proceedings available in the six UN languages. But Miguel Angel Jerez Pereira, from the Bolivian Platform for Action on Climate Change, highlighted that Bolivia, for example, has 36 other languages in addition to Spanish. This means that for many participants, if they want to engage in the UNFCCC, they need to be fluent in a third or fourth language.
The UN languages still don’t include languages such as Portuguese. This means that key documents are not translated and sessions do not have support in Portuguese. Lina Dabbagh, Senior Policy and Engagement Lead for the Climate Champions Team since 2022, shared that 2023 is the first year that the Indigenous People’s Caucus has been able to provide interpretation into Portuguese.
Chief Zé Bajaga Apurinã, founder and executive-coordinator of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations and Communities of the Middle Purus (FOCIMP), highlighted that countries like Brazil, have over 300 different indigenous groups, many of whom are not represented at COP. Zé highlighted that for participants from remote places in the Amazon and elsewhere, attending COP required 10 days to get there. To make this huge effort to attend, only to find that there is no interpretation available, is an injustice.
In practice, the cost and logistics of providing the necessary interpretation often falls on individual organisations, who either hire local interpreters or bring a dedicated interpreter with them, requiring accreditation, travel and accommodation.
The cost of hiring local interpretation services, while in theory available, is still hugely prohibitive, costing in the range of USD 4,000 – 5,000 for one 90 minute session for just three languages. Very few civil society organisations can absorb these costs, on top of the other exorbitant costs of attending COP. Many pavilions still don’t include booths for interpreters or any support for event organisers on how to engage local interpreters or how to support their interpreters with advance material to prepare for the event.
New advancements in online apps that can provide interpretation are not a solution either, as the wifi in COP venues is weak and unreliable. Even for participants who are fluent in English, the most common language of engagement at COP, the technical jargon is inaccessible to the vast majority of participants who have an interest in being represented at COP.
FINANCE, SUPPORT AND ACCREDITATION IN SHORT SUPPLY
Finance for travel and accommodation continues to be a central and enduring barrier to participate in COP. Gaining accreditation as an observer is a long process. And while its common for larger, accredited NGOs and developed countries to provide accreditation to local actors who need it, Faith Lumonya from Akina Mama wa Afrika highlighted that often this means “he who pays the piper calls the tune” and makes it difficult for local actors to pursue their own, independent agendas at COP.
Finding accreditation through others is also a long and arduous struggle. Sharon Mutende, a Kenyan-based eco-feminist and Policy Coordinator at the Children and Youth Major Group to UNEP and a member of the Secretariat for LCOY-Kenya 2023, highlighted that she started looking for a badge to attend COP28 in July, but her search was only successful in November 2023. As Sharon mentioned, this complexity is further exacerbated for women in rural areas, where navigating participation may necessitate seeking support from their spouses, while accessing information on how to engage with COP initiatives proves exceptionally difficult.
COMPLEXITY OF THE NEGOTIATIONS AND LIMITED CAPACITY TO FOLLOW THEM ALL
Sharon, Miguel, and Tami all brought attention to the lack of capacities as a primary barrier to meaningful participation. Tami specifically pointed out the challenges faced by young individuals, asserting that accessing information and support networks proves exceedingly difficult for them. Miguel emphasised the pivotal role of capacity development, not only in understanding the intricacies of COP but also in navigating regional gatherings such as COY, Climate Weeks, and others. Furthermore, he highlighted the importance of being able to engage and influence political and negotiation spaces, requiring enhanced technical capacities. Building capacities, therefore, emerges as a fundamental prerequisite for effective participation in these spaces, ensuring a more informed and influential presence in international climate forums.
Over time, the UNFCCC negotiations have become more complex and time consuming and topics and processes have proliferated. Climate finance, a topic at the heart of climate justice at all levels, has 20 different agenda items this year. In the technical nature of the negotiations, following more than 2 agenda items is a full time job. The UNFCCC has several constituencies who are mandated to represent and support the true participation of their group, such as the Women and Gender Constituency (WGC). While the WGC and other constituencies work tirelessly to make this happen, Faith highlighted that staying abreast of the agenda items across Mitigation, Adaptation, Loss and Damage, Global Stocktake, Climate Finance and more and formulating inputs and positions on each agenda item is virtually impossible.
And yet, every one of these topics intersects with the others and climate justice cannot be achieved without progress across them all. The proliferation of topic and agenda items plays into the hands of wealthy countries and large organisations who are better equipped to navigate the volume of meetings and documents these processes necessitate.
TOKENISATION OF INCLUSION RATHER THAN ACTUAL DECISION-MAKING OR INFLUENCE
Even when local actors make it to COP, and are able to follow the topics of interest and find speaking opportunities to be heard, they are still too often included only as a token for inclusion and their contributions are taken as suggestions not serious interventions.
Andreia Bavaresco, IEB, highlighted that with over 80,000 people attending COP28, walking around the venue you can see many women, youth and indigenous peoples. And yet in the decision making rooms, still we see white, male, global North actors dominating.
Lina highlighted some of the very important work that the Climate Champions team has been doing to increase inclusion at COP. This includes tracking the inclusion of various groups and trying to promote them. Their data shows that 10% of events have at least one indigenous representative included. But much more needs to be done. While the team have high ambition to increase participation, building relationships with indigenous people’s associations and representatives, for example, takes time and capacity- which are still in short supply. Representatives, she adds, should not be hand picked by event organisers or decision-makers, genuine representation requires a network or collective approach.
“Listening is not enough” says Tami. There needs to be greater deliberation between state and non state actors, and the active involvement of non-state actors in what has historically been a state-dominated process. National processes for engagement are key, but they alone are not enough. And while youth are included, there is often an expectation that all they need is a speaking slot, and to provide brilliant ideas on demand. This does not reflect the capacity and engagement that is needed long before COP in order to support genuine youth participation.
Twaambi highlighted the critical role parliamentarians have as local representatives, and yet historically they have not been very involved in processes such as UNFCCC COPs. COP28 is the first time ever that there has been a parliamentarian pavilion. This is a step in the right direction, says Twaambi, as they have a responsibility to represent their constituents, including listening to them and reporting back post-COP.
COP NEGOTIATIONS ARE UNABLE TO CONNECT TO LOCAL PRIORITIES OR REALITIES
Perhaps the most insurmountable and enduring challenge for multilateral decision-making process such as COP28, is that they remain far removed from local realities and priorities, something highlighted by Miguel and Zé.
COP28 has already adopted a decision on the operationalisation of a loss and damage fund, a hard-won victory among developing country negotiators and civil society alike. But even this decision does not easily translate into local realities. Zé shared a conversation he had with a woman in his territory, before attending COP28. “That COP thing that takes place” she said, “it’s a climate change forum and there is a compensation fund. Ask them what is the money they would pay to a mother who lost her son. Is there any fund in the world who could pay all of that? Do they think they can compensate things?”