The Future of the COP: Get Rid of the Negotiations?

By Alexis Saba, CCCL Fellow

There has been a flurry of discussion about the value of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the annual Framework meeting, the Conference of the Parties. After attending the COP17 in Durban, I too raise the same question, especially after recognizing one of the most debilitating aspects of the negotiations—that negotiators understand and discuss climate change on radically different levels.

I spoke with a representative from Senegal who asked how countries like the United States and Canada could postpone setting emissions limits, could postpone developing mechanisms for information sharing and technology transfer, could postpone operationalizing financial programs. He said with sincere honesty and profound bewilderment that we all live on one earth; we are all people, and we are all neighbors. This sentiment—and even more, this perception and understanding—informs his country’s position at the COP and the positions of many, many other countries around the world.

However, in countries like the United States where drought does not yet lead to famine and civil war, the negotiators have the luxury of talking about climate change from a remove. Todd Stern, the US negotiator at Durban, said in a briefing to environmental NGOs (and I paraphrase), “We want to try to make more happen, but you have to realize the reality and the context.” The Senegalese representative was similarly calling for a recognition of reality and context, but he stood at a different place than did Todd Stern. This dissonance exemplifies the impasse at the negotiations.

In contrast, there was a real harmony at many of the side events. Government officials and NGO leaders shared experiences, best practices, science, and technology about climate change mitigation and adaptation. The discourse was not that of politicians talking through each other, as sometimes seemed to be the case in negotiations, but rather that of neighbors trying to figure out how to build the best community.

The examples of outstanding partnerships are numerous. Panelists from Italy and Kenya spoke about ClimAfrica, a program funded by the European Commission that provides up-to-date tools to better predict and adapt to climate change in Africa. It is supported by nine European institutions, eight African institutions, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. At another side event, speakers discussed Apps4Africa and its success in bringing together public and private organizations, academia, and African technology innovators to develop cell phone applications that address local climate change adaptation challenges. Both of these projects, and many more like them, reflect the mantra at Durban that climate change mitigation and adaptation have to involve all stakeholders and have to address the real needs of people on the ground.

The COP provided an excellent forum for this type of progressive, global, and multidisciplinary dialogue that leads to valuable, lasting change—prompting conference-goers to question whether the negotiations hold up the progress that could be made by investing more in the side events. This certainly is food for thought, as the panel discussions gave hope and a sense of unity to a conference that was tinged, if not infused, with doubt and divisions. To be fair, the negotiations have different goals than the side events; however, given the questions raised about the achievability of those goals, it is worth considering how to replicate the success and enhance the benefits of the side events.

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