Access and Transparency

Last night, I was talking to my husband about my experience at COP23, and I confessed that I still don’t really understand what I’m supposed to be doing here. There’s definitely plenty to see, watch, learn about, absorb, etc., but I was trying to figure out if being an official “observer” of the UNFCCC negotiations is more than just an educational experience. How, exactly, are we supposed to be influencing the negotiations? It’s not immediately transparent.

The tagline for this conference is “one conference, two zones.” There are definitely two zones, but how they constitute one conference is less clear. As I mentioned yesterday, there is one zone for the official UNFCCC negotiations among the “Parties” – countries in the Paris Agreement – to go about the official business of implementing the Paris Agreement. There is another zone for “civil society” or “non-party stakeholders” to hold exhibits, display pavilions, etc. Access to the zones, though, is not equal. Some observers are not allowed into the Bula Zone, where the UNFCCC negotiations are taking place, and are only granted access to the Bonn Zone. And ,some sessions in the Bula Zone, even if you’re permitted to be there, are “closed.” Others are “open”, but you need a ticket to get in. How you get the tickets is still a mystery to me. Access and transparency of the process here are real issues if we are trying to engage in a meaningful way.

Today, though, some light was shed on Party and non-Party interactions. This morning, I went to a session titled “Open dialogue between Parties and NGOs,” not knowing exactly what it would entail. (Truth be told, not knowing what to expect is how I have entered almost all of the sessions here.)

As it began, I learned that Fiji was including this “open dialogue” between Parties and non-Parties for the first time ever. It’s shocking to me that there’s never before been a direct dialogue between Parties and everyone else.

Much of the discussion at this session was around some of the questions about participation that I’ve been wondering about. NGO representatives expressed respectful frustration with how participation is limited. For example, at some sessions, toward the end, representatives from certain constituencies are allowed to address the Parties but they are only given a minute or two to give a statement on behalf of very broad constituencies, like “environmental NGOs” or “trade unions.” I learned today that the statements have to be pre-drafted and approved ahead of time. Parties, for their part, assured the non-Parties that their input was crucial, even if it is limited.

These issues weren’t resolved, but it verified that it’s not just the fact that I’m a COP newbie that’s causing me to question how (and even if) I’m supposed to be heard here. Even the veterans are feeling tension between the government-only Party-driven negotiation process alongside the fact that we need nongovernmental actors to reduce emissions if we’re going to meet our goals. The good news coming out of this session is that Poland, the president of COP24, agreed that the open dialogue was a good idea and that it would continue the tradition next year. In the meantime, I will continue to think about how non-Parties (including the state of Minnesota) can continue to take actions that will move us toward meeting the goals set in the Paris Agreement, even if we’re not officially at the table.

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