Keeping the “circus” in for a chance of a transparent and ambitious COP26

By Maria Alejandra Aguilar and Azul Schvartzman

Open negotiations, observers and civil society are key to  the global climate agenda at the upcoming COP26.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process has two main pillars: consensus and transparency in decision making. The consensus part is well known to everyone who follows the negotiations. How the transparency processes work, on the other hand, is not something familiar to the broad public and has been a contested and developing mechanism. 

For instance, article 12 of the Paris Agreement states that parties must cooperate and adopt measures to improve and ensure education, training and public participation, including public access to information, as bases for advancing  the implementation and success of the Agreement. Furthermore, article 13 establishes the Enhanced Transparency Framework. The principal objective of the Framework is to facilitate tracking of progress and understanding of climate action. It includes the obligation of parties to present biennial reports, biennial update reports, national inventories, to mention a few. These have become relevant tools for comparability and traceability of nationally determined contributions and ambitions. 

Access rights to information and participation are embedded in the Paris Agreement. These principles ensure progress and accountability in climate commitments. They promote the inclusion of human rights and the consideration of the public in decision-making processes on multiple levels, from national to global, based on the bottom-up approach reflected in the Agreement. These access rights are not something new, these are the coherent expression of  existing principles that have forged environmental democracy worldwide. 

Article 4 and 6 of the UNFCC of 1992 calls on parties to ensure the widest possible participation of the public, including non-governmental organizations, and recognizes the role of Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) in promoting the engagement of society as a whole in climate action. Simultaneously, in 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, adopted the Rio Declaration principles. Among them is principle 10, which recognized that “environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level”, and the mainstreaming of access to information, participation and justice in environmental matters. 

Thanks to access rights, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society have played a decisive role when it comes to monitoring, and exercising control and enforceability of state obligations concerning compliance with environmental and climate commitments, as well as human rights. They have been able to influence political and legal decisions, and served as a bridge between local communities, national policies and the advocacy within official constituency groups to the UNFCCC such as the Youth and Children Constituency (YOUNGO), the Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Platform (LCIPP), the Women and Gender Constituency (WGC), and other seven constituencies, providing a voice, representativity and meaningful participation within UNFCCC processes. 

Transparency helps to build trust and allow the public to gauge whether we are achieving our objectives. In the UNFCCC processes, transparency is implemented in two forms: with reports from the parties and the secretariat and with the surveillance of the process by the observers and the press. It is because negotiations and reports are open for all to see, that transparency mechanisms foster more ambition. 

Negotiations can be closed to observers if a party asks for it, however, the presence of observers on the ground helps drive ambition and holds our governments and decision-makers to account. Having a Conference of the Parties (COP) where observers and the press can only join in a virtual format represents a limitation on meaningful participation and could mean that most of the pressure to drive ambition in the negotiations would be gone. We have seen how this worked in all virtual Subsidiary Bodies meetings (SB’s) that took place last June. Observers were often kicked out of negotiation rooms (one of the most iconic cases was when we were not allowed to be in the negotiations about transparency) and on top of this, speaking opportunities were scarce and limited. On the ground, observers can raise their voices, be vocal about our opinions, directly interact with national delegations and caucuses and pressure those that don’t want the climate agenda to move forward. In short: having observers and press virtually is a charade more than a real and broad participation mechanism.

The COP 26 presidency has announced repeatedly that this year’s conference will be the most inclusive in history, putting vulnerable groups and communities at the centre, fostering action towards leaving no one behind, and catalyzing adaptation and resilience. 

While there is still much to be done before the presidency can say they have achieved this goal, “the most inclusive COP ever” can not happen without the constituencies and observers, which others have characterized as a “circus”. Observers, press and private sector representatives are necessary to push for the much-needed increase of climate ambition both from parties and non-state actors. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was crystal clear in its last report: we have little time and a very narrow opportunity to limit the rising global temperature to 1.5ºC. The action that needs to be taken for that to happen has to be bold, ambitious and unprecedented. We need all hands-on-deck.

A COP without the people would be simply lacking and a setback. If the COP is meant to keep the status quo, allow governments sleep on their climate targets, and let big polluters get away with their actions, then the right approach is to keep the observers and press out. If the COP wants 2021 to be remembered as a year of catalytic climate action, catching up on the costly delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic then the clowns, the acrobats, and the whole circus must come to COP26.