Civil society returns to UN climate talks, but for how long?

12 months after bailing on COP19 in Warsaw, green groups are back, but with the same concerns

(Pic: South Bend Voice/Flickr)

(Pic: South Bend Voice/Flickr)

By Ed King in Lima

Whisper it quietly, but civil society is back at the UN’s climate change negotiations.

Last year Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth were among a coalition of NGOs to walk out of Poland’s national stadium in Warsaw, the scene of the main climate conference of 2013.

Accusing the Polish organisers of allowing its coal lobby and other business groups to influence the meeting, they left many wondering what the future of these tortuous talks would hold, stripped of the scrutiny green groups can offer.

“We made clear that having a COP [Conference of the Parties] about climate change being built up as a coal celebration was unacceptable,” says Martin Kaiser, Greenpeace’s head of delegation in Lima.

“At the same time we saw Japan and others stepping out of the Kyoto Protocol. This was absurd.”

But 12 months later, and the same faces are back, looking more energised and chipper than before. The holiday did them good.

In part this is linked to the New York climate summit, where a record 300,000 took to the streets of Manhattan to call on world leaders to adopt ambitious greenhouse gas cuts.

It’s also down to the recent joint announcement by the world’s largest carbon polluters to curb their emissions by the end of next decade, says Kaiser.

“With the announcements from the US and China, and also preparations in many other countries, we see that climate change is not an international diplomatic game, it’s a matter of survival and taking actions regardless of what other countries do.”

For Tasneem Essop, leading WWF’s team in Lima, the Warsaw exodus was never about abandoning the process. Instead it was a chance for NGOs to regroup and work out a better plan to engage with countries.

“We made a commitment that we would be back,” she says. “What we have witnessed after Warsaw is that the hard work is done. We have seen citizens across the world, across all countries, demanding stronger actions from governments.”

That’s not to say Essop or Kaiser are delighted with the current proposals on the table in Lima.

Both are demanding governments accept higher emission cuts before 2020 and want a tough process where national pledges to a 2015 climate deal are reviewed and tightened if need be.

And there’s no escaping a continued sense of disappointment in the style of the negotiations, which often seem to bear little resemblance to the outside world.

Kaiser’s Greenpeace UK colleague Ruth Davis says “a lot has changed” since Warsaw, but is frustrated that the gains from the New York summit, recent emission pledges and tumbling costs of renewables are not being reflected by a new sense of momentum within the talks.

“What’s not changed is that the efforts on the table remain pitifully incommensurate to the problem, and there’s a sense here we are living in two different worlds,” she says.

“There’s the external world where things are moving, there’s excitement and energy. There is a little bit of a sense in Lima that nobody has sent a telegram to the negotiators.

“Without being too cynical about this, there is a certain amount of zombie negotiating and zombie interventions going on and for those of us who got out of bed going YAY! it would be nice to have that reflected in the formal negotiating process.”

Developing anger

It’s easy to see how the frustration that boiled over in Warsaw could do so again in Lima, although the Peruvian presidency is likely to be more sympathetic to NGOs than the Poles, who regarded them as a problem to be avoided.

Throughout a morning of interventions on Tuesday, there was little to give the impression that the scale of carbon cuts would or could rise in the short term.

Addressing over 190 national delegations, Pascoe Sabido from Climate Justice Now accused the UN of being a front for rich countries “wriggling out of their commitments via new market mechanisms.”

He added: “The UNFCCC’s very legitimacy as a place where we can collectively tackle the climate crisis is at stake.”

In a statement, Meena Raman from the Malaysia-based Third World Network branded the US and EU’s new carbon targets “pathetic”, accusing them of locking the world into 4C.

Brandon Wu from ActionAid went further. The US target to cut emissions by 26-28% by 2025 was “like celebrating that an alcoholic is down to five beers in a sitting rather than a full sixpack,” he said.

These voices speak on behalf of many developing countries who feel they are marginalised in a process that pays most attention to the big economies: the EU, US, China and the BASIC group.

Some are furious that the US 2025 carbon cutting pledge has been lauded around the world, despite being 4% less ambitious (depending on how you calculate offsets) than the one it made in 2010.

Others are bemused that Green Climate Fund pledges amounting to $9.7 billion are being praised as ambitious, despite being less than those same donor countries delivered between 2010-2012.

Few of this section of civil society, frequently labelled as climate justice campaigners, seem to have much faith that the UN can deliver anything close to the carbon cuts needed in a way that is fair to the world’s poorest.

It’s a problem the Peruvian hosts are aware of and are trying to counter, largely by allowing these groups to have a louder voice at the talks.

It seems unlikely the allocation of a few interventions will appease those convinced these talks are heading towards a dead end. And it’s possible that many angered at proceedings will again choose to walk rather than sit and listen.

But it marks a subtle shift from 2013, and is perhaps a recognition from the organisers that they value a regular reminder of the human impact of this meeting.

“We are on the same road,” said the country’s environment minister Manual Pulgar Vidal on Monday.

“Peru would like to have a conversation that establishes a dialogue between state and non state actors. Non state actors should be encouraged.”

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