Are the climate change Conference of Parties still fit for purpose?

Climate change activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the High-Level event on Climate Emergency during COP25 in Madrid, Spain on December 11, 2019. Photo: Reuters

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), all governments of the nearly 200 countries that have ratified the treaty meet twice a year to review progress and make decisions about next steps. These meetings are held at the level of officials only, in May or June every year in Bonn, Germany where the UNFCCC Secretariat is located, and then again at the annual Conference of Parties (COP) in November or December at the level of officials for one week, followed by high-level political discussions in the second week. The COP, which moves from one continent to another each year, is a decision-making meeting, while the officials level meeting in the middle of the year is a preparatory one.

As one of the handful of people who has been to every single one of the 25 COPs held so far, I must ask—is this format of the meetings still necessary, or should we think of reforming it? I am not opposed the UNFCCC itself, which is essential to get all the countries of the world to agree to tackle a global problem of the magnitude of human induced climate change. But perhaps there is a need to review the way we have been having the COP so far.

The COPs usually bring together many thousands of people from all over the world to spend two weeks in a host city. Only a few thousand are the officials of governments who are involved in actual negotiations during the two weeks of the COP. The rest are observers who participate in a huge number of side events that are organised in parallel with the official negotiations. While these side events are quite useful for networking and knowledge sharing purposes, they are not at all essential for the negotiators to carry out their official negotiations. In fact, even though the side events are taking place in parallel with the official negotiations, often in the same location, hardly any of the real negotiators have the time to attend the side events.

So, the vast majority of people attending the COP each year are mainly there for networking and lobbying purposes, and not negotiations.

As far as the official negotiations themselves are concerned, they start on a Monday and are supposed to end on the Friday of the second week, which allows for 12 full days of work, but they often fail to finish on time and then run over time for days and nights. For example, at COP25 in Madrid, Spain in 2019, instead of ending on the second Friday, it went on all night Friday, all day Saturday, all night Saturday and into Sunday afternoon, before it finally ended! Even then, there were several items that were not resolved and will have to go into COP26. This habit of going into extra time is extremely unfair to the poorer, more vulnerable developing countries, as their delegates are not able to stay for the extra days and have to return home, only to find that the issues they had been fighting for have been dropped in their absence. I have commented in the past that this has been a deliberate tactic by some countries to make final decisions on their own terms.

As we are now all aware, COP26 was meant to be held in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2020, but it had to be postponed by a year to November 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Discussions are now taking place on whether the new dates can be kept or may have to be postponed again. There are of course pros and cons for having another postponement or trying to hold it either virtually, or as a hybrid in-person as well as virtual event.

Many people, including Greta Thunberg, have objected to going ahead virtually as it may restrict representation from poorer countries. They have a point, but any further postponement is not the way forward either. In fact, the UNFCCC Bureau has already decided to hold this year’s officials level meeting virtually rather than in person in Bonn, where it would normally have been held.

I would like to propose that instead of having a big event with many thousands of people spending two weeks in a host city each year, we make the UN headquarters in New York the permanent official venue for negotiations, where every country has a permanent delegation and their respective Permanent Representative is usually the senior most diplomat of the country. These senior officials can do the necessary negotiations with support from their respective capitals when needed, without flying in politicians. Not only will this reduce the carbon footprint of the COP but will also make it more efficient.

Another major reason I propose this is that the need for countries to negotiate new things has been considerably reduced since the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was achieved at COP21 in France in 2015. All that is needed is for countries to implement the Paris Agreement, not to renegotiate it. In fact, the whole purpose of COP26 this year is only to add momentum to the implementation of the Paris Agreement, which is not being done adequately.

Instead of a mega meeting with thousands of people meeting once a year, what is needed is that every important meeting between countries, including bilateral ones, should include how best to implement climate change agreements as a major item of discussion. Even meetings of the World Trade Organisation, the International Civil Aviation and Maritime Organisations, and the annual meetings of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G7, G20 and many others, must (and nowadays actually do) include tackling climate change as a major discussion topic.

The major decisions on what needs to be done were already agreed in Paris in 2015, but are not being implemented at the speed needed. We no longer need to wait for a year to have the COP to review lack of progress, but rather make implementation of the agreement the topic of every relevant international meeting, rather than discussing it once a year only.

At the same time, we also need to find ways for non-governmental actors such as city mayors, private companies, NGOs, youth and others to mobilise globally and do their bit to implement the Paris Agreement. In this regard, the weekly boycott of schools by the Fridays for Future movement of school children led by Greta Thunberg is a wonderful example of global solidarity to push for actions by all.

Once the Greta Thunberg on Climate Change was achieved, the imperative shifted to actions to implement it, rather than talking about implementing it. Also, this task is no longer for national governments alone, but indeed, for every conscious citizen on the planet. We need to think out of the box to tackle the climate emergency at the pace that it deserves, and simply waiting for one big meeting at the end of the year to “fix things” is no longer fit for purpose.

Originally this article was published on April 21, 2021 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).