Understanding the art of negotiation at COP24

A participant’s silhouette is seen during the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland this week. PHOTO: REUTERS

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) all the countries meet each year at the annual Conference of Parties (COP) held in December—moving from continent to continent each year to review progress and agree on any new decisions. It is a two-week-long event with the first week dedicated to technical negotiators and the second week to high-level negotiations usually involving ministers and sometimes heads of state.

The annual COP usually brings together 10,000 to 20,000 people from all over the world for two weeks and it consists of several types of participants. The main group constitutes of government representatives who are the actual negotiators and have to arrive at decisions through consensus. They probably account for no more than 5,000 participants. The others are from civil society, private sector, media, youth and other groups who hold many different side events to share their knowledge and experiences and also hold public demonstrations to get the official negotiators to make bold decisions.

One of the problems with decision-making by consensus is that it effectively gives each country a veto and hence does not allow for “bold” decisions as there is always one or two countries that don’t agree. Hence a lot of time is spent in trying to build consensus.

The role of the United States is very important here as President Trump has formally informed the UNFCCC Secretariat that the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Parties to the UNFCCC had reached this landmark agreement at COP21 in Paris in December 2015. However, the US is not withdrawing from the UNFCCC itself. Hence the US delegation is in Katowice and will be part of the decision-making process. This will indeed present a major challenge to achieve consensus over the next two weeks.

A second important aspect of the official negotiations is that they can often be extremely tedious and time-consuming, often going on all night until the negotiators get totally exhausted. This is because every word, and sometimes even a comma, matters and is argued over. This requires negotiators to be good lawyers and diplomats as well as climate change experts.

A third important point to note about these global negotiations is that with the exception of the US, no country negotiates as a “single” country. Even China belongs to the group of developing countries called the G77+China. Similarly, countries like Germany, France and the UK belong to the European Union (EU) group.

Bangladesh belongs to the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group and plays a very important role in the leadership of the group which is currently chaired by Ethiopia. This group consists of 48 developing countries, mostly from Africa and Asia.

Over the years, the LDC group has become very strong and nowadays no major decision can be made without its approval.

At this point, I should perhaps explain my role in the COP as I am not an official negotiator but rather an observer from civil society and am involved in organising side events. However, I have also been, for many years, an official adviser to the LDC chair and group on the topics of adaptation as well as loss and damage. I participate in pre-COP strategy sessions for the LDC negotiators and continually advise them over the course of the negotiations.

At the same time, I have been organising a major two-day side event called Development and Climate Days at COP that takes place in the middle weekend of the two-week COP. It attracts several hundred participants, many of whom come to attend this event alone and not for the official negotiations.

There are many such events taking place all over the city which will be attended by many thousands of non-negotiators who attend the COP each year.

Finally, with regard to the role of Bangladesh in these negotiations each year, I will start by saying that quite often I feel the media coverage of Bangladesh’s performance can be unnecessarily harsh. One reason is that the media wants to know what our delegation gets out of the negotiations for Bangladesh. This is a question that fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of the COP. The Bangladesh delegation is not there to get something out of the negotiations for ourselves only, but to make a contribution towards solving the major global problem that is climate change.

Over the years, the Bangladesh delegation has indeed played a significant role within the LDC group and several individuals hold important roles as LDC coordinators on important topics such as loss and damage.

In addition to the government delegation members, there are usually several dozen civil society representatives from Bangladesh as well as media at the COP each year and there is usually very good cooperation between the government delegates and civil society representatives on conveying our views.

Bangladesh has an almost unique position in the climate change negotiations as everyone recognises that we are one of the most vulnerable countries to the adverse impacts of climate change. Thus they recognise the importance of listening to us. We are now in the process of changing the narrative of Bangladesh from being the most vulnerable to being the most resilient and adaptive country to climate change.

Originally this article was published on December 05, 2018 at Daily Star. The author Dr. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).
Email: saleemul.huq@icccad.net