The COVID pandemic has resulted in travel restrictions worldwide which have not always been implemented entirely according to the logic of public health. This is why, in the U.K. we have seen special quarantine exemptions for business class travellers while travellers from countries that have extremely low/no cases are prohibited from entering.
The pandemic has also already resulted in delays of other international events such as the Tokyo Olympics. COP26 (to be held in Glasgow, U.K.) was initially pushed back from November 2020 to November 2021 and the “intersessional” meetings of the Subsidiary Bodies (to be held in Bonn, Germany) were delayed from June 2020 to October 2020 and then again to June 2021. The UNFCCC did, however, deliver some time-bound mandated events (not formal negotiations) through virtual means, and held two series of online events – “June Momentum” and “Climate Dialogues” in June and November 2020.
Now there are growing fears that either or both of the rescheduled SBs and the COP will be affected again by the ongoing crisis, including by new COVID strains and highly unequal global rollout of vaccines. These fears are leading some, including the UN Secretary General, to call for the UNFCCC to move to an online mode of work, and the UNFCCC Secretariat is already making preparations for a lot of participation (if not all) to move online. Other UN forums such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – which has rescheduled its COP15 for October 2021 in Kunming, China, and preparatory meetings for spring and summer 2021 – have also faced delays and the prospect of online negotiations.
A meeting of the UNFCCC Bureau in August 2020 agreed that it would use an online mode of work only to:
A February meeting of the Bureau resulted in no decision over whether or not to proceed with formal online negotiations, with the Third World Network reporting that some developing countries raised serious concerns about doing so. The Bureau did, however, agree the following guidance for remote participation:
The Secretariat also committed to “make all efforts to provide support for the effective participation of Party representatives, as well as to the chairs and coordinators of groups and constituencies in their efforts to facilitate coordination.”
We do not know who said what but can assume that the concerns raised by developing country members of the Bureau were similar to those outlined in a June 2020 Briefing Paper by the Third World Network, including:
Given the different economic, policy and technological circumstances of individual delegates, delegations and governments, there will be unequal levels of access to the telecommunications hardware or software used to engage in virtual meetings. At the individual level, delegates might not have high-quality or institutional grade Internet or telecommunications access in their homes to allow for high speed and high data bandwidth audio and video conferencing. In capitals, there might be instances where telecommunications hardware or software applications might not be available for individuals to acquire or download due to domestic or international interdictions. These unequal levels of access to the needed telecommunications hardware or software significantly degrade the ability of those with less ability to connect to effectively and meaningfully participate in virtual meetings, which means that they will have less of a voice in international negotiations. Low-speed or low-bandwidth Internet connections often affect developing countries more than developed countries due in many cases to telecommunications infrastructure constraints as well as technology availability.
Virtual meetings (whether by teleconference, videoconference or email) restrict the ability of the participants to fully see and interact with the other participants, whether because one sees only the face on-screen but not the overall body language, or because the poor or weak Internet or telecommunications connections or technologies being used or any background noise or images being transmitted can limit or degrade the transmission of audio and video signals, thereby making it difficult to hear or see the other participants fully. Eye contact among negotiators, usually so important in terms of developing rapport and gauging non-verbal cues, is not possible when using teleconferencing or instant message or email-based conferencing and usually not possible when doing video conferencing due to the physical placement of cameras on the top of the screens of computers or video conference equipment. These difficulties are particularly prominent in terms of audio- or text-only communications rather than audio-video communications – audio-only phone conferences do not provide the participants with the visual reaction cues from the other participants nor allow participants to see how their proposals are being reflected in textual changes in real time, while text-based communications such as e-mail can often be misunderstood due to different writing styles, use of words, non-fluent use of language, or failure to adequately convey nuance or emotional content. There could also be environmental or background distractions that degrade the ability of participants connecting remotely to concentrate fully on the discussion.
There are often technical difficulties that come up when doing virtual meetings, whether it is in terms of connecting to the call, maintaining good and clear audio and video signals, suddenly losing connection while in the midst of the meeting, signal transmission time lags which can impose unnatural gaps in the conversation flow among the participants, and other similar technical difficulties. In some instances, the lack of technical support personnel can make it difficult for participants who may be technologically challenged to effectively participate. These technical difficulties can adversely affect effective participation in virtual meetings by all participants.
International negotiations may also often involve participants in their homes (e.g., in capital cities) connecting from multiple time zones, coming all the way east from the central Pacific and Oceania to all the way west on the west coast of the Americas and the eastern Pacific – even to the extreme of having a 23-hour time difference among the participants (e.g., in virtual meetings involving participants coming from Samoa and Hawaii). This could mean that some participants will either be staying up very late in the night or waking up very early in the morning, with consequent impacts on their ability to meaningfully concentrate and effectively participate in the discussions. In effect, this could hand a built-in negotiating advantage to those participants who are in the regular working hours of their time zone during the virtual meeting as they would be more alert and could have the ability to obtain technical support if needed.
One of the major advantages in having official in-person meetings in the UN and other international organizations with the facilities to do so is the fact that particularly in meetings where decisions are to be taken, there are often simultaneous and real-time professional interpretation services available. This allows for much greater interactivity and engagement by those delegates who may not be fluent in the primary negotiating language (which often is English). Additionally, draft texts of proposals which are to be placed for decision also get translated into the official languages before the actual meeting in which the decision is to be made takes place. While the state of the technological development of the software and technical specifications for real-time simultaneous interpretation and machine based translation of documents have been improving steadily, there remains a huge gap in quality, accuracy, adaptability and speed between in-person professional interpretation and document translation during meetings and their digital alternatives. Additionally, in various international organizations, developing-country groups often rely on the physical facilities and interpretation facilities of the international organization’s secretariat to undertake internal group meetings to prepare their group negotiators for subsequent substantive negotiations with other parties. These are services that might not be available virtually for various reasons to these groups.
Some of these concerns seem to be well founded given recent difficulties in adopting an online mode of work in the Green Climate Fund, as reported by the Third World Network.
In various civil society fora, the prospect of an online COP26 has led some to speculate that this could in fact increase participation and access, because not everyone could have travelled to the Glasgow Summit, or get accreditation as Observers. However, the UNFCCC already broadcasts open negotiation sessions, side events and press conferences online, so access of this kind is available anyway, and would not be enhanced by moving the SBs and COP26 negotiations online.
In addition to sharing the concerns outlined above about virtual negotiations resulting in an even more inequitable process between Parties, civil society organisations familiar with the UNFCCC have serious concerns about the impact that an online mode of work would have on their ability to meaningfully participate in either the SBs or the COP. Whether intended or not, collectively these concerns are very difficult, if not impossible, to address via any realistic online platform (in part because of many of the considerations listed above). This has the effect of direct exclusion of civil society expertise and demands in multiple, critical ways, and minimises if not almost entirely censors our voice. These include:
In a physical COP, negotiators have to walk past Observers when they hold demonstrations and other “actions” both outside and inside the COP venue. These demonstrations are important and they can have a small but crucial impact on the negotiating outcomes – for example it is unlikely we would have an international mechanism on loss and damage if it were not for Observer demonstrations as well as lobbying during COPs 18 and 19. In physical COPs, Observers can directly speak to negotiators, who can be made to feel the mood of civil society. In an online format, they can just tune out. Online, the UNFCCC Secretariat totally controls the platform, you can’t protest outside it, and inside it they can simply turn your microphone off.
Instead of easily being able to reach experts and activists who can provide quotes and background information from a range of perspectives, members of the media will likely rely on their usual list of limited contacts to shape their stories, and thus the public debate. In an online format, we cannot rely on media to reach out to civil society Observer groups, especially those that are from the Global South or represent frontline communities, Indigenous Peoples, and marginalised communities. And, without physical access to journalists, Observers will be unable to strike personal connections with them, or share resources with them, and instead be reduced to trying to email them without any guarantee that info will even be read let alone quoted or publicised.
Full participation in the UNFCCC process requires Observers (and Parties) being able to speak with each other in the corridors. Especially when negotiations move into dozens of “informal” sessions, which are formally closed to Observers, it is essential to be able to speak with negotiators immediately before and after – sometimes literally at the door to the meeting room – to share intel, provide analysis and other support. During COP, Observers provide invaluable resources, analysis, and tools to governments to ensure they have everything at their disposal to understand the most equitable and just policy opportunities before them. This role proves vital time and time again, especially when things get heated and there are attempts to bully or bulldoze through unfair or harmful policies by certain governments. Without the support of civil society in these moments, the chances of stopping truly harmful outcomes or advancing meaningful ones shrinks massively.
Observers both accredited and unaccredited depend on info services such as the Earth Negotiation Bulletin, Third World Network updates and CAN’s ECO daily to share essential public-interest expertise and analysis that often help inform the negotiations, and to ensure a level of transparency within the negotiations. Without equitable and consistent access to all negotiating rooms and topics, these services will be seriously and negatively impacted and the legitimacy of the process.
In addition, the COP gives rise to counter-summits which allow broader civil society and social movements – not only those which are active in the formal “Constituencies” – to network and debate, strategise etc. These spaces are rare opportunities to platform, on a global stage, Southern, Indigenous, and grassroots voices and demands and to build bridges between “inside” and “outside” strategies and narratives.
While in some senses a delay to the COP could be interpreted as a bad “signal” the fact is that the framework for global cooperation on climate change is already established under the Paris Agreement and its accompanying rule book. Governments already know what they need to do and know what they have committed to do, and do not require negotiations nor a formal COP process to take domestic action to tackle the climate emergency. Only one chapter of the rulebook is yet to be agreed, in relation to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which primarily deals with setting up of international carbon markets. This is the focus of COP26 negotiations, which will be judged a success or failure on the basis of whether a decision on Article 6 and the finalisation of the Paris Rulebook is achieved.
While key issues of climate ambition, climate finance or loss and damage will also be a feature of discussions at the Glasgow summit, and do require international cooperation and negotiations, no major formal agreements on these are expected at COP26. Arguably progress on these in future negotiations will be made more likely by governments getting on with fulfilling existing obligations under the Paris Agreement pertaining to emissions reductions and climate finance, which as noted already, require no formal COP process to undertake.
On the basis of these and other concerns, in March Friends of the Earth International wrote privately to the Bureau and Secretariat to call for a delay rather than a move to online, should it not be possible to hold an in-person COP. Several of the UNFCCC Observer Constituencies, including Trade Union NGOs (TUNGO), Women and Gender (WGC), Youth NGOs (YOUNGO), Climate Action Network (CAN) and Demand Climate Justice (DCJ) also wrote a private letter to the UNFCCC Bureau and Secretariat prior to the February meeting. In it, they:
Unsatisfied with the March 4th communication from the Secretariat, Focal Points for all 9 official UNFCCC constituencies (including civil society, Indigenous Peoples, and business and industry interests) have, in an extremely rare instance, replied together in a letter voicing their concern that no reference has been made to Observer engagement in any proposed in-person formal sessions (only to Parties). They have also asked the Secretariat and Bureau to elaborate on what their commitments to transparency and inclusiveness mean in a virtual context and how these principles would be expanded to include the full and effective participation of Observers.
As of April, a version of the Friends of the Earth letter is circulating for sign on.
Similar concerns have been raised by the CBD Alliance in an open letter which goes further in calling for “the negotiation and adoption of substantive policy outcomes [to] be postponed until such time that official and formal in-person negotiations can once again take place”, and maintaining that further delay must not be used as an excuse for inaction on existing obligations under the CBD.
To date the Coalition has not made any official statement about the delay of the COP or the possibility of online negotiations. However, given the context it is certain that the Coalition is going to need to navigate the question of some online negotiations both in terms of messaging to the media and in terms of advocacy spaces. We hope this background note helps the Coalition arrive at some agreed language and/or positions. Any decision on this front will be made by the Coordination Committee, informed by the relevant working groups, and the international committee.