Jason Anderson and Rob Bradley are energy specialists at Climate Network Europe in Brussels. CNE is the European node of the Climate Action Network, which unites nongovernmental organizations working on domestic and international climate change issues.

Monday, 5 Nov 2001


Jason Anderson

After a week at the 7th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (known as COP-7), the familiar rhythm of the COPs has been established. An interminable NGO strategy session the first Sunday, a Monday that seems to last a week as we get back into the issues, and then a blur of nearly round-the-clock activity that culminates in the NGO party on Saturday night.

We’ve got high hopes.

Photo: Climate Network Europe.

It may come as a surprise that the best attended, and I suspect most anticipated, event of a UN conference involves booze, dancing, and hangovers. But by the end of a week where the hottest publication in town was “Modalities for the accounting of assigned amounts under article 7.4,” you’d want to kill some brain cells, too.

With the implosion of the talks at The Hague and the agreement in Bonn now behind us, COP-7 has a decidedly different flavor from its earlier incarnations. Absent are the troops of Greenpeace volunteers in identical red caps, or the gaggles of press waiting for scraps of news to fall from the negotiating tables. Now we’re back to the details that make up the guts of the climate change talks. Working groups convene until late in the night to discuss topics known by their numbers: 5, 7, and 7.4. Eight, 3.3, and 3.4. Around here, if you don’t know what they mean, you’re not part of the club and don’t get to play.

The abstruseness of the subject matter stands in stark contrast to the public understanding of this issue: Things are getting hotter, which is bad. That’s a pretty basic formulation, but it’s accurate. Bridging the gap between this fundamental problem and the numerical muddle at the COP is a primary task of NGOs, who are here in legion.

Most NGOs here are grouped in an umbrella organization called the Climate Action Network (CAN). Big international NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF send large delegations that meet internally, cover all the issues, and have their own press officers. But they participate equally with the many smaller organizations in CAN for general coordination of information and strategy. There’s a real sense of cooperation and camaraderie that motivates the work, and over the years people have formed close friendships while developing more and more expertise. Procedures, while not formally established, have become fixed by tradition: daily hour-long strategy sessions at 2 p.m., working groups on specific issues, and late nights producing the daily newsletter, Eco. In between this: following negotiations, preparing bullet points for delegates, and lobbying.

One of CAN’s main focuses at this conference has been a natural one for NGOs: public participation. Our very presence here is an example of it in action. Rather than occurring behind closed doors, the negotiations are open to observers who can watch the sessions, share information with the rest of the world, and lobby delegates in the corridors. Many of the structures that this conference will establish will also have a component of public participation — occasionally to the chagrin of some governments. Last week, Russian delegates tried to change the rules on enforcement of the Protocol to keep the outside world from knowing about investigations of wrongdoing until after they’re done. This earned them the “fossil of the day award,” a surprisingly effective public shaming of climate bad guys.

The main reason that public participation has become so important is the inclusion of forestry projects in developing countries as a means of earning carbon reduction credits. Long fought by NGOs, the EU, and others as a massive carbon loophole, such projects also run the risk of harming local populations. It is conceivable, depending on how further rules develop, that an indigenous group could be run off their land, the forest destroyed with herbicide and replanted with a monocrop of exotic eucalyptus trees, all to allow some coal-fired power plant in Scranton to keep pumping out CO2. Giving local populations a voice, getting them and international groups information to fight back, and helping to prevent this kind of project are keys to limiting the damage and redirecting resources to sound projects.

Some important concerns have been taken on board, but the gulf between people “on the ground” and delegates in the rarified atmosphere of the COP can mean that even sympathetic parties can seem obtuse. On Saturday, European NGOs met with the head of European delegations. On this occasion a representative of indigenous people came as well, to present an impassioned plea for special status for indigenous observers in the climate change talks. As residents of earth’s most fragile environments on the front lines of climate change, they should represent the conscience of the negotiations. In this case, the representative was told that his proposal was misplaced because it wasn’t a SBSTA issue and therefore not appropriate for insertion in decision text FCCC/CP/2001/10. Perhaps he should have numbered his proposal to attract more attention.