Wednesday, 18 December 2013 00:00

Tales of Warsaw

Written by Laura Führer

When the bigwigs of international politics meet to discuss climate change, most people only shrug: too bulky, too distant, too untrustworthy. Not Laura Führer. As an observer for the international student think tank CliMates, she had the chance to take a closer look from the scene. Here she reflects on her experience in the negotiations jungle in Warsaw and on the role of young people within and outside these negotiations.

Stadium_auenSo this is Warsaw. For those who have been attending climate negotiations for years – seasoned negotiators and NGO staff with a realist outlook on negotiations – Warsaw is just a "COP on the road", an intermediary conference preparing the new climate treaty that will hopefully be signed in Paris in 2015. Hence, they do not expect very tangible outcomes from this conference. Possibly a statement of intent or the settlement of a few technical issues, maybe even a timetable or a roadmap, which would already be considered big successes. However, many on the more idealistic (or naive) front over here are hoping that the Warsaw climate change conference could see some real progress and some concrete outcomes in terms of reducing emissions and helping concerned countries adapt to climate change. Among those are younger people like myself who have come to Warsaw to spend two weeks, from 8 a. m. to 9 p. m. each day, in the rebuilt Polish national football stadium, sustaining ourselves on meals from the monopoly caterer inside the stadium, and the occasional (or should I say habitual?) mouthful stolen from the EU’s lavish breakfast buffet – before we retreat to our couchsurfers’ homes or youth hostels at night.

But first things first: let’s start with some background information. The United Nations Warsaw Climate Change Conference is taking place in the Polish capital from November 11th to 22nd, 2013. It is also called COP 19 (Conference of the Parties n° 19) because it is the 19th conference under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was itself the outcome of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Ever since, countries have been meeting yearly with the aim of limiting global warming to 2°C. The most notable outcome of this process of negotiations was the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, which set up emissions targets for a number of developed countries. An extension of the Kyoto Protocol until 2020 was negotiated at COP 17 in Durban and COP 18 in Doha in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Currently, the aim of the negotiations is therefore to come up with a new global climate deal (with more countries participating) that should be signed in Paris in 2015 and enter into effect from 2020 onwards. But this all sounds easier than it is.

In fact, during its 21 years of existence, the process of climate negotiations has developed its own set of legal terms and reference texts (be they protocols, conventions, action plans, platforms or declarations). There is a set of distinct legal "principles" guiding this process and the negotiations constitute a space of human interaction that participants get socialised into. They provide a certain setting, with its own language, a code of conduct and a web of interpersonal relations. You could, for the purpose of elucidation, liken them to "climate negotiation country" with its own "climate negotiation culture". At first, any participant is new to this world and finds it very confusing: it’s just like travelling to a distant country whose cultural code you cannot read and whose language you do not speak. Then, gradually, you become familiar with the setting and the language, you start to understand the logic of events and this enables you to take part in the whole negotiation process. Yet, it means at the same time that you necessarily reproduce patterns of acting and speaking that you have observed in others. This tendency to imitate, of course, makes achieving change more difficult.


Finally, the complexity of the negotiations is also caused by the web of topics that are considered intricately linked to the issue of climate change and that are part of the negotiations. Over time, the negotiations have been split up into a host of different strands, and cover topics such as adaptation, capacity building, technology transfer, transparency, financing, agriculture and forestry to name just a few. Concretely, this means that the daily schedule of the conference is several pages long and lists a large number of "informal consultations", "contact groups", "stocktaking plenaries", "roundtables", "workshops" and "open-ended consultations" – on issues as diverse and obscure as the "implications of the implementation of decisions 2/CMP.7 to 4/CMP.8 on the previous decisions on methodological issues related to the Kyoto Protocol, including those relating to Articles 5, 7 and 8 of the Kyoto Protocol". My personal favourite of all the titles was the "contact group on framework for various approaches", held on Nov 15 from 4:15 to 4:30 pm in Room 4.

As a youth observer, it is obviously not easy to navigate your way through this negotiation jungle. And yet, here you are, a cup of coffee in your hand, waiting, together with activists from grown-up NGOs and many in civil society, for very concrete outcomes in terms of tons of emissions reduced and dollars spent on adaptation. These expectations, however, are actually quite unrealistic given the history and institutional set-up of the climate negotiations process. A multilateral process that is governed by consensus is slow by definition. Your teeth start grinding and your spirits drop as you see this cumbersome diplomacy unfolding right in front of you during the first week of negotiations. Hours are spent reading out general statements, restating the importance of general principles spelt out in the 1992 convention, and discussing timetables until 2015. The negotiations are moving slower than molasses in January – but, most ironically, the more you learn and understand about the negotiations, the more you develop an understanding for the why and how of this slow yet all-encompassing process. If you want to get 194 countries around a table to agree on – or even just talk about - an immensely complex issue, you can by no means expect this to be completely smooth, fast and efficient. Still, the current mode of climate negotiations allows states to hide behind procedural questions and general discussions, thus avoiding the issues that are most difficult and uncomfortable, but also most vital on the way to a lower-emissions future. Those who care about our planet are right to be frustrated about this.

YOUNGOThe question is how we, as young people, should position ourselves vis-à-vis this modality of climate negotiations. Of course it is important that we are there, represented during the annual COPs and various intersessional negotiations. There is a youth constituency within the UNFCCC called YOUNGO that federates youth NGOs present at the negotiations and liaises with the UNFCCC Secretariat. For example, young people are granted some speaking time during opening and closing ceremonies of the conferences. This is important in terms of representation, but you can of course doubt the concrete impact of a 2-minute speech in the plenary, where a passionate youth representative urges the delegates to think about future generations during the negotiations. As if they did not know that we would like them please not to let us continue ruining our planet! (We also try to tell them that, by the way, through a lot of short and punchy "actions" during the conference, chanting, carrying banners and trying to attract the negotiators' attention in order to inspire a sense of urgency.)

In the end, however, we will have to ask ourselves whether we really want to rely on this slow multilateral process when it comes to the future of our planet. Certainly governmental decisions and planning processes play a role when it comes to decisions about energy policies and infrastructure investments. Yet, there is much more to climate protection than planting a few windmills here and there. Our current consumption patterns in Western countries are unsustainable, and many of us know that. Taking climate change seriously implies asking ourselves what goods we really need, and how far we really have to travel. Emissions are not something abstract out there. They are the consequence of our consumption choices. Hence, looking to UN conferences as the only source of solutions, and blaming continuously rising emissions on politicians (preferably those of other countries) is only half the story. If as young people we want to see change, we will have to push for it on a political level, certainly, but we will also have to follow through with it on a personal level.

Last modified on Sunday, 13 April 2014 11:39

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