18/12/2022 Najib Saab

As soon as the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (COP 27) concluded, preparations for future climate summits were underway, as if the matter was a mere accumulation of conferences. Officials and negotiators, along with fans of conference tourism, began their travel plans to participate in the 28th summit in the UAE, the 29th in some Eastern European country, and the 30th in Latin America or one of the Caribbean islands, which already began presenting their credentials. Ironically, countries that disagree on fair division of climate responsibilities, insist on fair geographical distribution of events among continents. The incoming Brazilian President Lula da Silva’s proposal to host the 30th conference in the Amazon was self-contradictory, as if that sensitive region and its dilapidated forests lacks more devastation, with tens of thousands of climate delegates and holiday makers descending on it.

Negotiations are indispensable on issues of common interest, especially on climate, which involves complex aspects in which environmental considerations overlap with economic and social ones. However, negotiations on urgent issues should not continue endlessly, just as meetings should not turn into rhetoric forums, in which most of the participants have no role in the negotiations, and many use them as an opportunity for recreational tourism, as well as a space for corporate green washing and public relations.

The UN General Assembly approved the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, followed by the first Conference of the Parties (COP 1) in 1995 in Berlin. Significant progress was made over thirty years, but agreement on basic matters has been elusive, because science preceded politics. If nations started seriously acting on the advice of scientists at the first conference in 1995 and agreed on fair sharing of the responsibilities, particularly financing the transformation to low-carbon economy, we would not have reached the 27th conference in Egypt while still disputing the basics, as if all that was achieved during this period was limited to accepting the fact that disastrous climate change had occurred as a result of human activities. However, thirty years was a very long time to get here. This is not to say that COP 27 and what will follow it are useless. But the preceding meetings after COP 1 in 1995 should have been to follow-up on implementation, and making necessary adjustments, rather than indefinitely continuing to discuss the basic questions of how much emissions should be reduced and when, and how do we finance the process.

Had there been the will and the necessary skills to manage the negotiations, that would have been conceivable. For those who do not remember, it is useful to point out that the basic points of the ozone agreement were drawn up at a ministerial conference in Montreal in 1987, and entered into effect when member states held their first meeting (Ozone COP 1) in Helsinki in 1989, followed in 1990 by setting a special fund to finance the elimination of the production and use of ozone-depleting substances by 1997, in conjunction with replacing them with safe materials. While the international community succeeded in implementing the pledges to protect the ozone layer on time, the meetings of the member parties continued once every three years, to review the results in light of scientific developments and to ensure sustained commitment. I wish those leading the climate negotiations today would be inspired by the vision of Dr. Mostafa Kamal Tolba and his diplomatic skills that achieved the ozone agreement in record time, based on the tripod of science, justice and finance.

Among the impediments to climate summits are the large numbers of participants who travel from all corners of the earth, causing huge carbon emissions, which contradicts with the goals of climate action. In many cases, these crowds impede the progress of negotiations and make them lose seriousness. The solution is to limit the number of participants in all categories, and allow hybrid meetings which combine physical and virtual presence. Thus, main negotiators participate in person, as personal face-to-face interaction facilitates agreement, while teams of experts from each country participate remotely, in the plenaries and side meetings, to follow up and provide advice to the heads of delegations and senior negotiators. The same applies to concerned international and regional organizations and non-governmental bodies, especially after quarantine measures and travel restrictions during Covid-19 triggered fast innovations of software for virtual conferences, so that thousands can participate remotely, either as delegates with the right to talk, or just listen, as is the case in conventional conferences. In order not to be accused of preaching theories, I myself participated remotely in the sessions of the Sharm El-Sheikh conference for more than 12 hours a day, in my capacity as head of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) delegation, which allowed me additional time to provide advice to various delegations when necessary.

Reducing physical attendance down to 5,000 people from about 40,000 will not reduce the effectiveness of the conference but rather increase efficiency. Here I recall Dr. Mostafa Kamal Tolba’s advice, based on his successful experience during his 18 years leading the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), that the best results can be achieved in small meetings in which populist stances are absent, provided that the negotiating mediator is fair, so that responsibilities, obligations and gains are distributed among countries and groups according to what they deserve and can offer and capable to achieve.

Climate change cannot be solved in isolation from important issues, foremost among which is the preservation of ecosystems. The danger is that climate negotiations have been garnering all the attention, at the expense of other essential issues. The Conference of the Parties to the Climate Agreement is only one of the regular meetings held by the signatories to dozens of environmental agreements, termed ‘parties’. All of these conferences are called “COP”, which stands for “Conference of the Parties”, while the public perception is that “COP” is limited to climate. Few people have noted that immediately after the climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) held their 19th conference (COP 19) in Panama, and adopted proposals to regulate international trade in more than 500 new animal and plant species- this has been deemed necessary to protect existence of these species in their natural habitats, in addition to preventing the spread of new viruses of animal origin, or the domination of alien animal and plant species over local species.

Tomorrow, the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) will conclude in Montreal, without enjoying wide participation from heads of state, and being overshadowed in the media by World Cup news. Studies have shown that it is largely impossible to stop the rise in temperature rates at 1.5 degrees Celsius without protecting natural systems and restoring the ones already destroyed, especially since the world is threatened with the extinction of more than one million species of animals and plants, due to human activities. These conferences are joined by other environmental conventions, such as trade in hazardous waste and chemicals, regional seas and desertification, and each has its own COP figure.

The time has come for COPs to shift from the trivial to the essential and stop being global rhetoric carnivals, as the world cannot go on counting COPs indefinitely. We do not have the luxury of reaching COP 100, be it for climate, biodiversity, desertification, waste and others, as humans might not be there in 2100 if no resinous action is taken, now.