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Climate Experts Say COP26 Negotiations Are Unfair To Countries Most At Risk

Climate Experts Say COP26 Negotiations Are Unfair To Countries Most At Risk
5 min read

Leading experts on climate change have raised questions over whether the COP26 Climate Summit, which is drawing to a close in Glasgow this weekend, is structurally fair to all participants despite every country involved being impacted by issues discussed.

“The UNFCCC contains 197 countries, all of which are represented at COP26. However, the size of each delegation varies, and not always due to the size of the country,” Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science at University College London and author of the book ‘How to Save Our Planet’, told PoliticsHome. 

“What is needed is a much bigger financial support for least developed countries so they can send more comprehensive delegations.”  

The negotiating process at the summit aims to produce a final text of COP26, which will be informative of domestic and international climate policy for years to come. 

While almost every country in the world attends in some form, not all have equal representation or weight, leading to concerns that the negotiating process is inherently unfair and therefore at risk of producing potential solutions which are not just or equitable.  

Negotiations on different aspects of this text happen simultaneously and can last for a very long time, frequently over-running. In previous COPs this has meant many important decisions were made after the scheduled conference had ended. This left countries with fewer delegates unable to partake in all the negotiations, with no means of virtual voting or participation. 

“This wasn’t a problem for the richer nations who just extended their stays, but it meant poorer countries, who couldn’t easily extend hotels or visas, had left by this point. This is simply not fair,” David Hope-Jones, Chief Executive of the Scotland-Malawi Partnership, told PoliticsHome. 

Smaller countries like Malawi have found it especially challenging to engage, according to the Scotland-Malawi Partnership, a group which aims to foster links between the two countries. Malawi has a key role at COP26 as chair of both the UN Least Developed Countries group, and Southern African Development Community.  

“Malawi simply does not have enough technical negotiators to be present in all the key meetings,” Hope-Jones continued.  

While information on the size of negotiating teams attending COP26 has yet to be published, it is expected to follow a similar pattern to past COP summits where there was a clear asymmetry in negotiating size to the benefit of the higher emitting nations of the word. 

At the pivotal COP21 conference in 2015 – where the Paris Agreement was forged – Russia and China had over 300 delegates each, the US and EU had 124 and 128 negotiators respectively. The Maldives and Jamaica – two island nations on the forefront of the climate emergency – were able to send just 23 and 12.  

The Covid crisis, which delayed the Glasgow summit by a year, has added a new obstacle to participation that did not exist in previous COPs. A grouping of more than 1,500 environmental organisations called in September for the conference to be delayed because the pandemic had made access to the talks unequal for countries still struggling to access vaccines. 

In April, Swedish climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg warned that she would not go to Glasgow if inequitable vaccine distribution meant everyone could not attend in the same terms, although Thunberg did attend the conference in the end. 

Mark Brown, the prime minister of the Cook Islands, said he had not come to Glasgow because travel restrictions in New Zealand meant he could have been prevented from returning to his country for some time afterward. He also said he was surprised there was no virtual voting at the event. 

“For a very important meeting which heavily impacts Pacific countries, to be denied a voice unless we are there in person is verging on hypocrisy,” Brown told Radio New Zealand earlier this month.  RNZ reported that only three leaders of Pacific nations – Fiji, Tuvalu, and Palau – attended COP26, but 11 others were forced to stay home due to Covid restrictions. 

The Cabinet Office said the government had worked with partners, including the UN and Scottish government, to ensure an inclusive, accessible, and safe summit in Glasgow, including supporting delegates with Covid measures. Accredited delegates who are unable to access proceedings could watch remotely, but as in all previous COPs, negotiations are done in person, it said. 

“There are no restrictions on the numbers in a country's delegation at COP26,” a Cabinet Office spokesperson said. “The UN has a subsistence fund to support smaller nations with the costs of attending COPs.” 

However, there are limits to the UN financial support, called the Trust Fund for Participation in the UNFCCC. It provides support for two delegates from each eligible party plus a third delegate from each of the least developed countries and each small island developing state to participate in a two-week session.  

Experts said that given the unequal size and financial power of the delegations, it remained an open question whether COP26 could produce an agreement that was both intra and inter-generationally fair.  

“The history of climate negotiations, though, shows us that this is exceedingly unlikely to happen, and one important reason for this is the absence of fair procedure,” Dr Alex McLaughlin, postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge told PoliticsHome.   

The UNFCCC has been approached for comment.

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