COP26

[OPINION] Our experience in the Glasgow climate conference

Tony La Viña, Joy Reyes, Tonichi Regalado
[OPINION] Our experience in the Glasgow climate conference
As always, the real work lies outside of COP. It lies in government policies created after the fortnight of negotiations, and the projects and plans implemented post-COP.

Two weeks since the release of what is now known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, or the newest climate document entered into by the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during the Conference of Parties 26 (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, those who attended the conference still reel over what happened there. 

First-time delegates like those of us from the Manila Observatory noted being overloaded with information but ultimately having left the conference feeling that the pact could have done much more to address the climate crisis, while veteran attendees noted how different this COP was compared to previous ones, the latest of which was COP25 in Madrid, Spain, in 2019.

The pandemic as elephant in room

In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNFCCC secretariat and the COP presidency made significant changes with regard to attendance and participation in the COP. 

While these efforts have been lauded for their attempts to create what has been initially dubbed the “most inclusive COP ever,” valid concerns have also been brought to the limelight, particularly with regard to vaccine inequality which led to the palpable lack of representation from participants hailing from the Global South. 

This, in connection with the exorbitant apartment prices and the expensive standard of living in Scotland, coupled with the already difficult process of obtaining visas, puts into question the veracity of whether this year’s COP truly lived up to its promise. 

The wide discrepancies in vaccine distribution made it extremely difficult for countries in the Global South to fully participate in the conference, and while the UK government offered jabs to delegates who wished to attend, there were two hurdles to face: first, it required early confirmation of attendance to the conference, which many participants could not do given the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic; and second, vaccinating delegates did not mean vaccinating entire citizens. 

Due to the vaccine inequality, many participants from the Global South were unable to attend the COP, which highlighted not just the reality of lack of access to vaccines, but put into question the equality of participation in the conference itself.

Aside from the four members of the Manila Observatory delegation that attended Glasgow, several colleagues also participated virtually. As in our experience in the virtual negotiations in June, this was a limited, and in the end, unsatisfactory, experience.

Vaccine inequality and climate inequality

Amidst the unequal rollout of vaccines lies another insidious reality: lack of representation. Countries in the Global South, in addition to having received fewer vaccines, also face the brunt of the harshest effect of climate change. 

The Philippines alone, which, despite its steady increase of vaccine doses in the latter half of 2021 – both donated and bought – faced a slow rollout during the first half of the year. It faced natural disasters, such as typhoons, floods, and droughts, which have increased in both frequency and intensity. 

In the context of the COP, this means that countries in the Global South, especially the Pacific Island states, historically the least emitters of greenhouse gases and the most climate-vulnerable nations, should have been given a bigger platform to air out their concerns and calls. Instead, because of the difficulty in procuring vaccines, many weren’t even able to attend in person. Despite this, some individuals stood out in how they showed the urgency of heeding the call of developing island nations. The foreign minister of Tuvalu, for instance, Simon Kofe, delivered an address while standing knee-deep in the sea to emphasize and raise awareness about the urgency of rising sea levels.

Most inclusive COP ever?

To ensure the protection of the delegates during the conference in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the COP presidency enforced two new rules: daily at-home lateral flow testing provided for by the UK government, and the creation of the COP26 Platform, a website that allowed for hybrid attendance in the COP. 

For the latter, registered delegates could take part in all events their badges gave them access to, without having to be physically present at the plenary halls. Through it (and also through YouTube), the side events were also live streamed, which gave not just delegates, but also interested individuals and groups who may not be registered, the opportunity to watch the events.

While we commend these steps taken by the UNFCCC secretariat and the COP presidency, it still left many individuals, especially from observer organizations, dismayed.

First, it was extremely difficult to enter the plenary halls. With social distancing in place, an observer would have to contend with hundreds of other observers just to be able to enter plenary halls and participate in discussions, much less be able to intervene. 

Meeting rooms, which had a capacity limit, would often have throngs of people lined up even after the events had started. People who would have wanted to personally take part in the discussions were left instead to watch the events from their tablets or phones. The biggest side event room was able to handle only 144 people, vis-à-vis the thousands that traversed the halls of the conference venue. When President Obama spoke during the second Monday of COP, only 20 tickets were issued to 1,600 registered NGO members.

Whenever the venue would reach full capacity, registered delegates would receive an alert in their COP26 Platform accounts, telling them to watch the events through the Platform instead of participating in-person at the Blue Zone, where the events were held. 

While the initiative to create a hybrid COP was a welcome one, it also dismayed many individuals, particularly first-timers, who thought they would experience first-hand how negotiations take place, but were left at the mercy of their internet connection. Moreover, because of the room capacity, it was doubly difficult, particularly for observer NGOs, to intervene during discussions, and to have their points considered.

Even during the presidency events where relevant declarations were made, tables for independent NGOs and research were scarce. Most observer delegates were consigned to chairs at the back of the room –some even on the floor. 

This, therefore, led to many individuals, especially from the Global South, feeling like their voices were not included. Many youth activists complained that in comparison to COP25 in Madrid, where they actually observed the meetings, in this COP they were instead made to wait outside and listen to the discussions online, a far cry from the promise of inclusivity.

Speaking personally, we noticed that because of vaccine and cost issues, the attendees were overwhelmingly white. It was not surprising to be one of few brown/Asian individuals in a room where a meeting was taking place, or a side event was being held.

Herein lies hope

Despite these, however, hope remains. Outside the plenary halls of the Blue Zone, youth activists continued to call for action, indigenous peoples dressed in their traditional garb continued to speak up about their conditions. During the Fridays for Future youth strikes and the Global Day of Climate Action, peoples from all races, colors, ages, and genders came together to call for climate justice.

There have been wins in the document as well – such as the discussion on deforestation and the mention of fossil fuels (though the phraseology “phase down” is still a contentious issue, and for good reason). Unfortunately, climate finance and the issue of loss and damage leave much to be desired.

However, as always, the real work lies outside of COP. It lies in government policies created after the fortnight of negotiations, and the projects and plans implemented post-COP. It lies in grassroot movements and collaboration among stakeholders. It is found in the fostering of solidarity locally and internationally. It is in listening to environmental and land defenders, and indigenous peoples, the youth, climate activists, scientists – those most affected by an increasingly warming world. Therein lies our hope as we write in our next article. – Rappler.com