Robin Stott: How to avoid an 18th COP out

Three separate images from the recent 17th conference of the parties (COP 17)  in Durban, where I was as an observer on behalf of the climate and health council, frame my view of how we can rescue the COP process from its terminal decline. We might then have a better chance of rescuing the globe from a three degree increase in temperature, with the 70% predicted species extinction and the unimaginable human catastrophe that this will produce.

The first is the widely distributed photo of The UNFCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres, the EU chief negotiator Connie Hedegaard, and the South African chair of the conference Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, turning the tables in the last few hours of negotiations. The caption could well have been “It takes the efforts of three women to rescue some semblance of progress from the negotiations, and to avert catastrophe.”

The second is the only really impassioned speech heard in the delegates chamber, which was by a young Canadian woman Anjali Appadurai. Responding to the wild applause she got, the session chairman said “if only we had heard her at the start of the conference.” 

The third is the only occasion where the delegates really took notice of NGO’s. This was when the NGO civil society grouping, particularly the younger members, behaved uncivilly, and with a non violent direct action occupied the hall. All three of these episodes were warmly applauded by the vast majority of delegates, with the obvious exceptions.

If women and young people can make such a difference, we should surely enhance their presence at the COP negotiations. The previous negotiators, 80 % of whom are elderly males, have taken 17 COPs to get nowhere, judging by the fact that since 1990, the benchmark year for emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol, world emissions have risen—not fallen—by 49%, with average increases of 3.1% per year for each and every one of the last ten years, and with emissions rising by nearly 6% last year alone.

The facts are known to all. There are examples of fair shares solutions, modified to take into account historic responsibilities, readily available, so the negotiators bear the main responsibility for failure.

Why not refresh the process by involving those who have shown they can make a difference? At least half the delegates at the next COP (COP 18) should be women, a quarter under the age of 30, and only by exception should any male over the age of 50 be present. As for NGO involvement, non violent direct action is clearly the way forward. One possibility is that the NGO community boycott the next COP if its composition remains unchanged, and runs a parallel virtual session looking at the best options for a fair shares solution.

Business as usual is not an option, but the present negotiators seem incapable of conducting anything other than business as usual. The best examples of a new sort of business at COP came from women and the young. Let’s give them a chance to show that imaginative and creative dialogue can break deadlocks. Let’s give them a chance to strike the fair shares deal which is essential to tackle climate change, and so improve the health and wellbeing of all. Let’s give them a chance to show that “What’s good for the climate is good for health.”

Robin Stott is the co-chair of the Climate and Health Council.