Procedural justice and (in-) equitable participation in climate negotiations

Carola Klöck (CERI, Sciences Po Paris), Christian Baatz and Nils Wendler (University of Kiel)

In a few weeks’ time, COP28 – the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC – will take place in Dubai. As every year, the world meets to discuss ways to address global climate change and reach the Convention’s objective of preventing “dangerous” human interference with the climate system.

The Dubai meeting is likely to again break a record in participation: 70,000 participants are expected to attend COP28 according to the host – this beats even the latest COPs, which attracted just under 40,000 (COP26 in Glasgow, 2021) and 50,000 participants (COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, 2022), respectively. The recent COPs have thus had more attendees than even COP21 in Paris, which drew 30,300 participants. Indeed, over the almost 30 years of COPs, these events have been growing tremendously to become true “mega-conferences”.

Yet, only a minority of these thousands of participants are in fact climate negotiators and state representatives: In Glasgow, around 16,000 participants had Party badges (including ca. 6,000 so-called Party overflow), while in Sharm El-Sheikh, the number was just over 21,000 (of which 9,500 Party overflow), according to the official lists of participants.

Regardless of the overall trend to send ever more delegates, we not that the number of delegates individual states send varies enormously: while some states have hundreds of people on site, others struggle to send anyone at all. Indeed, over the past COPs, we find that some countries have only a handful delegates, or are even completely absent. For example, the Glasgow COP, held in a pandemic context saw particularly low participation rate from some Pacific island countries, who in part had still closed borders or strict quarantine rules. But even under normal circumstances, a diverse set of countries are severely underrepresented, including Venezuela and Slovenia (3 delegates each at COP23); Brunei Darussalam and Eritrea (3 delegates each at COP24); or St. Vincent and the Grenadines (absent in Sharm El-Sheikh). If we consider COPs since the 2015 Paris Agreement, we note that around eleven countries at each meeting had delegations of less than five people, and around three countries were completely absent (see the Figure below). Around 40 countries had up to 15 delegates, which may seem not that small, but could still be too small to fully take part in the process.

Figure 1: frequencies of delegation size for COP 21 to COP27. Based on lists of participants

Of course, many of the countries with the smallest delegations have only very small populations, are poor, and/or are politically fragile and ridden by internal conflict or even violence. But particularly when we consider slightly larger delegations of up to 15 people, a considerable number of countries is concerned. And, if we take the format of intergovernmental negotiations among formally equal Parties seriously, we would want all Parties to be present, and to be able to meaningfully engage in the process. This is often referred to as procedural justice: the ”ability to participate in and influence decision-making processes” (Suiseeya 2020).

A delegation of three or five people will in fact struggle to participate, let alone influence climate decision-making. Just as the number of COP attendees has grown, so has the climate agenda and the number of meetings taking place in parallel. For example, Carter (2018: 84) counts “at least 17 meetings under five bodies […] taking place [simultaneously]” for COP20, almost ten years ago. And this count does not even include all the events “on the side”, notably in the ever-larger pavilion space, a sort of exhibition space with hundreds of roundtable discussions and events. Clearly, small delegations are at a disadvantage.

To some extent, coalitions – working with like-minded countries – help overcome size limitations, and small states have become particularly good at forming and working through coalitions. At the same time, coalitions by definition advance compromise positions, which may be rather far from a member country’s national priority. In addition, we see similar inequalities in delegation size and diplomatic capacity within different coalitions. Coalitions thus help but do not solve the procedural justice problem.   

What else could be done to make climate negotiations more procedurally just? How many delegates would a country need to be able to fully engage? It is clearly not possible to indicate what a sufficiently large delegation would look like. We nevertheless have two suggestions of improving the climate process:

First, the UNFCCC already provides funding, through its Trust Fund, to enable two delegates from each eligible country to attend, and three for least developed countries and small island developing states. Many Parties would not be able to attend negotiations, in particular subsidiary meetings, at all without this support (Falzon 2021) But to really enable all Parties “to participate fully and effectively”, as the Trust Fund promises, it would need to significantly increase its support and pay for more delegates to come to COPs and other negotiation meetings.

Second, the sheer size and complexity of the COPs have come under critique. Critics wonder to what extent these huge events are really worth “the effort, money, and carbon footprint” (Lebădă & Chasek 2021). Already ten years ago, scholars called the UNFCCC process to “streamline its work programme, cut sessions, eliminate overlaps, and delete agenda items” (Vihma & Kulovesi 2013: 251). Several others similarly call for reforming the process. Even if reform is politically difficult, fewer sessions and a reduced agenda could increase the chances of even small delegations to participate effectively in negotiations – and would additionally lower the meetings’ carbon footprint as well as open up opportunities for even smaller states to host the COP, as only few countries have the infrastructure to welcome tens of thousands of people.

Müller et al. (2021) aptly ask “Quo vadis COP?” Clearly, the current trend of ever larger COPs with ever more attendees is not sustainable, and may in fact undermine the credibility and legitimacy of COPs as such, with citizens everywhere wondering about the impact of such carbon-intensive meetings. Reducing overall COP size while increasing the representation of small and poor states, many of whom at the frontlines of climate change, would make the process more just and hopefully also lead to better outcomes – direly needed in the face of the climate crisis.

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