Non-State actors are the new ‘influencers’ in the UN climate process - Hindustan Times
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Non-State actors are the new ‘influencers’ in the UN climate process

ByHindustan Times
Dec 14, 2023 05:57 PM IST

This article is authored by Bahar Dutt, environment journalist and associate professor, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi.

Countries of the world gather every year to try and reach a consensus on how to cut their emissions to prevent catastrophic global warming. While it is the negotiators led by heads of State that have traditionally been central to this process, non-State actors are increasingly becoming the new ‘influencers’ in town.

Plenary session at COP28 in Dubai. (AFP) PREMIUM
Plenary session at COP28 in Dubai. (AFP)

Within the UNFCCC framework, the role of non-State actors is officially recognised as the ‘observers’ representing a broad spectrum of society from indigenous groups to labor unions along with business and industry representatives. As of COP27 in 2022, 3,178 (3,024 Ngos and 154 Igos) are admitted as observers (data sourced from UNFCCC).

In addition to the observers, thousands of other non-State actors too descend on the COP events every year. Increasingly, these non-state actors are playing a bigger role than ever in influencing climate policy.

A case in point are the dialogues around loss and damage. Loss and damage refer to the consequences of the climate crisis that go beyond what people can adapt to, or when options exist but a community doesn’t have the resources to access or utilise them. The most striking progress of COP27 held at Sharm-Al-sheikh was the agreement towards the setting up of a ‘Loss and Damage fund’ which got operationalised in the current COP28 at Dubai with the pledge of nearly $ 475 million.

As W Neil Adger in a paper published in the Scottish Geographical Journal (2023) notes- “the formalisation of elements of climate justice through Loss and Damage is a real and lasting legacy of these COP events”. The progress on Loss and Damage didn’t take place in a vacuum but due to sustained efforts on the part of more than 2,000 civil society groups that campaigned for years for its creation. What began on the sidelines as a quest for climate justice has now finally found its place in the formal text.

Key negotiators in the past have often been dismissive of non-State actors. During the historic Glasgow Summit, as agitators wanted to storm the main venue where the negotiations were being held in the main plenary hall, a negotiator told this writer wryly, “We don’t really care about how many protestors are on the streets of Glasgow. Our concern remains with the exact words of the text and that no red lines are crossed”. The Glasgow summit ended in an impasse. But it marked a first time when the term loss and damage was used at a COP. Civil society can no longer be dismissed as merely holding side events or as non-players in the global call to reduce emissions.

Another positive trend has been at Dubai this time, when 124 countries endorsed the Declaration of Climate and Health. While it wasn’t legally binding, it was the first time the health impacts of the climate crisis took centre-stage in over two decades of climate negotiations.

It would be naïve to assume that all non-State actors are pro-planet. They can include the fossil fuel lobbyists or the business groups that are present in large numbers to ensure their interests are safe guarded. An analysis undertaken by Kick Big Polluters Out (KBPO) coalition this year states that there is a record number of representatives at COP28, Dubai that raises further questions about the fossil fuel industry’s influence over the climate negotiations.

Perhaps the groups that have had the least influence on climate negotiations and deserve a spotlight are those representing biodiversity. In spite of the fact that nearly 18% of all land species in the world may go extinct if global temperatures rise beyond 2 degrees centigrade. Ecologist Abi Vanak with Atree said to this author, “Biodiversity seems to be more or less missing from the climate COP, or it is only mentioned as lip service. Most of the attention is focused on energy transition and carbon”. On being asked how this could improve, Vanak remarks, “I was informed that in previous COPs there was more interaction between CSOs and the negotiations. However, from Glasgow onwards, this has been completely cut off.”

In the coming years, the groundswell for climate action will come from non-State actors. And for a Conference of Parties so obsessed with comas and brackets, non-State actors will keep the momentum going, hopefully towards a better world.

This article is authored by Bahar Dutt, environment journalist and associate professor, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi.

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