Cap, But no Trade for Bella Center Passes; Meanwhile, Conference's Legacy of Transparency in Danger

by David Hunter

Environmental negotiations have long set the standard for transparency and participation. The relationship between environmental organizations (of all kinds) and the negotiators has always been one tempered by a shared vision that the negotiations would succeed (in contrast to negotiations at the WTO or World Bank where “success” for many activists was often defined as the failure of the negotiations). The history of transparency and participation in environmental negotiations is taking a huge hit this week in Copenhagen—not because of a loss of a shared vision of success—but because the sheer scale of these negotiations has led to increasing security and a tightening noose around non-governmental participation.

It started on Monday morning. Literally thousands of participants arrived to pick up their registration badges and found instead large, slow-moving lines. In the end, some people stood in the cold for 10 hours and never got into the Bella Center, the enormous complex holding the negotiations. Even participants who had received their credentials earlier in the week had to stand in the line for an hour or so. Greenpeace, in what has to be one of their most appreciated actions of all time, served free coffee to the cold people standing in line—until the police cordoned them off saying “we’ll now decide who gets coffee here.” Some advocates for veganism passed out material while dressed in warm-looking chicken suits. At least the restrictions were democratic; the head of the Natural Resources Defense Council stood next to a law student from American University Washington College of Law, and both waited in vain.

By Tuesday, the United Nations had instituted their “secondary badge” system. Seven thousand badges were released to non-governmental organizations. Most organizations received passes for about one-third of their delegations. Despite the Secretariat’s presumed love of cap-and-trade for emissions, the badges are not transferable between organizations. The Secretariat was apparently concerned that compliance would be more difficult if they allowed trading, and organizations would sneak more than one person in with each badge. Apparently, monitoring against leakage is harder for secondary passes than it is with the offset emissions market. If you have too many passes, said the Secretariat, you can turn them back and they will reallocate them. The plan was to tighten participation further over the week as only 1,000 passes would be allowed on Thursday and only 90 observers on Friday, though that number was apparently raised to 500. No one knows how these later passes will be allocated. (Perhaps they should try an auction).

Nonetheless, people were in surprisingly good spirits as they waited in that endless line to nowhere on Monday. That hope began to dissipate on Tuesday. Now you needed both your pictured credential and a secondary badge to get in. Lines to initially register again took from four to five hours. The same people who stood the first day for eight hours stood for five more on Tuesday.

As their lines began to move outside, however, the negotiations ground to a virtual halt inside. The late session Tuesday of the Ad hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) was supposed to report back beginning early in the evening. However, this would begin around midnight when the Chair of the AWG-LCA released a draft text to the participants. The draft text elicited a “discomfort” from the United States, which essentially led to an almost five-hour delay in the session. When the participants returned just after 4:30 am Wednesday morning, it became clear that the United States' major stated objection was the framing of developed country commitments. The only option presented looked just like the economy-wide commitments of the Kyoto Protocol. The United States prefers a bottom-up approach building on each country’s commitments, which was not included as an option. In the end, at 6:55 in the morning, the AWG-LCA closed with little progress and no consensus on much of the text. This will now be sent, incomplete, to the High Level Session, where an informal negotiating group will likely be established to try to conclude a deal.

This is not to say that no progress is being made. Fairly detailed texts were released this morning in a variety of areas, particularly for the treatment of reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD). Negotiations over forests reflect a general mutuality between the North and the South. The South wants financial support for the forest sector and the North wants the credits for the cheap offsets provided by establishing a REDD program. Under the deft handling by the chair, Tony LaVina, the REDD text has progressed far and seems to have significant support. To be sure, the text does not substantially alleviate the overall greenwashing effect of REDD, but there is some minimal language “affirming” support for indigenous rights, community participation, and conservation of biological diversity. Progress has also been made on less controversial aspects of capacity building and technology support. But as most of these documents state on their cover, if there is no overall agreement then there is no agreement on any of the parts.

If an agreement is made in Copenhagen, few non-governmental people will be there to see it. New registration for NGOs has been closed down completely. Even NGO observers who were credentialed and had secondary badges were denied entrance by noon on Wednesday. All representatives of Friends of the Earth International were escorted from the building, after conducting some flash protests inside the Bella Center. Civil society staged a large walk-out mid-morning to protest the lack of access for observers. (Enviros are now seeking language in the negotiations for the secretariat to support civil society participation including a grievance mechanism to prevent this year's situation from happening again).

To an extent, one can understand the restrictions here. By some accounts, more than 45,000 people have registered for this meeting. The importance and breadth of climate negotiations has created a massive global community of interested stakeholders, all of whom wanted to converge at the culmination of so many years of work. When it became clear that Heads of State, including President Obama, would be attending, the scale of the proceedings ballooned beyond what was anticipated by the U.N. and the Danes. Both are pointing the fingers at each other; Danish security forces, at least until today’s crackdown, have been very polite toward the people in the queues, while claiming the delays were all the U.N.’s fault. Whoever is to blame, the pending arrival of high level officials and their supporting delegations stressed security and logistics—and transparency, access, and public participation are paying the price.

Still, if the world’s leaders can’t find common ground, the only hope in Hopenhagen may ultimately be that silent but committed queue of people, waiting for two days under gray, leaden skies to pressure the diplomats. I suspect they will keep showing up until those diplomats listen….or until, like WTO negotiations, the climate negotiations are removed to places like Singapore or Qatar, where the U.N. could hide behind less permissive hosts who will restrain public participation from the outset.



© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform