Negotiations at COP26

by Maizey MabrySmith 

I’ve always been fascinated by the legal side of global affairs. That’s why, upon arrival at the United Nations summit on climate change (COP26), my primary goal was to observe a negotiation. On Wednesday, I happened to stumble upon one of the rare negotiations that allowed non-party observers. I entered a small room with a large rectangular table and realized I was among a sea of delegates, each one prepared with their respective country’s name tag displayed in front of them. With the Chilean delegate to my left, and the UNFCCC Secretariat to my right, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

The two hours that followed were simultaneously the most monotonous yet captivating I’ve experienced at COP. Clearly a continuation of lengthy negotiations prior, this discussion hit the ground running–so much so that it took me the first hour to understand what exactly was being negotiated.

As it turns out, this session intended to revise the composition and purpose of the Advisory Board to the Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN), the leaders in technology transfer appointed by the UNFCCC. The negotiation centered around one overarching goal: to improve the efficiency of the CTCN Advisory Board without jeopardizing the equitable participation of some members. It became evident that the achievement of this goal was to be determined by two focal issues: 1) the addition of two new government representatives to the Advisory Board, and 2) the inclusion of three NGO constituencies representing womxn (WGC), youth (YOUNGO), and indigenous peoples (IPO).

Both issues addressed a fundamental question: how many members is too many? Widespread support for the inclusion of the NGO voices appeared to be halted by multiple delegates. One such example is a comment from the Saudi Arabian representative who referenced a commonly adopted rule of management science to argue that the size of the Advisory Board shall not exceed the “ideal” number of twenty-two members. More obstacles were erected when the delegate from the Republic of Korea proposed that one representative could be appointed to speak for all three NGO applicants, claiming that the opinions of womxn, youth, and indigenous peoples appeared similar enough in character. China echoed this sentiment, but fortunately both were met with strong opposition from Mexico’s delegation. As discussions continued, the European Union, the United States, and Chile joined Mexico to identify themselves as strong proponents of prioritizing inclusivity over efficiency, if necessary in decisions to expand the size of the Advisory Board.

Due to the length of discussion, the negotiations never reached a consensus on the proposed amendments to the Constitution within the allotted time. The delegates were urged to meet later that night and swiftly reach a decision in the spirit of compromise. I returned the next morning expecting more of the same. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a consensus had been reached during the night. Three NGO representatives were welcomed onto the Advisory Board and two additional members were added without explicit plans to remove existing seats. I left with a strong sense of accomplishment despite my negligible role in the outcome.

One key takeaway from my observation of this session was the level of technical, language-oriented attention to detail. The addition or deletion of a single word was subject to a full discussion, requiring a complete consensus before proceeding. Such a commitment to precision in language is both fascinating and slightly humbling, as I often find myself frustrated by a lack of urgency in global efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Another takeaway was the presence of obvious contention between certain representatives and the NGO applicants. The decision to include a representative from each organization was made under the condition that they would participate as non-voting members of the Advisory Board, with essentially zero influence on the decision-making process. Thus, a lack of support for their mere presence was concerning to say the least.

Ultimately, this experience shattered any prior expectations I had of UN climate negotiations. While I may or may not apply the intricacies of the CTCN Advisory Board constitution to my own career, its lessons will continue to influence me for the rest of my life. In reality, this negotiation was a part of the massive web of the climate crisis, and the effort expended to achieve such a small win served as a simple reminder of this. I have a newfound respect for the delegates working hard to make change in these conversations and truly hope that these sentiments are echoed in the larger issues being tackled at COP.