“Not a Single Town in my Country Doesn’t Have a Wastewater Issue” – Caroline Webb

US COP27 PavilionOne of the most impactful experiences I have had as an observer at COP27 occurred at a small pavilion hosted by an NGO. I wasn’t initially planning on stopping by the pavilion, but a representative saw me walking by and asked if I would be interested in participating in a small group discussion with other COP27 participants. Often, many of the country negotiators (the ones actually writing and reforming policy) are noticeably absent from the bustle of the pavilions and panel discussions. Instead, these spaces are usually filled with activists, organization members, or observers, while negotiators tend to stick to meeting rooms and work offices. I was therefore surprised when I joined the small group– in addition to organization members and observers, I was sitting next to negotiators from France, South Sudan, and Yemen.

The topic of the small group discussion was methane pollution, and began with a 15 minute presentation from two scientists, or “experts” on the topic. One of the scientists presented a slide with graphs depicting the methane production of three groups: developed nations (US, EU, Australia, etc), BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and developing nations. From a strictly geographical standpoint, methane production in the BRICS and developing nations was roughly four times higher than the developed nations, with much of the methane coming from agriculture, energy, and waste management. At first glance, it would be easy to assume that global methane pollution is largely the responsibility of these nations.

After the presentation from the scientists, our group of about 12 people was organized into even smaller groups, where I was paired with the negotiators from South Sudan and Yemen. Both negotiators emphasized early on that the graphs presented earlier were misleading– how could one assign methane pollution to nations purely on location, and not supply chain? How much of the methane produced in the developing nations was a result of the capitalist systems of the developed world? The negotiator from South Sudan went on to claim that even the examples provided by the scientists were not accurate for his nation, where it was rice paddies and not cows that were the most significant sources of methane.

As we continued our conversation, we began to discuss the feasibility of plans to reduce methane production, and thus global warming. The negotiator from South Sudan emphasized that solutions must be considered from a strictly investment returns perspective, and that language such as “pension” rather than “carbon tax” were needed to gain support for change. Not just in the US, but also in nations that face significant poverty and corruption, climate change is often seen as secondary to other social issues. Yet, claimed the representative from Yemen, this does not need to dissuade climate action. He explained that “not a single town in my country doesn’t have a wastewater issue” and elaborated on how solutions like wastewater treatment should be enthusiastically pursued– you don’t have to care about the climate to advocate for cleaner water.

When the few smaller groups gathered back together for a conversation, the discussion moderator said he wanted to hear from those who were the quietest first. Unsurprisingly, he started with me: “What are your thoughts, Caroline?” Sitting in a circle with negotiators and organization representatives from around the world, it was hard to believe that what I could contribute would be important. “My role here, as a student and observer,” I explained, “Is to first and foremost listen.” Particularly when I was placed in a group with negotiators from nations that have little power on the international level, I found it most valuable to learn and listen from their own perspectives and lived experiences.