COP25 policy and activism: we deserved better

In the first of a new series considering the important role social movements play in prompting climate action and protecting nature, Sejal Patel reflects on COP25, both as a researcher seeking to influence policy and as an individual passionate about climate justice.

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13 January 2020

Sejal Patel is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group

People protesting

Thousands of people called for more action on climate change at a march in Madrid organised by activist group Fridays for Future (Photo: Malopez 21 via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

2019 saw people mobilising to demand climate action at an unprecedented scale. But their hopes were badly bruised at December’s UN climate change meeting.

Activists, grassroots organisations and other civil society actors, particularly in the global South, were short-changed before talks even began. The last-minute venue move from Chile to Spain disproportionately affected groups with limited budgets and capacity.

Although the move itself was prompted by people power (Chile’s inequality protests), alarm bells rang as the change was announced. Could there now be adequate representation of Southern and grassroots groups?

Despite this, the decision not to cancel the talks was a positive sign, amounting to international recognition of urgency.

So why was it that the big takeaway of the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) in Madrid was the governmental failures to move past entrenched positions and to listen and respond adequately to their people?

Urgent activism, sluggish policy

I went to COP25 as both a climate policy specialist, seeking just and equitable solutions, and as a young activist, supporting public movements that demand bigger and better climate action from government.

The climate movement is proving a powerful force for change. COP attendees Greta Thunberg and Helena Siren Gualinga are part of a global wave of young people effortlessly cutting through bureaucratic jargon to present a grounded case for urgent science-based action.

They point out the irony: the global situation is deteriorating swiftly; yet policy processes are continuing to operate at a ‘business as usual’ rate. Our systems need to adapt, because the planet isn’t waiting around.

This message has been clear all year. And so the outcomes, or more accurately lack thereof, was hugely disappointing.

Silenced and shut out

As COP25 got under way, I was not alone in being shocked by the lack of space given to civil society. And in the second week of negotiations, two significant actions illustrated our frustrations.

Fridays For Future activists occupied the plenary hall. This international group of young people stood "in solidarity with indigenous people, people from the global South, and people already suffering from the climate crisis".

Security soon cleared the hall, and it seemed the climate justice message too was dismissed. Or perhaps, entangled in the process, negotiators couldn’t see how to harness or support the youth message.

Later that day, hundreds of civil society and indigenous representatives created a cacerolazo outside a ministerial meeting, calling for greater ambition and real action from the negotiations.

This time, security banned all civil society attendees from re-entering the venue for the rest of the day, regardless of whether they had participated. Undeterred, the action continued outside.

This second protest took place despite an authorisation request by Climate Action Network-International being refused. Going ahead regardless indicated the depth of feeling that civil society voices were suffering overt exclusion.

By speaking to climate justice, it seems to me that youth and civil society actors, alongside the least developed countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), were among a minority of voices that resonated both inside and outside the process.

Sleepless nights

Meanwhile, Parties were fatigued as negotiations ran into overtime. It shouldn’t have to come down to the wire like this. All Parties knew in advance which issues were on the table for discussion; consensus should have been able to be reached more efficiently.

The problem wasn’t poor process or lack of time. Slow progress was largely down to avoidable political stalemates.

It was frustrating to sit alongside the LDCs and watch as regressive, big polluting countries sought to have their cake and eat it. Equity is an inherent aspect of effective climate policy, yet some parties seemed more concerned with getting the best deal or blocking others from reaching agreement.

Motivating better negotiations

People outside the COP process may assume that experts in technical climate and environment issues gather and strive to agree the best pathways for our future wellbeing.

In reality, expert guidance and science are just a backdrop. The negotiations are political: delegations represent national views and vested interests. If negotiators focus on maintaining an established stance over seeking a shared path, the COP fails before the negotiations begin.

However, this does create an opportunity to achieve better COP outcomes by changing political attitudes at home.

We must demand our countries enter climate change negotiations with a holistic understanding of impacts and benefits; particularly with an awareness that solving the crisis will be of advantage to every country, across socio-economic and development realms.

Tentative hopes for the ‘year of action’

This year, countries will be formally held to account on their pledges under the Paris Agreement. We will find out who is taking the process seriously and who to hold to account.

Failures in Madrid pass a number of unresolved agenda items to COP26, including the system for carbon markets and heightened ambitions on finance and support for developing countries.

In December, the divide between the big polluters and the rest of the world was stark. But as floods cover Jakarta in Indonesia, wildfires rage across Australia and climate activists rally, those countries have every reason to step up.

Despite the sidelining at COP25, civil society’s engagement and mobilisation has never been greater. Many new voices have risen to fight for climate justice alongside vulnerable groups, indigenous communities, the LDCs and SIDS.

And it is proving effective. In 2019, public pressure saw the UK government declare a climate emergency and the Danish government embed climate change action at the heart of its policy, among other successes.

This is what helps me walk into this important new year with the hope that governments will wake up and heed the call for climate action and justice by COP26.

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