How the digital divide threatens the success and legitimacy of the COP26 talks

The digital divide is in danger of stifling the voices of those representing some of the communities likely to be worst affected by the impacts of climate change.

Matt Wright's picture
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8 October 2021

Matt Wright is IIED's web planning and content manager

A man on the phone outside a small orange hut. A nearby sign advertises prices for mobile phone air-time.

A small phone shack sells handsets, SIM cards and air-time in the Central African Republic (Photo: Simon Davis/DFID, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the run-up to this year’s vitally important UN climate summit (COP26), the creation of a Twitter account that provides mocking commentary of the technological issues being experienced by negotiators might not immediately seem significant.

After all, during the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve all become more reliant on digital technology to communicate and collaborate, as well as more accustomed to the various issues that arise. “I can’t hear you, you’re on mute” or someone cutting off mid-sentence when their internet drops out have become every bit as commonplace during meetings as a mobile phone going off or struggling to get a presentation working.

In the circumstances, a bit of light relief can go a long way. “Apologies for my dog snoring in the background” was one memorable contribution to the discussions at the pre-COP26 sessions of the subsidiary bodies, which took place completely online in early June.

But the snarky comments and humorous gifs also shine a light on a bigger issue. If a key purpose of COP26 is for all nations to come to a fair and equitable agreement on increasing the ambition to tackle climate change, how is that possible when negotiators from the least developed countries (LDCs) have less opportunity to get their points across whether in person or online?

Transferring inequality online

There was already huge inequality in the UNFCCC process when climate diplomacy was carried out at in-person meetings, with the world’s poorest countries struggling to make their voices heard in the power games of international relations. From the number of the negotiators available to the facilities with which they are provided, blocs such as the LDC Group are constantly battling against the odds.

In parallel, there is a huge digital divide between countries whose populations largely benefit from internet that is widely accessible, cheap and reliable, and those where that’s far from the case. Having to conduct negotiations remotely has therefore provided a new and unfair set of challenges that have greater consequences for LDCs. 

It’s these climate-vulnerable nations that are already experiencing the greatest impacts of climate change despite having done the least to cause it. And as the British Red Cross’ Mary Friel pointed out for the International Broadcasting Trust recently, they are also the countries that have the most experience and knowledge in how to respond.

Some efforts have been made to ease the problems. Technical support and training has been provided by the UNFCCC, and time zones rotated to ensure no particular region was disadvantaged. But technical problems, connectivity issues and power failures have persisted, causing many interruptions and delays. 

The reality of negotiating from an internet café

These issues are not just limited to the availability, reliability or speed of connection to the internet. For example, there are huge disparities in the cost of data from country to country, even within the global South (the average cost of 1GB of mobile data in Malawi is $US27.41 compared to $8 in the US and $1.05 in Kenya), and the same is true of equipment: someone earning the average salary in Sierra Leone would have to save for six months before being able to afford a smartphone.

“The problem is that in some countries, internet is still an expensive luxury” – Alpha Kaloga, climate negotiator, Guinea

Climate negotiators without the internet at home have reported that they can only join online meetings from other facilities, from offices to internet cafés. When meetings take place at night or run late, they are forced to leave the meeting to travel home safely before dusk.

And these problems assume the internet is even available. Governments, particularly in Africa and Asia, have increasingly shut down the internet to citizens, citing reasons ranging from a need to ensure national security and safety to trying to prevent students from cheating during exams. This is often done without warning: “Internet is not water, internet is not air,” said Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed in 2019.

So while negotiators from all countries have experienced issues at some point, it’s clear that delegates from the least resourced and most climate-vulnerable countries have been disproportionately affected. 

Travel restrictions are likely to increase online focus

The additional inequalities posed by technological access to the negotiations is one of the reasons COP president Alok Sharma committed in May to an ‘in-person’ COP26. But with little let-up in the pandemic, plus unfulfilled vaccine promises and expensive and lengthy quarantines for delegates from some countries, pressure is mounting for delegates to be able to join negotiations virtually.

These issues affect anyone attending COP26, including journalists. For example, border closures in Tuvalu and Kiribati mean no one is able to travel, while anyone from Bangladesh, Laos or Cambodia faces 14 days of quarantine at their own expense on their return.

Alongside the digital divide, this means those communities on the frontline of the worst climate impacts are in danger of not having equal representation at the negotiations, fewer media to report back on what is decided on issues that matter to them, plus difficulty following the summit remotely themselves. 

So despite the humorous coverage of negotiators struggling to prepare and take their place at the most important climate conference of the year, it really is no laughing matter.

This blog was originally published on the International Broadcasting Trust website.

About the author

Matt Wright (matthew.wright@iied.org) is web planning and content manager in IIED's Communications Group

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