8 Dec 2023

THE FUTURE OF COPS: WHY LOCAL EXPERIENCES MUST DRIVE GLOBAL AMBITION

By Kirsty Leong (WWF Senior Specialist Global Policy & Advocacy) and Krista Singleton-Cambage (WWF COP31 Global Network Lead)

COP28 is now underway. 

As the world gathers once again to discuss the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to adapt and build resilience to its devastating impacts - assessing the economic and social costs of fires, floods, coastal inundation, nature loss and displaced communities - we are pondering the future of this system. 

How can more diverse voices truly contribute to the decisions made here? How can those currently on the margins of the process - especially Indigenous Peoples - have their experiences and expertise at the centre of this complex web of negotiations, events, launches, commitments and initiatives? How can climate justice be at the heart, such that the outcomes of COPs are truly impactful and inclusive?  

These were some of the issues explored on 1 December, when WWF hosted an overflowing house at our event on The Future of COPs. The dialogue-style event focused on perspectives from governments - including past and aspiring COP Presidencies - Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and the corporate sector in discussing what is working and what needs to be changed. Participants shared their insights as to how the future evolution of the COP process can realise greater inclusion and climate action.

Participants at the WWF hosted event “The Future of COPs.
Participants at the WWF hosted event “The Future of COPs. © WWF

What is a COP, exactly?  

The Conference of the Parties (COP) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change brings together nation-states in a multilateral process to implement what the world has agreed in the Convention and its subsequent agreements, including the Paris Agreement. 

Practically, however, a COP means different things to different people. In fact, there are multiple COPs happening at the same time: one COP for the negotiators, one COP for the politicians, and one for the convergence of people who are there in the surrounding maelstrom of events and meetings. And each one influences the other. 

As WWF International’s President, Dr Adil Najam, discussed at the event, this discussion is the most critical COP. It is the conversation that is the sum of all the COPs - the noise, the narratives from negotiators, the leaders, the carnival, the people, the spectators - the collective voice about the climate emergency. Our priorities, ideas and solutions. The voices who are part of this conversation are important, but whose voices have spaces in this conversation and whose voices lack spaces? Whose voices have justice, and whose lack justice? The voices that are impacted most - are they included? Are the voices of those who can create new and necessary conversation spaces included? As Talei Silibaravi, from the Cagimaiwai Women’s Club in Fiji, prophetically remarked, the roadmaps for future COPs need to listen to communities.  

It's important that all voices are authentically included in the conversation.

We know that COP is a Party-led process. And that the energy and ideas that surround it can eventually permeate into the other negotiation and political spheres of the COP. Finance for the loss and damage being felt by those most vulnerable communities is testament to possibilities and the importance of multilateral processes; persistence and tenacity are now starting to have an outcome that is urgently needed. But these gains are too slow in coming. Inclusion can only be achieved when there is equal access for non-state actors to have a voice in decision-making processes. 

At The Future of COPs event, some ideas were touted. From simple things, like ensuring that meeting rooms are big enough to have space for observers, to bigger ticket items: Could we change COP Rules of Procedure? How can we consolidate the number of agenda items and themes so that non-state actors can more effectively engage on key issues? How can all voices be translated into agenda and discussion items? How can we strengthen the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform so that the experiences of communities are effectively integrated? Could Indigenous Peoples from all over the world host a pre-COP to inform the next COP? How can non-state actors be better included in key moments and presidency initiatives between COPs?

The conversations will continue.  

As the discussions at the event wrapped up, what was clear was that we needed to challenge the process and the norms. Those most impacted by climate change need to see real action - and be in the driving seat of defining the scope of that action - and non-state actors need to move from the margins into the central decision-making processes. The economic, political, environmental and social imperative of climate change all need to be considered together, and the COPs process needs to recognise that different actors have expertise in these different sectors and give a voice to those perspectives.  

As COPs continue to expand in scope, membership and issues covered, new ways of doing things must be found. This will take leadership that reflects not just the future of COPs but truly considers all human experiences in reducing the sources and effects of climate change.