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COP26: Climate conference inclusion in focus of observer

People in large room sitting at climate conference
Photo: Billy Jones

While many negotiators think the ongoing United Nations’ climate conference COP26 in Glasgow should already be considered successful due to global decisions having been made, Greta Thunberg and other climate activists argue that the summit is primarily a PR event which has excluded many groups from the negotiations. Doctoral student of ethnology at Lund University Billy Jones, is an accredited observer at the meeting and shares his impressions of representation from the inside.

Billy Jones’s primary role at the climate summit is to carry out an ethnographic study of the climate negotiations and to understand how decisions get made, who’s involved, and who’s excluded, which can be related to his PhD studies of ethnology in the Agenda 2030 Graduate School at Lund University.

Billy experienced the first week as optimistic and as the negotiations reach the final stage he sees some marginal wins for the planet and for the most marginalized communities.

“Firstly, it’s a monumental milestone that ‘phasing out fossil fuels’ is even included in the draft text of the agreement, albeit cautiously. Secondly, the insistence on reviewing the national climate plans, so-called NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) annually rather than every 5 years means countries having to review and revise their commitments to reaching net-zero emissions until they get it right – essentially inscribing it in the world’s legal futures”, says Billy Jones.

Restrictions in access for many

Criticism has been raised against that there are more COP26 delegates associated with the fossil fuel industry than from any single country, while many civil society communities and groups have been excluded from the negotiations. The reasons are said to be Covid-19 causing changes in travel rules, hinders in the immigration system and the structure of the conference.

He thinks many activities and events are happening to keep attention away from the negotiations, such as pavilions, side events and action zones.

“Navigating the distractions requires skills and tacit knowledge of where the action is happening”, Billy says.

Decision-making affected by representation

Billy argues that the conference structure is based on “smoke screen politics” since events are coordinated to play out all over the conference but are placed according to legitimacy as defined by the organising body, UNFCCC. Mainstream and authorised voices are invited closer to the heart of the action while critical, alternative voices are placed with varying degrees of abstraction depending on their legitimacy.

The authorised representatives are allowed in the pavilions and closest to the delegations to be able to attend side events and informal meetings hosted by the authorised delegation. Legitimised critical voices are given a platform to voice their concerns in another building several hundred metres from the negotiations. Non-legitimised critical voices and other critics are only allowed to protest outside the gates which has resulted in that many in these groups have decided to make their own alternative COP26 events focused on climate justice, which Billy thinks has added their own degree of abstraction.

His impression is that the decision-making processes of the conference are affected since the alternative voices are invited to speak at side events, sit on panels, and make artistic contributions - but they are not allowed into the meetings or negotiations.

“It feels like they’re invited and given a stage under the bright lights to placate them and make them feel seen so the leaders can get on with the real work without disruption”, Billy says.