Climate Action

Earth Day: Why we need diverse decision-makers to progress climate negotiations

Young climate change activists.

Young people from a diverse range of backgrounds must have a seat at the climate change table. Image: Unsplash.

Marie-Claire Graf
Co-founder, Climate Youth Negotiator Programme
Sophie Daud
Co-founder, Climate Youth Negotiator Programme
Veena Balakrishnan
Co-founder, Climate Youth Negotiator Programme
Heeta Lakhani
Co-founder, Climate Youth Negotiator Programme
Lindsey Prowse
Lead, North America and Youth Engagement, World Economic Forum
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SDG 13: Climate Action

  • Since the first Earth Day in 1970 progress has been slow on negotiating and setting climate targets.
  • Current climate negotiations need to be opened up to fresh perspectives from underrepresented groups.
  • Efforts to correct inequities must adopt an intergenerational lens if they are to fulfil their potential.

Today, we celebrate the world’s 52nd Earth Day – an event founded in 1970 in response to growing public concern about the impact of human activity on the environment. The first Earth Day saw 20 million Americans – roughly 10% of the population at that time – take to the streets, to spark major social and policy change and pave the way for the world’s first United Nations “Earth Summit” which was hosted in Stockholm in 1972.

Protesters recognized an impending global crisis 50 years ago. Remarkably, it would take generations of world leaders to show real signs of action:

  • It took 20 years for the UN to adopt the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) that recognized the human contributions to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in our atmosphere and pledge to address the climate crisis.
  • It took another five years for the world to agree to the Kyoto Protocol (1997) to “operationalise” that pledge, by setting specific targets for developed countries to limit GHG emissions. Even then, targets didn’t take effect until eight years later in 2005, at which point more than a decade had passed since world leaders committed to take collective action to reduce emissions.
  • It took another 10 years (2015) for the historic Paris Agreement to be reached. The Agreement set the ambitious goal “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C” (beyond which devastating climate change will occur) and for countries to commit to Nationally Determined Contributions to set out the steps they’re taking to achieve this goal.

The decades of time it has taken for negotiations, agreements, and targets to be set to tackle climate change is deeply worrying. Particularly as the latest IPCC report states that we have a “narrowing window of opportunity” to prevent irreversible climatic damage. In other words – we don’t have time to waste.

And while there are emerging efforts to accelerate technology, innovative solutions and critical partnerships to tackle the climate crisis – very few have turned their attention to arguably the most important and currently the slowest mechanism of change: the process of legislation and negotiation.

Diversity in decision-making

We can all agree that there is an ethical case for diversity in decision-making spaces. But recent research makes the case even more compelling, with findings that diverse teams with inclusive processes make better, and faster, decisions. In fact, the research finds that for companies, inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time, decisions two times faster with half the meetings and deliver 60% better results.

Imagine the impacts of applying such an architecture to improve decision-making processes for climate negotiations.

A significant barrier to increasing diversity at climate change negotiations is the financial cost of participation. For example, the UN recommended Daily Subsistence Allowance for COP23 in Bonn, Germany was just over $280 a day. This amounts to at least $4,000 per delegate over the course of the over two weeks of negotiations (notwithstanding international travel).

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This fiscal barrier can heighten existing global inequalities. For example, the 46 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) still have very limited financial resources to support participation in climate change negotiations and must rely on the UNFCCC Secretariat and international donors support to fund their delegations. Consequently, LDC delegations are much smaller than other delegations, some limited to just three UNFCCC funded negotiators. What’s more, UNFCCC negotiation sessions often run in parallel (and throughout the night) meaning LDC countries lose the chance to be physically present in all negotiations, and negotiators are often stretched across multiple negotiation tracks simultaneously.

Positive progress has been made, however. In 2001 the LDCs formed the LDC Group, a negotiation bloc aimed at ensuring these countries’ interests are represented across all tracks. The UNFCCC and the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) have also offered funding, capacity building and logistical support to enable increased LDC participation. But despite these efforts, the number of LDC negotiators did not increase between 2011-2015. Negotiations remain an “unequal playing field” for low-income countries, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and others, and outcomes are “far from enough to match the scale of the crisis” we are facing.

Inclusion for action

LDCs aren’t the only voices that are underrepresented. At COP18, countries agreed that additional efforts needed to be made by all Parties to improve the participation of women in negotiations.

The Women’s Delegate Fund delivered by WEDO aims to tackle this gap by funding travel and subsistence for female delegates. To date, the WDF has supported 378 trips for 143 women across 67 countries to attend 34 sessions of the UNFCCC. And globally, there are signs of success – the 2021 Gender Composition report shows that women made up 49% of delegates at the most recent UNFCCC negotiations for which data was collected.

However, being present does not ensure meaningful participation. A case study published by Lima Work Programme on Gender and its GAP following COP25 found that while men constituted about half of the registered government delegates, they accounted for 60% of the party delegates who spoke in plenaries, and spoke for 74% of the time at meetings attended by all Parties.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Inclusion therefore means prioritizing both attendance and participation. But multilateral negotiations are highly complex – requiring time intensive skills and intuition to take part effectively. To ensure meaningful participation, delegates must be equipped to contribute effectively. Without knowledge of the historical context; institutional nuances that are needed to navigate the websites, acronyms and protocols; social and technical skills needed to draft and deliver an intervention, it’s impossible for any individual to wield persuasion and influence at UNFCCC negotiations.

This is why both IIED and the Women’s Delegate Fund offer substantive training and skills building components to equip participants with the tools they need to raise their negotiation card and advocate compellingly for their country’s priorities. As a result, feedback shared by both entities suggest that individuals do feel empowered to participate – though the direct results on the outcomes of negotiations has yet to be seen.

Intergenerational planning for the future

In trying to correct these geographical and gender inequalities of current climate change negotiations, we should also view efforts from a generational lens.

Despite making up nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, young people constitute only 25% of negotiators present at COP25. And as we have seen from global protests and social media movements, young people are increasingly frustrated by the planet that they are inheriting.

Today, on Earth Day, the Climate Youth Negotiator Programme delivered by the Future Leaders Network launches at the EarthX Global Youth Summit. Building on the successes of previous interventions, its aim is to support youth negotiators in country delegations by offering (1) capacity building (2) intergenerational learning, and (3) a community of peers and collaborators. For youth negotiators from LDCs, SDIS and others, additional travel and substance grants will also be offered.

Transforming mindsets

Despite world leaders’ proclamation that “tackling climate change is a shared mission for mankind”, we are still not creating space for critical voices at the decision-making table.

Designing negotiations that truly deliver on global ambitions will require investing in inclusion, diversity and capacity-building support to ensure underrepresented voices are heard and can enable more timely, equitable and effective decision-making.

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