Why I’m not going to Cancun


Today, the next round of climate negotiations kicked off in Cancun. Everyone from governments to NGOs to media are there, fighting climate change. Everyone who’s anyone in the world of climate change is there. But not me. “Why not?!” I hear you cry. I work on climate change, I’ve been to previous COPs, I know the players, I know the politics. It is precisely because of this that I’ve chosen not to go.

Firstly, the political reality is that Cancun is about two things: mitigation (developed and developing country and MRV, or trust and transparency as normal people would say) and finance (agreeing how to set up a new global fund; and where the money will come from). In short this is about getting the main political agreements from the Copenhagen Accord formally into the UN system.

It’s no secret that there are certain countries that do not want a deal. Often they will manipulate and at time bully others into adopting a line that blocks progress, even if it is against their own interest. The key to an international deal is to break this negative dynamic. As Wangari Maathai sets out, it’s about rebuilding trust in each other and the UN system. As powerful and almighty as I am (*cough, cough*), I’m afraid I can’t really change that.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to go. It’s exciting and buzzy to be there amongst a great community of people – many of whom are my friends. It’s great for networking and building knowledge. But for actually influencing the negotiations, for all the sound and fury, there is very little that signifies anything – to borrow an in-joke, it’s not a Party-driven process, it’s a process-driven party. Having been part of the one of the key Party delegations, I’ve seen how much the outcomes are dictated by broader politics.

So should we abandon hope? No. There is much work to be done – but at a national level. For example, the UK is passing a raft of funding decisions about mitigation, that most climate NGOs are not engaged in. And Bangladesh, Niger and Tajikistan have just received $280m between them to become more climate resilient (by the way, that’s real money, not just pledges – and it’s already leveraged several hundred million more from development banks) and could genuinely help people cope with climate change. The best way to help the international negotiations is not to be there, but to focus on changing national politics and policies around the world, particularly in laggards (no names mentioned!). It’s about demonstrating that low carbon development doesn’t have to mean poor economic performance, in fact, low carbon development can mean riding new markets and investment now saves money – and that some developing countries have a competitive advantage in these fields.

Finally, I chose to leave the negotiations world because even if we stopped all our emissions now, we would still be locked into a certain amount of change. This will impact on the poorest and most vulnerable (incidentally, this is one key issue to watch out for – how do you define vulnerability. G77 will tie themselves in knots over this). I believe that we will find ways to adapt, but it will not necessarily be done equitably. We have a responsibility to work with governments to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable are addressed. This happens at a national level, not in the halls of the UNFCCC. In some countries this will be highly political and will mean tackling established power relationships – it will not be easy and will demand struggle.

The political and financial attention given to climate change gives us a unique window of opportunity. If we can use climate change to find ways to reduce vulnerability, both concrete on-the-ground interventions and through systemic interventions around governance and power, then we will go some way to address the power inbalances and politics that are at the heart of development and equality.

So instead I will be in Burkina Faso, working with local partners and government to understand how to help local communities manage their water more equitably and sustainably so that they can cope with changes in climate. We don’t have all the answers, but we also don’t have the time to sit around and figure it all out. Therefore we need to find a balance between trying things and developing building blocks – learning-by-doing if you like. In time we will be able to build this knowledge and in turn feed it back into the negotiations.

I don’t pretend that what I’m doing is any more effective than being in Cancun, but if we really want to make a difference to people’s lives, we must look inwards and question what will really drive change and where each of us fits. That’s the change in climate that I want to see.