An empty plenary at COP25 in December 2019, in Madrid

COP25, 2019. Photo: UNclimatechange / Flickr .

When UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for  preparatory negotiations for COP26 to proceed online to avoid harmful delays, he responded to a harsh reality. The global climate crisis may pose an existential threat to humanity, but our efforts to address that crisis are being disrupted by an even faster moving global threat – the COVID-19 pandemic.  

With COP26 now less than seven months away, the UNFCCC has little time to examine different options for online talks, consider potential trade-offs, and optimize the process. But getting it right is crucial – and it’s also an opportunity to address longer term questions about how to improve the climate negotiations  to make them more inclusive, transparent and effective  – to accelerate the pace and raise ambitionsIronically, disruptions caused by the pandemic are proving to be a catalyst for testing options. 

Thats the focus of the Online Climate Negotiations project (OnCliNe), which we launched last autumn, at the request of the Swedish Ministry of the Environment. 

The ‘how’ is key to the question of moving UN climate negotiations online

The initial question for our project was whether it’s feasible to take the global climate negotiations online. The simple answer is yes – at least partially, with efforts already underway.  A variety of multilateral policy processes  are already meeting virtually to continue different components of their work, avoid harmful delays and even achieve improvements. These include the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Arctic Council and the World Trade Organization, among others. Also the UNFCCC’s constituted bodies, such as the Adaptation Committee  and the Local Communities and Indigenous Platform , have met online. 

COVID-19 dramatically increased the use of online tools and platforms, but these had already been in use for years. In a variety of settings, business and organizational meetings , video conferences and even negotiations and decision-making sessions have been conducted online for much of the past decade. Even sensitive personal interactions such as contact between family members and friends , or appointments for physical and mental health care , are now going online. Recent research on digital diplomacy and online social interaction  shows that digital tools are not a direct substitute for meeting face-to-face, but they do provide a platform that can usefully bridge time and space.   

Given this wealth of experience with digital diplomacy and online meetings – including within the UNFCCC process – the task now is to determine which elements of the climate talks are most compatible with online platforms (and could even benefit from them), which could be compromised, and how to maximize benefits and minimize the risk of harm. That requires systematic analysis.  

Breaking it down: 3 key elements of climate talks 

The physical or virtual “space” in which preparations and negotiations occur can define the structure of the talks and, to a great extent, their effectivenessBoth in person or online, there are significant logistical challenges. Anyone who has joined 20,000–30,000 participants at past COP sessions knows they are enormous endeavours : setting up and managing the physical space, ensuring security, organizing transport, food and other key services, etc. Virtual meetings, meanwhile, require plenty of bandwidth for both the organizers and attendees as well as secure and user-friendly software. In both contexts, there are equity challenges – travel costs can limit participation in person, but so can inadequate equipment and poor internet infrastructure.    

Infographic detailing different structure elements of UN climate talks

Going online: a model for UN climate talks? Image: Benedetta Crippa / SEI.

A second key element shaping the talks is the political and legal structure – that is, the formal rules and procedures that among other things, specify the rolls of participants and provide for fairness and transparency. These structures have evolved and been renegotiated over time. The shift from physical to virtual space would require decision-making processes to ensure that participants can work together at least as effectively as they did in person. 

The third key element is the social and tactical skills that participants bring to the table, which enable them to engage with one another, build trust, find common ground and make commitments. These skills and capacities are the essence of diplomacy and are also crucial to effective participation by civil society. And though some aspects may be innate, these skills are also developed and honed with practice. With in-person meetings, these skills are brought to bear in informal corridor conversations or negotiating room huddles to break logjams and ensure progress. Adapting them to a digital environment – where, for example, significant aspects of body language may be missed – will require additional effort, and some may find it easier than others . 

Getting these “structuring” elements right is crucial to ensuring a UNFCCC process that is inclusive, transparent and effective. Drawing on accumulated experience will help to understand how digital technology and online environments can constructively contribute, where they fall short, and how their use can be structured to greatest benefit. The legitimacy of the UNFCCC process is defined by the level of inclusiveness and meaningful participation it supports. Transparency is key for building trust among participants and in the process itselfAnd effectiveness is the ultimate test: what the talks accomplish, the issues addressed, consensus reached and commitments made.   

Work with the available options 

The climate crisis isn’t pausing while the Coronavirus pandemic runs its course. To avoid losing precious time, we need to keep in mind that the important choice is not between in-person negotiations and online negotiations. We have more than a decade of experience and research to draw upon to understand how online technologies might be constructively engaged, analyze how they speak to the key requirements, and test the most promising options. We know that many of the technical challenges are being resolved or are less important than once believed. We also know that routine and non-controversial interactions have been adapted fairly well to digital settings, and that higher-stakes activities such as negotiations have been more challenging.

But this is not merely a technical challenge. It is essential that promising options be reviewed through consultations with all parties involved to identify and address predictable challenges and concerns, and to incorporate their best insights.

The UNFCCC process has evolved considerably over more than a quarter century as it has identified and addressed problems, as new and sometimes disruptive technological tools have emerged, and as the understanding of the scope of the climate challenge and level of threat has grown. With the Paris Agreement as a foundation and a pandemic as a catalyst, isn’t it time for another evolutionary, perhaps revolutionary breakthrough?