“What was also very clear at COP26 was that it was a European COP and there were very few people from the African countries and from the South, Latin America and the East that were at COP.”

— Civil society representative at COP26

During the two years since the onset of Covid-19, the pandemic has blunted progress on the climate crisis, with disproportionate neglect in the Global South. These inequalities have also permeated international climate diplomacy. Representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs) slammed the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow last November as being the most exclusionary climate summit they have ever known , with more representation from the fossil fuel industry than any other delegation.

SEI is conducting an interview-based study on the continued impact of the pandemic on global climate diplomacy. As the UN preparatory meetings (“intersessionals”) for the COP27 climate negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, continue, we outline the key difficulties that CSOs from the Global South have reported in our study as barriers to participation at COP26 due to the pandemic.

COP27 is being hailed as an “African COP”, with adaptation for vulnerable communities high on the agenda. To make sure this happens, recommend changes needed this time around to make COP27 truly inclusive and equitable.

How has Covid-19 made it difficult for CSOs to participate in COP?

The pandemic exacerbated existing issues in climate negotiations, such as transparency and meaningful engagement . A CSO representative noted that their government did not consult CSOs before submitting their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to UNFCCC, owing to the pandemic and subsequent strain in capacity. In addition, the preparatory meetings for COP26 were held online during the pandemic. Many developing country speakers faced difficulties participating in virtual meetings due to technological challenges such as stable internet connection. Local and grassroots actors faced similar barriers participating in national and subnational meetings.

Vaccine and travel regulations meant that CSOs faced several hurdles in attending COP26. CSOs and negotiators from developing countries had long warned that slow Covid-19 vaccine rollouts in the Global South would negatively impact inclusivity at COP26. Though the UK government announced about 20 weeks before COP26 that they would offer vaccination to attendees, vaccine access was constantly delayed . Moreover, it was only two weeks before the conference when most low- and middle-income countries were taken off the UK’s Covid red-list countries (with a 10-day quarantine cost of £1750 per person). Consequently, a CSO representative noted that a Southeast Asian network of CSOs collectively decided not to attend COP26 due to visa barriers, health protocols and cost.

CSO representatives from developing countries who made it to COP26 faced difficulties in inclusion and participation due to Covid-19 precautions taken at the venue – a barrier that only served to magnify the North-South divide because Global South countries also tend to have smaller, less-resourced government delegations. A CSO participant at COP26 mentioned that many observers, despite travelling to the conference site in Glasgow, were only able to watch negotiations via broadcast, with limited room capacity used as an excuse to exclude observers from critical negotiations in person. Such virtual modalities also limit critical aspects of negotiations that affect outcomes, such as interpersonal bonding, body language and the mood of the room. One CSO participant noted that many least-developed country (LDC) and small island developing state (SIDS) delegations are not as large as their Global North counterparts and depend on CSO support to secure a voice in the negotiation process. Keeping Global South CSOs out of climate negotiations limits the ability of the Global South as a whole to advance its agenda.

“As a result of the North’s vaccine stockpiling, favouring pharmaceutical profits over equitable vaccine access, and competing with developing countries for personal protective equipment, many Global South attendees have lost faith that their Global North counterparts care about developing countries.”

— Civil society representative at COP26

What needs to change this time around?

Covid-19 has not only introduced new inequalities to climate negotiations, but has also reinforced and exacerbated existing inequalities that have consistently excluded CSOs, developing countries and vulnerable communities. The economic power gap between Global North and Global South countries is an undercurrent that negotiators from the South constantly contend with. The pandemic has widened this gap, making Global South countries more dependent on their Global North counterparts for financial assistance and vaccine aid.

Study participants noted that the response of the Global North to the pandemic affected their trust in the UNFCCC process. As a result of the Global North’s vaccine stockpiling , favouring pharmaceutical profits over equitable vaccine access and competing with developing countries for personal protective equipment , many Global South attendees have lost faith that their Global North counterparts care about developing countries. Consequently, many in the Global South are shifting their attention away from climate mitigation towards adaptation and loss and damage finance to ensure some protection for their own communities.

The UNFCCC and Global North institutions urgently need not only to address the short-term inequalities resulting from the pandemic, but also the longer-term inequalities and power imbalances embedded in existing negotiation structures. We present six recommendations for how the UNFCCC can ensure more inclusive and equitable negotiation processes going forward:

  1. Offer financial support to representatives of vulnerable communities, delegates and CSOs from developing countries so they can attend climate negotiations. In addition to grants for funding travel costs, the UNFCCC could subsidize accommodation or set fixed maximum hotel prices.
  2. Help bridge the digital divide to ensure more inclusive online negotiations in the run-up to COPs. For example, negotiation hubs can be set up at UN offices in different countries where delegates or representatives can connect.
  3. Support participatory and inclusive consultation processes at the national level in the run-up to COPs. The UNFCCC could develop a protocol for national governments to follow that ensures consultations with vulnerable and marginalized communities as governments develop their negotiating positions, with space at intersessionals and COPs for those inputs to be presented.
  4. Provide training and support capacity-building. This would ensure that CSOs, developing country delegates and youth in particular have the knowledge and support to navigate and effectively engage in the negotiations.
  5. Ensure greater clarity and transparency around the Covid-related requirements of attending COP. Earlier planning would help ensure that observers and developing country delegates have sufficient time to meet those requirements and undergo the visa process. Accessibility and visa barriers can also inform the selection of COP venues.
  6. Allow larger numbers of observers to participate. This could be enabled by using larger negotiating rooms, as well as allocating more badges to CSOs rather than fossil fuel corporations.

Travel limitations from the pandemic are fast disappearing in the Global North, but those holding less privileged passports still feel Covid-19’s limiting effects. At the recent Stockholm+50 conference, West African activists spent hundreds of dollars trying to get visas, only to be left stranded . Activists and CSOs are already raising alarm bells that high hotel prices at COP27 will mean once again that corporate delegates will find it easier to attend COP than developing country negotiators and CSO representatives from vulnerable communities. Egypt’s abysmal record of allowing peaceful protests and civic dissent may also hinder activists and CSOs from advancing their agenda, with activists raising the issue of being previously denied visas and badges for multilateral conferences in Egypt. All of this takes place against the backdrop of a still-ongoing pandemic and the war in Ukraine and its implications for global energy security.

As climate impacts continue to multiply and affect the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable communities, the UNFCCC needs to ensure these voices are represented within negotiations and are central to climate solutions.