COP17: The Mechanisms, the context, the possibilities

Melita Steele has been with Greenpeace Africa as a climate and energy campaigner for a year and a half. Ms. Steele holds a Masters degree in Environmental Science and worked as an environmental consultant before coming to Greenpeace. This is the second instalment of her conversation with CIVICUS (you can read the first here).  She speaks to CIVICUS about the coalition of civil society organisations working together towards COP17 (C17), how advocacy actually happens at the Conference of the Parties, and what the day after COP17 looks like for South Africa.

It seems that COP17 being in South Africa is a huge opportunity for local activists. Can you tell us about C17, (the civil society coalition working together to prepare for COP17), and what you’re hoping to achieve through it?

The COP being here is a huge opportunity. There were a couple of processes last year led by HBS and Earthlife Africa Joburg that started looking at how civil society could work together towards COP17. South African civil society was the specific focus, but the idea is that if South African civil society is working together, then we’re better able to communicate with international groups. What was agreed at the last meeting last year, which was an Earthlife one, was that an Interim Steering Committee would develop a plan for a national meeting in January. A Steering Committee of about six people was elected at that meeting, I was on it, and basically our mandate was to run the national meeting and create the space for the conversation about what South African civil society wanted. We aimed to create what we call a common platform, or a joint action plan. There is a lot of diversity among South African civil society in terms of how we approach the negotiations and the government’s position. But, what we agreed to at that meeting is that we do all want to work together. Also, we recognise that COP17 is crucial and a big opportunity, but that it’s also only one step along the road. So the idea is to try and find common ground and put aside differences, and create a stronger environmental movement in South Africa.

From that meeting, the COP17 steering committee for civil society was elected (otherwise known as the ‘C17’). Originally it was 17 people from very different organisations representing a range of stakeholders and positions. The idea was that we would then have a mandate to coordinate and facilitate joint actions within civil society, which we’re now carrying out. We’ve just recently held another meeting in Durban, reporting back on the work that we’ve done to date this year. We’ve separated our work into different subcommittees with the idea of creating clear communication lines and facilitating communication between different organizations, because one of the big problems is also different organizations are doing lots of diverse things. That’s really great and necessary, and the idea of C17 is not to duplicate that or control that, but to amplify it. So, everybody needs to know what’s going on, to be talking to each other, and then there are things that we can all agree to do together, which makes us more powerful collectively.

You’ve said that everyone agreed that they want to work on these issues together, but is there a unified platform, or a lowest common denominator regarding climate justice upon which all C17 members agree?

Well, yes. At this latest meeting, there were about 250 people, while at the January meeting there were 130, so we’re building momentum. Basically what the C17 will be doing is organising two particular things, one of which is the Global Day of Action on 3 December, which everybody agrees they want to be involved in. That’s going to be a broad march for climate justice in Durban. Then we’re also organising an alternative space for civil society in Durban during the COP. The idea for that space is that it’s not government sponsored, it’s not big business sponsored—it’s entirely driven by civil society, and it’s a space for us to talk about what climate change means for us and what kinds of actions we want to see. So it’s a space for discussions, teach-ins, demonstrations and solutions.

Then, our job is to communicate effectively with civil society. We’ve developed a listserv, and the idea is that people will subscribe to the listserv and we’ll send out regular updates of what’s going on. We’re also developing a website that should be up and running soon, and it will have an interactive calendar so people will be able to put up their events and let each other know how to get involved. Then we have an Education and Mobilisation Subcommittee, which will be running provincial workshops during the year and talking to other organisations that are already educating and mobilising, to build capacity. We also have a Government Liaison Subcommittee. The role of that is not necessarily lobbying, but it is talking to different government structures regularly, and then reporting to civil society on that. There’s a Media and Communications Subcommittee and a Fundraising Subcommittee as well. All of these subcommittees are working together to organise collectively, but to also try and get information in terms of what different organisations are doing, and create linkages between organisations.

The objective of C17 is not to control anything that civil society is doing. We don’t endorse any particular projects or particular movements—we do however work to create clear communication lines, so we’re able to talk to the media for example about different initiatives. At our last meeting, we tried to find common messages from civil society. That lays the foundation for us as C17 to communicate about what South African civil society is asking for.

We’re also creating linkages between African civil society and international civil society. We’ve been working at a lot of different levels to create awareness about C17 and then to create the right linkages, so when people arrive in South Africa at the end of the year we’ll all be on the same page. One of the worst things about Cancun last year, which was COP16, was that there were three different marches on the Global Day of Action. There were lots of things wrong when it came to civil society during COP16: there was a huge police presence outside the UN space, so you never saw civil society outside the space, and there was a complete separation between the civil society groups that were allowed to go into the space where the negotiations were held and those who were not. It was about a 20 minute bus ride between one space and the other! In addition, you’re only allowed to go into the UN space if you’re an accredited civil society organisation. It’s a process where you have to apply through the United Nations to become an observer organisation, and there are not many organisations that are actually accredited, and their numbers are limited.

There are a couple of different audiences we’re talking about: civil society organisations as a group are organising together, but then you’re also trying to connect to grassroots activists and decision makers and policy makers who are actually at the COP. With all those different audiences, what is the objective of C17?

The objective is basically coordination and facilitation. Behind that is the objective of creating pressure through the active presence of civil society at COP17. I think one of the big issues in South Africa is that the South African government is not under enough pressure when it comes to renewables. They’re not hearing enough from South Africans that they want renewable energy. Part of that issue is that people don’t even know that 90% of our electricity comes from coal.


So is the government hoodwinking people, or is it that people don’t know, or don’t care to know?

People just want access to electricity in South Africa, and people want access to electricity that they can afford. It is their impression that coal, as the government has said, will provide that. The problem is that the electricity that Kusile and Medupi (two new South African coal-fired power stations, which will be among the biggest in the world] will provide will actually go to big business. There are a lot of special contracts that have been developed between Eskom (the South African electricity public utility] and big business, where businesses pay lower-than-normal rates for electricity, even though they’re the biggest consumers by far of electricity in this country. So, although increased electrification is happening for individuals, a huge proportion of our electricity is actually going to big business at a subsidised rate.

For those who are accredited, are they allowed to speak or contribute? What does it look like?

It’s quite complicated. You’re allowed in to some of the meetings. Most of the time you’re not allowed to speak, merely observe. So, they have plenary sessions, which are generally open, and then civil society is allowed to be in that session. Usually at the end of those sessions, they will allow maybe four contributions from civil society. But there are lots of different sessions that observer organisations are not allowed into.

So you’re not part of the conversation?

You’re an observer.

What is the purpose then of having civil society there? How does the voice of the people as represented by civil society organisations—if you feel that’s a fair thing to say—get to the decision makers?

It’s complicated. Certainly what Greenpeace is pushing for, along with other organisations, is greater civil society participation and greater transparency, because there are a lot of important discussions that happen behind closed doors. In some ways, you need that privacy to facilitate open discussion, but in other ways civil society should be representing the people that these governments are actually responsible to, so no one should feel like they have to talk behind closed doors to come to an agreement. Also, the rules inside the UN space are quite strict, but civil society are able to produce different leaflets and different newsletters every day, which are widely read, and often quite critical of what is going on. When civil society organisations are inside the space it becomes about being informed about what is going on, and lobbying: talking to the negotiators about what we as civil society want them to do. So it’s in the hallways that you can make a difference.

Are you hopeful about that? What are your expectations? Do you think you’ll be heard?

I think there needs to be a combination of what we talk about as an “inside and outside” strategy. There are some civil society organisations that think that being inside the negotiations doesn’t work—that what people need to do is mobilise outside, to march and demonstrate. And then there are organisations that are inside the negotiations, and they believe that talking to governments and actually lobbying and presenting solutions is most effective. Sometimes, when the negotiations are stuck on a particular issue, civil society organisations create proposals and hand those over, and sometimes that can un-stick the negotiations. In my opinion, you need a combination of the “outside and inside pressure” strategy, because if you’re not inside the negotiations, they don’t have to talk to anyone, they don’t have to rationalise anything to anyone, and they’re not faced with the reality of people talking to them and saying, “Why are you doing this?”  But if you don’t have people outside, then they’re not seeing the mass pressure from large numbers of people, so it must be a combination of both to work.

Coming back to whether we’ll be heard at COP17, I don’t know. The South African government is talking about COP17 as the “People’s COP,” and as an “African COP,” but thus far their engagement with civil society has been fairly limited and fairly superficial. And I think that has got a lot to do with the fact that different departments have been clarifying their roles; South Africa hasn’t been clear on what their position in the negotiations will be, on what they’ll be asking for at the end of the year. So the negotiating position still has to be presented to Cabinet, which was supposed to have happened in June, but still hasn’t been done. Talking about a People’s COP and actually making it a People’s COP are two different things. So we’re waiting to see exactly what their engagement with civil society will actually be.

Before we reach the endpoint where the government actually commits to a position, what can we do as civil society to influence their ultimate decision? What is Greenpeace doing?

It’s difficult because much of it is happening behind closed doors, but it is a dialogue. This is when different organisations need to be going to the Department of Environmental Affairs and asking what the negotiation position is, inquiring about how it’s developing and sharing their demands. So it’s the individual lobbying by organisations that the Department needs to hear. That’s what Greenpeace is doing, and then the C17 is engaging generally with government. Well, we’re asking for meetings with government. We have yet to have very meaningful discussion with the key departments, but that’s the end goal: to get them engaged in a constant dialogue. As yet, we haven’t seen that manifest.

<Yet COP17 is clearly important to the government, as they themselves are touting this as Africa’s COP, or the People’s COP. Can you talk a bit about the implications of having the Conference in South Africa in particular? Do you think that the government takes that responsibility seriously, and that that might be something that influences them to act?

I think they are taking it seriously, but I don’t think the South African government had really recognised the many implications of hosting the COP, because it does really put the spotlight on your country and what you’re doing with regard to climate change. On the one hand, South Africa is presenting itself as a leader, and saying they want to take action. But that doesn’t always bear out. For instance, one of the things we’re developing is a national climate change response policy, which has been a green paper (a consultative paper] that they’re hoping to turn into a white paper by the end of this year, meaning it’d be taken to the next step once it’s been approved by Cabinet. So there was a lot of discussion around the green paper, but it looks like the white paper will be rushed though with limited public participation in preparation for COP17 so the South African government can say, “Here is our policy on climate change!”

That’s a bit of a victory, no?

Well, not if they’re not consulting on the white paper. The green paper was one thing, which we commented on very substantially. There were 4000 comments on individual issues that were raised. But if they’re going to change it into a white paper without consulting broadly with civil society, then all of that original consultation is not followed through on. So it’s not participatory governance. The government basically wants to present something at the COP. If they consult with broad civil society again, then the timelines are too long. That has been said publicly, that they’re sort of balancing whether they can have something ready for the COP with whether they will consult again. South Africa is in a unique position, and is different compared to the rest of Africa, but the fact that the COP is happening on the African continent does mean that the issues of adaptation, the issues of the poorest most vulnerable people who will be affected most by climate change, are highlighted for the negotiations, and will then be issues at the COP. It means that the African countries will probably take more ownership of this particular COP, and may want to apply more pressure. Certainly in the African Union discussions, it seems the African group of governments is very united and want to be very strong in the negotiations, and to highlight the issues of adaption. So it will be interesting to see how that plays out. But one of the big issues at the end of this year will be the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and climate finance, so, where is the money for mitigation and adaption? The South African government is under a lot of pressure to see that Kyoto doesn’t die in Durban. But our national campaigns don’t stop just because COP17 is coming. Our pressure is on coal and nuclear, and it is towards renewable energy, and that won’t stop just because the South African government wants to be perceived in a particular way. It’s about them taking responsibility for what they’re doing domestically, while also taking a progressive role in the negotiations.

But it sounds like this is an opportunity for local civil society, because the government is cognisant of how they’ll be perceived, and they’re under real scrutiny because of their position as hosts...

Yes, this is certainly an opportunity to create some momentum and real change.


So ultimately, is there reason to be hopeful about COP17? If so, what are your hopes?

I think that the negotiations are crucial. What we saw with the Kyoto Protocol is that it was never going to be enough to stop climate change, because the pledges were way too small. But we saw the biggest increase in renewable energy that the world has ever seen after the Kyoto Protocol was signed. So the idea is for the negotiations to create enough pressure for governments to act domestically. What you need is the legally binding agreement, that’s the impetus for the rest of progress. I’m hopeful that the South African government will take the opportunity of hosting the COP to really look at our domestic energy situation and recognise the importance of acting urgently. I’m hopeful that some of the differences between developing and developed countries can be sorted too. The easy issues were sorted out in Cancun, but the difficult political issues are left; those issues are the future of Kyoto, and whether there will be another legally binding agreement parallel to Kyoto. The commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, so this is the last chance for a clear decision on that. Another big issue is that the US has said they won’t be part of the Kyoto Protocol, so a major question is whether there will be a new legally binding agreement which would include the US and the big emerging economies. What you have in the negotiations are two tracks: one is called “long-term cooperative action,” which is where the US is involved, and then you have the Kyoto Protocol track. A lot of times the negotiations get stuck because there’s no progress in one of the tracks, and countries like Japan, Russia and Canada are saying that they’re not prepared to sign onto a second commitment period of Kyoto because the US isn’t taking responsibility in the long-term cooperative action track. I’m hopeful that we will see another binding agreement that will prevent catastrophic climate change, doing enough soon enough. And yes, I’m also hopeful that, through the processes we’ve started, South African civil society will find the common ground that we need and build stronger relationships between ourselves to be able to create a movement that will actually create real pressure.

And that’s possible?

Yes, the way that civil society has approached this COP means that it’s possible. It won’t be easy, but I think it is possible that out of COP17 we could have a much stronger, more influential environmental movement in this country. After the COP is gone, climate change activism will still be in South Africa, and hopefully strengthened. Absolutely.


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