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FEATURE: Levelling the playing field of climate change negotiation

Adam Groves, Peter Armstrong and Bill Gunyon of OneWorld ask how the United Nation’s decision to make its climate conferences “paperless” will affect the negotiating abilities of poorer nations that have more limited access to information and communication technologies than wealthier countries

The COP18 gathering in Doha was unique in being the first “paperless” global climate conference. From now on, thanks to the United Nation’s (UN) Integrated Sustainable PaperSmart Initiative, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiation process will be facilitated almost entirely via digital communications. PaperSmart is cited as delivering an “integrated documentation solution for all participants” and, according to the UN, the initiative is “not a fight against paper, more a war against waste”. However, given that not all nations have access to advanced technologies, it begs the question: What impact will this shift have on delegations from the poorest and most vulnerable countries?

There is a clear and growing presumption that all delegates will effectively exploit digital devices in their work. At COP18, such devices in use by delegations from more developed economies were highly visible. And some better-resourced negotiators from the poorest and most vulnerable countries were also attempting to use the very latest technology tools. As one negotiator acknowledged, “this is the way the world is moving [and] we must not be left behind”. However, only a minimal fraction of international donor effort has attempted to invest in information and communications technologies (ICT) for negotiators from developing countries. So, some may be in danger of getting left behind.

Since the transition to PaperSmart, a delegation‘s capacity to participate in the global climate negotiations is increasingly and inextricably linked to its ability to adopt digital working practices. Yet, given that 89% of developing country negotiators interviewed at COP18 reported that they could not even attend important events because their delegations did not have sufficient trained people, they are already on the back foot. While richer countries can call on teams of lawyers, financiers and senior government officials to support their ministers, poorer countries run the risk of becoming embroiled in a logistical nightmare as their tiny delegations grapple with the demands of the UN negotiating process.

CDKN’s Negotiations Support programme aimed to help address this issue by funding research into ICT Solutions for Climate Negotiators. CDKN commissioned non-profit organisation OneWorld, specialists in technology and innovation, to assess how negotiators were managing the transition to digital working practices. OneWorld’s brief was to find out whether new technologies could help imbue delegates from the poorer and most vulnerable nations with sufficient confidence to influence UNFCCC and other climate change negotiations.

The research began by identifying those technologies that would best ease the challenges faced by negotiators from poorer countries: knowledge limitations, language barriers and the inability of small delegations to attend multiple simultaneous meetings. The initial market analysis confirmed that there has, indeed, been a missed donor investment opportunity when it comes to the potential of information and communications technologies. The survey team identified more than 100 available tools, which were designed to carry out functions from storing documents to receiving updates during meetings, but they were only available on a limited number of platforms and very few were designed specifically with the needs of negotiators from poorer countries in mind.

With more than half of the 70 senior negotiators, NGO experts and less experienced delegation members reporting that they neither had a smartphone for use at the conference, nor had broadband internet connectivity in their domestic offices, this represents a significant global digital divide between negotiators from poorer nations and their developed country counterparts. Availability of a COP’s daily programme and official documents via the UNFCCC Negotiator App (on iPhone and iPad only), for example, is no use to negotiators equipped only with a laptop (or in some cases, only a standard feature phone). PaperSmart itself appears to have been optimised for use by those who are already best equipped.

Some of the anecdotes from those surveyed say it all: how can our team collaborate effectively when “at the time of a particular phone call, many of the delegates won’t even have electricity in their cities!”; and what can be done if our laptop battery runs out during a negotiation: “We are only two people, we cannot get up and leave a meeting … who will participate? The ironic thing is that, if negotiators from the poorer and most vulnerable countries were equipped with appropriate tools, they could stand to benefit most from the transition to digital working practices. For pragmatic and political reasons, the poorer and most vulnerable countries have often had little choice but to collaborate, so any tools that help them work together even better will put them at an advantage. The PaperSmart era opens the door to virtual and real-time collaboration at a scale and depth that has never before been possible; it offers a real opportunity to tackle some of the most important and persistent challenges faced by negotiators from developing countries at multilateral negotiations.

A message to emerge with clarity from the survey findings is that technology can only help when firmly allied with on-going investment in human resources. Survey participants also noted the importance of human factors such as trust, power dynamics or charisma when negotiating. Such qualities deny easy digital capture, but designing for them will be key for successful implementation of any new technologies. We must use the findings of this survey to address the pains and pleasures of the PaperSmart experience. We need a nimble fix that satisfies the least experienced digital user as much as those who multitask online without a thought; a solution that can function in a super-connected UN convention venue or in an African city; a formula that accommodates individual delegates or groups in all their diversity. That is quite a challenge.


CDKN occasionally invites bloggers from around the world to provide their experiences and views. The views expressed here are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of CDKN


About the survey

OneWorld applied a rigorous analytical approach to assessing the needs of climate change negotiators. Conventional survey and interview tools were used to collect quantitative and qualitative data relevant to the work of delegates from the poorer and most vulnerable countries. The research was conducted largely in the environment of COP18 in Doha in December 2012. OneWorld has actively explored new communications technologies at every climate COP since Bali in 2007.

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