Lessons learnt from Copenhagen: civil society’s role in world democratic governance

XERCAVINS, Josep (2010)

In this article, Josep Xercavins i Valls, Professor at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) and head of delegation of the UPC, organisation with observer status in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reflects upon the role of civil society and higher education in the field of climate change. 

The recent United Nations Conference on Climate Change held in Copenhagen in December 2009 was so riddled with paradoxes that it would be easy to overlook those which—while not necessarily having any direct repercussions on the also highly paradoxical and, in my opinion, negative result of the Conference - assuming that the so called Copenhagen Accord did genuinely constitute a result - are nonetheless intrinsic to the complex situation prevailing in the world today, which can only be described as world democratic misgovernment.

Historic contextualisation of civil society’s participation in the Conference of Copenhagen.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the direct and true successor to the Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. This historic summit represented, among other things, a very important qualitative and quantitative leap in terms of participation in the activities of the United Nations by what we now call civil society. At the Earth Summit, the already well-established participation in the United Nations of NGOs as major groups (MGs) was extended to include Women, Children and Youth, Indigenous Peoples, Local Authorities, Workers and Trade Unions, Business and Industry, the Scientific and Technological Community and Farmers. The underlying idea was to ensure genuine social participation in support of common efforts to achieve sustainable development. Indeed, the Preamble to Chapter 23 of Agenda 21 states the following: “Critical to the effective implementation of the objectives, policies and mechanisms agreed to (...) in all programme areas of Agenda 21 will be the commitment and genuine involvement of all social groups.”
In this context, the meetings of the supreme bodies of the UNFCCC—the Conference of the Parties (COP) and later, the Meetings of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP)—have taken place in an atmosphere of greater transparency, with many organisations accorded the status of formal UNFCCC observers. Reflecting the MGs referred to above, the observer bodies, called ‘constituencies’, represent the following eight areas[i]:
1. Business and industry non-governmental organisations (BINGO)
2. Environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGO)
Climate Action Network - International Secretariat
3. Local government and municipal authorities (LGMA)
4. Indigenous peoples organisations (IPO)
5. Research and independent non-governmental organisations (RINGO)
6. Trade union non-governmental organisations (TUNGO)
7. Farmers
8. Women and Gender
Analysis of civil society’s participation in the Copenhagen Conference
In the light of events in Copenhagen, what are the paradoxes and lessons learned about civil society participation? That even despite the great transparency and openness of the Conference to the participation of civil society,[ii] this participation was reduced to mere observation and protest (which, even if imaginative, was ineffective), with civil society offering very little in terms of an alternative political and propositional discourse regarding what was really happening during the encounter—not to mention before and after.
The customary, key meetings of the different constituencies, conducted in the form of open caucuses during the Conference, became, in some cases, meetings behind closed doors, and in other cases, lobbying exercises (climate change and decent work for the Workers and Trade Unions MG, gender issues by the Women MG, etc.), or merely served to issue additional passes to events where attendance was limited by seating capacity.
It was not possible (and this is nothing new in the context of the UNFCCC) to attend public meetings of NGOs, such as an ENGO constituency meeting, because they were not open meetings: NGO representatives needed to have previously submitted a request to obtain membership for their NGOs of a specific network called the Climate Action Network. So much for open, transparent, inclusive, participative proceedings!
It was possible, however, to attend RINGO constituency meetings. Nonetheless, at these meetings, no political stance regarding what was happening at the Conference was adopted for the very obvious reason that the range of the attendees was so diverse as to represent interests that were even antagonistic. Therefore, the meetings merely served to share information and, above all, to issue attendees with the additional passes referred to above.
Even though it would have been entirely logical, and certainly necessary, to hold open meetings of the different constituencies to make a joint analysis of the situation, no such meeting was held. Although a meeting of all the constituencies would not, of course, have been politically feasible, one should have at least been possible for NGOs, Women, Trade Unions and Youth. Why was there no proposal for joint analysis, joint work and joint political pressure?
Against this background, appearances were kept up. I would even say that there was evidence of a certain adroitness in implementing imaginative protest actions so as to attract the attention of the media (of course) and live a moment of glory in the spotlight. There was further evidence of competence in the information sheets and leaflets distributed by the observer bodies, who seemed themselves to have taken on the role of the media and to have abdicated their lobbying, advocacy and denunciatory roles and backed away from proposing a political alternative.
I am fully aware of the harshness of my analysis, but my goal is not to criticise but, to warn and to make proposals—all of this as a consequence of what might be considered, perhaps, a highly idiosyncratic personal learning process.
Observer bodies representing civil society in Copenhagen were unable to develop a political discourse of their own that would condemn the reciprocal and ongoing obstructionism exercised by the states party to the Conference and their pervasive lack of will to achieve progress in any of the key negotiations (such as those related to the second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol and to the development and implementation of the Bali Action Plan for the inclusion of the USA and emerging economies in the group committed to real, effective mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions).
Despite the political room available to us, our own vertigo converted us into politically passive and tame bystanders of a tedious and unreal negotiation in which no state was willing to shift their position closer to that of other states. Civil society showed itself to be incapable of raising its voice in defence of humanity and so drown out the voice of states who, we can be sure, were not defending present and especially future populations but their own selfish and speculative interests.
Proposals as way of conclusions
For all these reasons, I wish to take advantage of this invitation to write for the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI) to call on all the world’s public universities committed to social and environmental needs and the interests of humanity: we need to request the status of an observer body of the UNFCCC and, furthermore, to group together in what could be a universities constituency. In this way, we can participate more actively, effectively and compellingly in ensuring that it will not be necessary to experience the dramatic impact of climate change before decisions are made that could avert catastrophe.
In brief, civil society (including public universities) needs to take its role far beyond that of a critical observer and assume its responsibilities as an actor in world democratic governance. In a globalised world, we are all political actors—in our acts of commission and omission both. In view of the fact that political actors inherited from the last century (that is, the nation states) are incapable of dealing with the current pressing global issues in honest representation of the interests of humanity, globally organised civil society must unavoidably and urgently assume both the role of representative of humanity and a more active role in world democratic governance. This requires a capacity to truly organise at the global level and to develop and defend alternative proposals and global programmes—and also to endeavour to have these proposals and programmes democratically approved in the corresponding forums. International organisations like the UNFCCC—in its still limited but far from negligible institutional role—are in dire need of new actors assuming these roles, as a way to break with the disheartening incapacity of states and their lack of will to think beyond their own selfish and speculative short-term interests.

Climate change, sustainable human development—which is socially desirable and economically and environmentally feasible—and all forms of life on this planet require this change!

Categorisation according to the web of the United Nations.

I well understand that this comment may appear surprising after all that has been said about the Copenhagen conference and civil society participation. My opinion, based on monitoring United Nations conferences for the last ten years and despite the unfortunate access restrictions imposed due to the arrival of heads of states and governments, is that the UNFCCC continues to be a very open, transparent forum that fosters civil society participation. I have no doubt that the restrictions on access were not political but the result of a very poorly organised conference (for which the United Nations and the host Danish government are equally responsible), whose organisers were simply overwhelmed by the success implied by what was the largest concentration in history of heads of states and governments. Let it be clear, however, that from this point on, only five states—Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the USA—negotiated, and logically there was no transparency in this negotiation; time did not permit otherwise, and, in any case, the situation was a consequence of the ongoing and reciprocal obstructionism within and before the Conference.  

Monday, February 22, 2010


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