Climate talks – active partners or silent onlookers?

Climate change will affect all of us. For many it has already left its mark. Tackling global warming practically and effectively will require listening to the experiences of those people on the frontier of its effects. What is required is a truly global conversation that cuts across countries, class and disciplines – one that bridges the gap between communities who are fighting back encroaching floods or desert and the policy wonks from Washington to Brussels to Beijing.

So, how connected are these dots in practice?

The annual UN climate summits are a major locus for international climate policy-making. In spirit they are open to broad-based participation. The most recent one, held in the Qatari capital Doha in December, drew approximately 4,300 government officials, 4,000 members of intergovernmental or civil society organisations, and 700 media representatives. Anyone who does not have a seat on a national delegation is termed an ‘observer’. Yet what that means varies greatly from state to state.

Below, members of Transparency International’s global climate team from Bangladesh, Kenya, Mexico and the UK report on their recent experiences in Qatar and what role, if any, observers play for their countries.

Leah Good (UK)

Leah Good

Climate Governance Integrity Programme
Transparency International Secretariat

A lot of interests converge around climate change. Affected communities may beseech their governments for better investment in climate protection. Governments may be under domestic pressure to lessen the ambition of their emission reduction targets. Coal, gas and oil lobbyists will be trying to influence policy in their favour. Green businesses will be jostling to claim their stake of the low-carbon market.

At climate conferences it can be hard to know whose voices carry the most clout. That’s where transparency comes in. Opening policy-making up to scrutiny is one of the best ways of ensuring that it works in the interests of the majority as opposed to an influential few.

Civil society observers can be non-governmental diplomats of sorts, representing the interests of their constituencies, exchanging information, negotiating and offering policy advice. Some country delegations allow civil society representatives onto their official delegations. Other countries ensure that they keep observers closely informed on their progress. Many countries, however, are far less accountable.

At Doha my delegation (the UK) was made up exclusively of civil servants, the vast majority of whom were ministers from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. There wasn’t a single seat reserved for civil society.

Judy Ndichu (Kenya)

Judy Ndichu

Climate Governance Integrity Programme
Transparency International Kenya

Kenya has been grappling with the effects of climate change for some time now, but the state apparatus for dealing with it is still quite new. As such, the government has tended to positively welcome technical assistance from civil society groups like ours. The same went for this past year’s climate conference in Doha. 

Each national delegation arrives at these conferences with a formal position paper – a wish list of sorts that details what they want the negotiations to achieve. Back in October our government held a meeting with the public to share this document. After a lengthy debate the text was modified to better represent our views – which included pushing for greater transparency in climate finance.

In Doha, 10 civil society representatives were appointed to the Kenyan national delegation to support negotiations on various issues – including agriculture, a treaty on emission reductions, technology and climate finance.  At Transparency International Kenya we have spent the last year tracking climate money in-country, to try to establish where it’s flowing and who is accountable for it. So I joined the finance team. 

It was easy to keep tabs on our delegation’s work. Every day it held meetings to brief the public on progress. Negotiators also consulted broadly through an online Google group that civil society representatives were invited to join. This openness is key to guaranteeing legitimate and effective climate governance. My only word of caution would be that citizen groups should be wary not to compromise their own stance when seeking to support their government’s official position.

Zakir Hossain Khan (Bangladesh)

Zakir Hossain Khan

Climate Governance Integrity Programme
Transparency International Bangladesh

At Transparency International Bangladesh we have learned that ‘civil society’ isn’t always what it seems. 

In the lead-up to Doha, the Bangladeshi government held a meeting with civil society groups to brief them on the official country position. We were among many organisations who were not allowed to attend, which we believe could be because we have been critical of our government’s climate policy in the past.

At the conference itself, a number of civil society representatives were included on the climate delegation. Some of these, however, were inexperienced in the field of climate change. We have reason to believe that others have ties to government, thus compromising their independence. These citizen delegates – who are supposed to represent the interests of the public – at no point reported on the negotiations to their wider constituencies.

This points to an interesting lack of guidance in the UN system as to the role a civil society representative should play, and how they are selected. Without guidelines to that effect, all of this is decided at the government’s discretion.


Given that climate change is a global problem, which can only be solved through the joint efforts of diverse actors and sectors, the participation of observers and active civil society participants on Mexico’s delegation is crucial – this is where the country’s most important decisions are made in the international context.”

– Sandra Guzmán, consultant and former employee of the Mexican Centre of Environmental Law

Bruno Brandão and Vania Montalvo (Mexico)

Vania Montalvo and Bruno Brandão

Climate Governance Integrity Programme
Transparencia Mexicana

Civil society representatives were first included on Mexico’s national delegation at the climate conference in 2011, signalling increased willingness on the part of the former government to facilitate citizen engagement with climate policy-making. To find out what this involvement means in practice we interviewed members of the Centre of Environmental Law and the Mexican Climate Finance Group* about their experiences on the Doha delegation team.

Mexico’s national position was formulated ahead of the conference, but without external input. This document was also considered confidential, and never made publicly available. This meant that the civil society representatives arrived in Doha with no prior knowledge of their government’s position on any of the areas on which they were expected to offer technical assistance. 

Despite being granted full access to delegation meetings, the representatives said that their ability to influence proceedings was limited. There were only three places accorded to civil society, yet there were seemingly no restrictions on the number of parliamentarians or private sector actors who could sit on the delegation. 

Following the conference, our interviewees wrote to the Mexican government, proposing a number of ways in which the quality of their participation could be improved. They suggested: 

Transparencia Mexicana intends to co-develop with fellow civil society organisations a set of formal guidelines on this issue to present to the federal government.

Civil society's seat at the table

Acting in the best interests of our climate requires pooling a broad range of experience and expertise, sourced well beyond government offices. Civil society – as an independent entity – has a lot to contribute, both in terms of policy-setting and ensuring that that policy is good and fair.

Yet better provisions are needed to ensure that that participation is optimised as part of a structured, professionalised and standardised system, and that civil society groups become active partners rather than silent onlookers. 


* Thanks to Sandra Guzmán, consultant and former employee of the Mexican Centre of Environmental Law; Gabriela Niño, Public Policy Coordinator at the Mexican Centre of Environmental Law; and Jorge Villarreal, member of the Mexican Climate Finance Group.

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