Memo to UN Sec Gen António Guterres re COP: Time to shake it up! 

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Memo to UN Sec Gen António Guterres re COP: Time to shake it up! 

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As COP27 plods along in Egypt, here are ten much needed ideas for revamping the UN climate conference.

Dear Mr. Secretary General:

We applaud you for warning the world that humanity is on a “highway to climate hell.” Unfortunately, to a growing chorus of critics, the UN Conference of Parties’ climate change process is broken. Historically, the 27 UN climate summit is an opportunity for world leaders to get together and discuss protecting the planet. 

And that is the problem. “It’s all talk, not action,” a senior delegate told Climate & Capital. For this reason, the conferences have become part of the problem, not the solution.

We are past just talking. The accelerating climate violence has overtaken the worthy goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. What is needed now is to jump-start a process that moves at the pace of the crisis we face. The crisis is too severe to have a “conference” as your primary response. It’s now time for the UN to take it to the next level of accountability and create a permanent climate body whose mission is to safeguard future generations by accelerating action in the present. 

Here are our 10 suggestions:

  • Leapfrog the COP business-as-usual approach and immediately cancel the United Arab Emirates as the next conference host 

If you want to make a power statement immediately, move next year’s conference, COP28, to a different location. The UAE has made progress on the human rights front, but recent comments by the UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan his country will continue to supply oil and gas “for as long as the world needs” make it impossible for the petrostate to run an impartial COP. It’s like holding a human rights conference in Moscow or Beijing. The optics are terrible, but the influence of Big Oil will be worse. 

The climate crisis is too serious to have the UN’s most significant conference passed around from country to country as if it’s the Olympic Games or World Cup. Let’s cut the cost, travel and carbon miles and permanently establish climate talks at UN HQ in Geneva or New York. 

Drop COP delegates into a part of the world where climate change is an existential threat – right now. It’s time for everyone to see and feel the impacts and understand what life is like for those on the climate frontline.

  • End the present COP “host country” system.

Given the egregious fossil fuel conflicts of interests of COP 28 host UAE, if the UN isn’t yet ready for Geneva or New York, move the next conference to Fiji or another Pacific island nation. Drop COP delegates into a part of the world where climate change is an existential threat – right now. It’s time for everyone to see and feel the impacts and understand what life is like for those on the climate frontline.

  • Create a UN-led “Ministry for the Future.”

We suggest you borrow an idea from the most influential climate writer, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, and immediately create a UN body loosely based on his proposed “Ministry for the Future.” (MFF). We need a permanent body based in a neutral setting – again, Geneva or the UN headquarters in New York come to mind – run “without fear or favor.” The MFF’s mandate is to represent the interests of future generations – those not yet in the room to advocate for themselves.

This does not call for re-inventing the wheel. There are similar institutions where technocratic and representative bodies can work. Look no further than the EU, NATO, and the global central banks. The MFF would run conferences like COP, but ultimate accountability on real climate action falls on you, Mr. Secretary Guterres, not the country head of the annual COP

  • Create a permanent MFF secretariat with a “war room mentality.” 

Action can’t wait for complete consensus. It’s pointless to debate strategy and tactics on a sinking ship. Right now, we can’t confuse governance and global agreement with real impact. Input is needed everywhere – top-down crisis management, bottom-up disruptive innovation, and middle-out support for action wherever it’s happening. The MFF mission should coordinate, assist and act to free up leaders to innovate for the best solutions and then incentivize the rest of the world to join in above national interests and look towards global good, “Discussions in recent past COP meetings have been flawed, frustrating and agonizingly slow. We have to rise above national interests and look towards global good,” says Muhammad Zamir, Bangladesh’s former Ambassador for Bangladesh.

  • Move to a four-year convening cycle for future climate COPs. 

At first, this may seem counterintuitive, given the urgency of climate change. But meeting every year creates artificial goals and half-baked agreements as everyone rushes to be seen as taking action. It also costs a fortune and creates untold carbon miles as anyone having anything to do with climate change feels they have to fly to wherever that year’s meeting is being held.  

With a permanent MFF secretariat, important issues like a coordinated global banking response (GFANZ), first-movers and innovators alliances, and commitments to reduce methane, deforestation, and climate risk takes time to develop. The experts at MFF and their public/private partners can accomplish something beyond headlines and promises that are not kept. No democratically-elected government has an election every year. 

  • Listen to the powerful network of women in She Changes Climate and make male and female co-leaders  

We understand this is a sensitive issue with some of your member states. But as it stands, COP lacks a leadership voice for 50 percent of the world’s population. This is no affirmative action play: Some women were elected – not appointed – to top leadership positions around the globe. We point you to the European Commission, New Zealand, Scotland, Taiwan, Finland, Chile, Liberia, Serbia and the U.S. Getting women to the table will shake loose fresh thinking – a blast of fresh air – in a stale room currently full of male COP negotiators.

The decision by conference host Egypt to sell a multi-million dollar sponsorship to Coca-Cola undermines the credibility of COP27 and the United Nations COP process.

  • Stop any commercial sponsorships

The decision by conference host Egypt to sell a multi-million dollar sponsorship to Coca-Cola undermines the credibility of COP27 and the United Nations COP process. Would you ever allow Coca-Cola to sponsor the General Assembly?

  • Ban all paid lobbyists

For quadra-annual MFF gatherings, ban all corporate and NGO lobbyists, including banks, fossil fuel companies and environmental activists. Representatives of these and other groups can work within the COP delegate process. Would the Olympics allow the makers of steroids to openly sponsor and lobby Olympic officials? And yet, there are more lobbyists registered at COP27 than there are representatives from the 10 countries most affected by climate change. It is critical that those with the most to gain from inaction on climate change – the fossil fuel sector and related sectors like plastics – are not undermining our best hope to find urgent solutions. 

  • Cut the size of the delegations by two-thirds

What is the carbon footprint of 30,000 delegates, media,0 and others? When was the last time tens of thousands of delegates made an effective decision? Reduce the country delegate sizes by two-thirds but demand maximum economic, gender, political, technical, scientific, and regional diversity.

  • Employ young people from climate-impacted parts of the world to kick off future COPs

The young need a voice to feel they have a fighting chance to combat climate and lead a prosperous life. It’s time to give young people a prominent platform to tell COP delegates and the world what’s at stake and what they are already experiencing due to climate change in countries like Bangladesh, Tuvalu, Somalia, Haiti, Niger, Pakistan, and Sudan. 

Written by

Blair Palese

Blair Palese is a writer and project manager on a range of climate change projects. In 2009, she cofounded 350.org Australia and was its CEO for 10 years. Previously, she was a communications director for Greenpeace International and Greenpeace USA, head of international public relations for the Body Shop, editor-in-chief of Greenpages magazine, and worked at Washington Monthly and ABC.