Environmental feminists taking up space at Conference of Parties (COP)

by | Jan 9, 2018 | All posts, Sustainability and social inequality | 0 comments

COP23 is the 23rd annual Conference of Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and was held on 6 to 17 November 2017 in Fiji to assess progress in dealing with climate change.

SCI PhD researcher Joanna Wilson reports back, suggesting that the voices of environmental feminists remain sidelined, despite the conference being branded as ‘inclusive’ and ‘participatory’.

COP23 is held in the spirit of ‘Talanoa’: a term that means ‘talk’ or ‘speak’ amongst Fijians. At COP23, it refers to a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue, and which puts Observers (civil society) at the heart of the process.  It is easy to see the ‘spirit of Talanoa’ widely in the daily practices of COP, at least on the surface.  For example, the Fijian Presidency held the first-ever ‘Open Dialogue’ which brought Parties (nation-states) together at the table with Observers, for the first time.  The purpose of this Open Dialogue was explicitly to enhance Observer engagement in the UNFCCC process.

Yet, below the surface, space remains a constant prominent issue at this year’s COP, which is split into two zones separated by a 15-minute brisk, walk. This so-called ‘innovative’ concept has been coined: ‘One Conference, Two Zones’ and is supposed to help manage a large number of expected delegates but in effect separates civil society (Bonn Zone) from Parties and negotiations (Bula Zone).  The difference between these two zones is striking.  In the Bonn Zone, it is common to see policies being analysed in huddles over tables, while the Bula Zone sees people dressed in well-pressed suits rushing from meeting to meeting.

Creating, demanding and occupying space

The Women and Gender Constituency (WGC), a collective of environmental feminist NGOs, are navigating their way around this increased separation but remain determined to create, demand and occupy space regardless.  Every morning the WGC create feminist space in their daily caucus.  It is the one space in COP, which I have come across, where men do not automatically take their place at the table.  The caucus is, refreshingly, dominated by women’s voices and space is used to highlight feminist side events that will take place through the day as well as establish which negotiations will be followed.

The WGC also organize collective thematic days, including Indigenous Women’s Day, Young Women’s Day and the main thematic day: Gender Day.  The Young Feminists, for example, used this opportunity to perform a powerful poem and to read out statistics involving women and girls, performed to music.  They concluded the meeting by inviting the audience to make their own pledge about what they will do to support young feminists.

The space created is one in which the WGC aim to create a ‘wonderful, friendly feminist vibe’ and remain non-hierarchical giving a voice to everyone.  This is a space that may be described as ‘feminine’ in its focus on co-operation, empathy, listening and sharing.  It is not a space for competition, blame or accusation.  Opening these caucuses up to Party Delegates means that this is a space that is truly held in the spirit of Talanoa.

Behind closed doors

However, despite impressive talk about a Talanoa Dialogue, there is still an increasing trend of meetings and negotiations being closed to Observers.  This has been the case with the negotiations on the Gender Action Plan (GAP), a critical outcome for this year’s COP, with almost all meetings remaining closed to Observers.  This show of support for enhanced Observer engagement, then, seems nothing more than political theatre: a symbolic gesture that has to be ‘seen’ to be being done.

Nevertheless, the WGC is demanding these spaces regardless.  While delegates from member states may be, to varying degrees, experienced diplomats, the WGC are gender experts.  They demand their expertise is given space within the negotiations, and they are frustrated with the losses that take place behind closed doors.  Yet, ultimately, access to space is still a constant struggle, from open meetings turning into closed meetings, to security guards preventing civil society from sitting, standing or congregating in certain spaces.  

Despite this, the WGC – particularly the energetic and passionate youth – work hard to identify spaces that they can occupy.  Saturday, for example, marked the last day for informal negotiations on the GAP and it seemed unclear that an agreement could be reached.  Members of the WGC congregated in the early morning of a Saturday to do no more than to wish the delegates good and positive energy as the entered the negotiating space.  The point of this urgent action, however, was much more than just a nice gesture.  Ultimately, it was a way of occupying denied space in the room, to remind delegates not only of the importance of reaching an agreement, but also as a way of saying: “We are still here, and we are still watching”.

The UNFCCC, and COP, is a Party-led system.  By its very nature, this places civil society, arguably those with most knowledge and expertise, behind, not in front.  Despite high profile nods being given to the need to enhance Observer participation as part of a Talanoa Dialogue, this is not happening on the ground.  Party Delegates working on the GAP barely seem to know who the WGC is, let alone come to them for advice and guidance.  If the spirit of Talanoa is to continue and to work effectively, then this needs to change.  Observers should, the WGC argue, be given much more space and their voices should be listened to, not silenced through procedure and process.


  • Joanna Wilson is a PhD Researcher in Politics at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, The University of Manchester.