COP 18 - Paperless or Informationless?

07 Dec 2012

One of the first things you notice at COP 18 is the lack of paper. Gone are the multi-language piles of newsletters and updates that you used to see delegates grab on their way in, and read eagerly as they walked or drank yet another cup of coffee.

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB), ECO and the Third World Network (TWN) publications are essential and used by just about everyone to keep track of an increasingly complex and confusing process. The bulletin is produced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which has covered global negotiations of all kinds for decades. ECO is produced by the Climate Action Network (CAN) and looks at the negotiations from the perspective of civil society -- and makes no bones about calling a spade a spade when it comes to recalcitrance, inaction and obstruction. The TWN newsletter reminds delegates and others of what’s at stake for the majority of the world’s population and provides analysis and commentary from the point of view of developing countries.

Gone too are the tonnes of schedules, agendas, announcements, official texts, amended texts, and amended amended texts. This year, the UNFCCC Secretariat has unveiled “PaperSmart” -- all information is accessible online through a digital information portal.

On one hand, getting rid of mountains of paper is a good idea. There are electronic bulletin boards all over the venue that extoll how many tonnes of paper and
CO2 are being saved. It certainly makes the place look tidier too.

On the other hand, going digital creates yet another division within an already divided process. While information is available for computers, tablets, and mobile phones, not all devices are compatible. And not everyone has the required technology in their purse or pocket.

The UNFCCC Secretariat always sets up banks of computers for delegates’ use, so people without their own devices can get the information that way. But for most people, having a piece of paper in hand is still important. Many of the computers are not linked to printers so you have to find the material, make notes, and head off to the next meeting.

While ECO and others are publishing on line, they are not allowed to hand out material in the meeting venue, even though many people have requested it. If you find someone with a small, discreet sign pinned to their shirt saying “Ask me about ECO” you will get a paper copy. One creative distributer made a hat with the French version of the publication taped to it and walked around and let people come up to him.

The lack of information is being addressed by the Climate Action Network’s Working Group on NGO participation to improve access to the negotiations.

Alyssa Johl is one of those working on this problem. She is with the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a partner in the Many Strong Voices programme, and she coordinates the Human Rights and Climate Change Working Group.

Says Johl:“The Climate Action Network is working in collaboration with ENB and TWN to present an unified voice to the Secretariat on this issue, and we are reaching out to delegates to ask them to show their support for the availability of these publications in print form.”

This is being done by circulating a statement that delegates are being asked to sign:

We support the participation of civil society, and believe that their diverse voices and perspectives contribute dynamically to the UNFCCC process. We also appreciate the UN’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint and create electronic access to documents through PaperSmart – however, we believe that a balanced and gradual approach is needed to ensure that we have access to critical information and analysis, and that civil society has an effective voice in these negotiations.

ECO has been a valued resource since 1972. It cannot be fully substituted through online access as there is nothing more effective than a paper in hand. At present, there are many barriers to the production and distribution as well as to our access of this publication in electronic form. Many delegates have technological and language limitations, and thus rely on the availability of ECO and other publications in print form.

For these reasons, we request the UN Secretariat to allow distribution of ECO, and to ensure equitable access to information that is critical for successful negotiations.

As the last hours of COP 18 tick down, not only is the final conference outcome up in the air. So too is the question of how information will be distributed and, most important, who will be able to get it at future climate change negotiations.


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