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UN environment conferences and civil society participation

The United Nations (UN) has been a permanent fixture in global politics since its inception in 1945. At the founding San Francisco Conference, there were approximately 1,200 civil society actors present. Since that time there has been a drastic increase for the role of civil society actors within the UN system. This increase has been facilitated by the development of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) accreditation scheme through the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). There are approximately 4,500 accredited NGOs in the UN system today. Some of the most important and influential conferences within the UN system have been those concerning environmental issues. The environmental conferences provide a very strong example of the role that civil society actors can play within the UN. In this brief piece, I will provide a snapshot of the role that civil society actors have played across time in the environmental conferences.

Stockholm Conference (1972)

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment or Stockholm Conference in Sweden is considered to be the first large international environmental conference which took place in 1972. This conference was led by Maurice Strong, who considered civil society participation in the Conference to be crucially important. Even before the conference began, in May 1971, Strong had commissioned a panel of civil society experts to report on the state of environmental affairs in world politics. The Secretariat also actively assisted the NGOs in creating a parallel forum specifically for civil society in Stockholm. Strong was also a very strong proponent for delegations to include civil society members. As a result, about 15% of all delegation members were from civil society. The NGO parallel forum also included representations from approximately 300 different civil society actors.

Rio Conference (1992)

The next significant environmental conference was the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development which took place in June 1992 in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The Rio Conference is well known for being one of defining moments in the creation of sustainable development. Maurice Strong was appointed to the role of Secretary General of this Conference as well, which became a defining moment for ensuring that civil society actors were included within the Conference. The Rio Conference was particularly important for civil society participation in UN Conferences, because it allowed the accreditation of about 650 NGO observers, which included some that were not already accredited with ECOSOC.

Another parallel forum was organised with the Assistance of Strong and the Secretariat. The forum was attended by approximately 20,000 people from about 1,600 NGOs. However, logistical issues were illuminated during the Rio parallel forum. The parallel forum and the official Conference venue were located about an hour away from each other, which meant that it was difficult for official delegates to participate in the parallel forum. Likewise, it was also difficult for NGO participants in the parallel forum to engage in lobbying at the official Conference. About 15% of official delegation members were from civil society organisations. However, this began to create a divide between civil society actors who developed an expertise attending official Conferences and lobbying, and those who were involved with the parallel Conference in networking and dissemination.

UNFCCC Process

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was opened for signatories at the Rio Conference. It received enough signatories to become enforceable in 1994. Since that time, there has been a meeting of the Council of Parties (COP) annually. Article 7(6) of the UNFCCC expressly stipulates that any individual or group that has competence in an area relevant to the Convention can inform the secretariat of their will to participate in a COP.

Approximately 50,770 civil society delegates have participated in COPs. Many of the civil society actors join voluntary constituencies or groupings around things like business, local government, indigenous peoples, research and others. The constituencies ensure that the civil society actors are working strategically and cohesively with other parties at the Conferences.

The first COP in 1995 included 197 accredited NGO observers. This has been steadily increasing with the Warsaw COP in 2013 including 1676 accredited observers. Similarly, the number of NGO side events has also increased, At the Cancun COP in 2010, there were 249 official side events after 400 expressions of interest had been received.

Parallel events are also continuing but remain fraught with difficulty in their lobbying effectiveness. At the Bali COP in 2007, 59% of the side events were not directly relevant to the official Conference proceedings. The Copenhagen COP in 2015 there were large scale protests of approximately 100,000 people protesting the lack of action from the delegates.

The Paris COP in 2015 saw a substantial civil society presence. There was a ‘Climate Generations Area’ which was open to delegates. This area was created with the input of 117 civil society actors and was 27,000 square metres in size. There were 360 civil society organisations that had exhibits in this section and over 340 conferences endorsed and parallel civil society events.

Interestingly, civil society actors outside of the Conference setting are increasing their lobby efforts towards UN environmental Conferences. In Paris, civil society actors presented UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon with a petition signed by 6.2 million people urging strong climate action. As we lead into the next COP that is due to begin in Marrakech at the beginning of November, external civil society actors are continuing the pressure on world leaders, especially with the bounce of recent news that the Paris Agreement is to become enforceable. Last week was the second Global Climate Change Week where academics from around the world unite in support of stronger climate action. It will be interesting to see what Marrakech presents, and whether it will expand on the ever expanding role of civil society actors in UN environmental Conferences.

Josh Pallas is a PhD Candidate in International Law and UNSW. He is also a participant in Global Climate Change Week. You can find him on Twitter @joshpallas.

image: UN Geneva (Flickr)

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