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  • Writer's pictureZuzanna Borowska

Together we can? COP28 - a very personal assessment

My reflection from the most important global climate change negotiations session comes late as always. I can’t get over you, COP28! The monumental hostility of Dubai, a desert and an artificial city that grew on it… fueled by fossil fuels. The sleepless nights and long days, and the political tensions that were never mentioned aloud but could be felt so intensely in the negotiation room. The responsibility, the ignorance of my own delegation, the wonderful team spirit of the Global South negotiators, the excitement of helping my young friends elevate their voices, and the pure happiness of contributing to a successful first-ever multilateral decision on climate justice!

How are you even supposed to process three weeks during which everything happened? How could you do it so fast, and come back to your daily life right away?

The multiple identity case of myself

While this is still unbelievable and sounds like a dream, COP28 was already my third session as a negotiator for a country. Some things do become routine, some things do not come as surprises anymore… I know how to make a submission or an intervention, I know which negotiating groups I must coordinate with, I know the different stages of the process. But it never stops to be exciting to take a country flag, sit at that table, and witness your own words and ideas turning into actual international law. Sometimes, the process is smooth, almost as if it was some magic happening in front of me. Most of the time, it is not smooth at all, involves 7 hours in a row of “informal informals”, then a one-hour break, and then another 3 hours of negotiations, frequently extending into late-night hours, when even the public transport doesn’t function anymore. And there we are, stuck at 11 p.m. over whether we are talking about a work programme on just transition to discuss pathways, or a work programme on just transition pathways, with everyone pretending they still have any idea about what’s going on. There I am, leaving the room and shutting the door behind me when my emotions and idealistic personality take over…

I am still trying to figure out my place in this process and navigate what I call my multiple-identity case. As a white autistic kid with a 15-year-old look on their face negotiating for Liberia, I attract attention in the room every single time. It gives power, not only to convince others of my points on climate justice, holistic social transformations, and practical climate education, but also to convince myself that at least at times I might be worth something. At the same time, I undoubtedly lose some of my sense of belonging. From fellow negotiators I hear “you can’t bring your friends who are observers into our internal strategic conversation”. From fellow observers I hear “we know that you guys are friends, but coordination meetings of observers are not open to Parties”. I end up attending both the observer coordination and the negotiators’ strategic meeting. But at each of them - I am alone.

Representing a Global South country, a developing country, an African country is, quite literally, a mission. During the past year, this role has changed or challenged my perspectives on each and every part of the landscape of my worldview and values. Paradoxically, I think that my transition (from the “Western-only” point of view to representing a small African country and actually countering most Western states’ opinions) helped me understand very clearly the transition that I was discussing at COP28 (the just transition pathways towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement) and why it is so universal yet so different in every single country in the world. I have learned throughout the years that I am always representing someone and never share my own personal opinion. Well, let me say as much as that my personal opinions are clearly more aligned with those of Liberia or Small Island Developing States than with those of Poland or the United States of America… 

One truly amazing thing I discovered is how influential you can be in the UNFCCC process as a representative of a small African country that to many people means seemingly “nothing” in global international relations. In the negotiation room, we are all equal, and we mean exactly as much as we are able to contribute. And if we work together, within our regional groups, our voices keep being amplified enormously. At COP28 I was free to come to all group coordination meetings and express my opinions on our strategies and tactics which were often incorporated afterwards. I always had the right to send my direct comments on the just transition text to respective group coordinators, and very frequently I saw them later in the text on the screen in front of me in the room. However, this only worked when it was a team collaborative effort and I experienced first hand that, as one negotiator said, “individual positions of countries don’t fly in this process”.

Overall, I think that in Dubai I have managed to live through the “full COP experience”, as I named it. All I wanted to experience was ticked off my list: negotiating at midnight and for multiple hours straight, at the CMA level, in closed Parties-only meetings, at the conference’s biggest plenary, and from the very beginning to the very end of the process. But somehow, even though it is already done, I still want to continue experiencing it. I still want to keep changing the world, or at least trying… Despite the dilemmas, I love it and, as I said to my best friend several days ago: I couldn’t do anything else in my life.

What did I learn from COP this year?

As a negotiator, I learned that every single word I say matters. Both inside and outside the room. Every word I say triggers another word said by someone else. That triggers a discussion. A discussion - a conflict. A conflict - a compromise. A compromise - an outcome. To be a successful negotiator, you must participate in and understand each and every phase of the process. 

As an NGO and youth representative, I learned how to improvise through a whole side event on the very first day of COP, turning it from a disaster into a professional and engaging conversation in real-time. I learned that people around you are this one factor that can make it or break it when you are on an edge. It was the first COP ever when I had people who trusted me and supported me from the very first until the very last day, working with me in every place at every hour, being there with me both through my ups and my downs. These people were all civil society and youth representatives, too. I will be forever grateful.

As a Political scientist in the making, currently writing my bachelor thesis about COP28 and the strategic uses of international law in the JTWP negotiations, I took a more academic approach to the session which helped me stay very well organized and put the emotions aside at least sometimes. I discovered new insights into the process, looking at it through the lenses of my research - international law and international relations.

As just myself, I kept learning how to manage my expectations, emotions, and limitations. And I - definitely - kept learning how to be myself. 

But most importantly, I learned that international cooperation really is one of the key things that move humanity forward. Even though I’ve been studying this process for five years already, I was still in awe seeing these few unique moments when all the elements of the puzzle fit together, when that delicate balance of consensus was perfectly stricken, and when I heard “hearing no objections, it is so decided”. One moment especially stuck in my memory - when after a whole day of pointless discussions and running in circles in sub-group strategies, we finally did what is probably the most amazing part in this whole process: sat down together, all Parties, all persons, all human beings, and together drafted the contentious text section in under one hour, reaching the best version of the day, which everyone was at least partly happy with and at least understood where words came from in it. Afterwards, I heard from one of the co-facilitators of our negotiations that this used to be common practice in the UNFCCC in earlier years. “They would put us in a room, throw the key away, and give us 36 hours to draft the text”, she told me. While this certainly is an exaggeration, I do agree that it’s worrying to see how the different states and negotiating groups become increasingly divided instead of coming closer together, and are scared to just confront each other and talk like cultural humans should. And I have noticed this trend unfolding even in my own five years in this process, which is not that long!

Well, finally, we, the just transition negotiators, managed to reach a quite satisfying first-ever global multilateral work programme to address climate justice: the Work Programme on Just Transition Pathways (and definitely NOT the “UAE Just Transition Work Programme”, if you ask my opinion). A balanced outcome, that even the ministers didn't manage to downplay, with a decent narrative, a strong actionable and diverse scope, and a vehicle to move forward through multilateral decision-making. In a simple, human way, I am proud of us. Is that wrong? Is that not allowed when everyone around me keeps shouting “this is not enough” and I know they are right, too? 

Why we should NOT lose hope in the process

It is indeed difficult to be so enthusiastic and passionate about a process that so many people are “losing hope in”, dismissing as “not effective enough”, or even criticizing as a “complete failure”. Even my university professors, when they hear about me being a UN negotiator, keep asking me: “do you really still believe in the UN system?”

I do give it a thought every single time, but every single time I also come to the same conclusion: yes, I do. 

Maybe because as humanity we have so far not come up with a better option of addressing international affairs than multilateral diplomacy, unless someone would like to claim that war is a better option…

Maybe because I love it.

Maybe because it is actually effective - and to this end let me cite here a wonderful quote I saw recently from professor Michael E. Mann from the University of Pennsylvania: “It’s not “optimism”. It’s the facts—without the COP process we wouldn’t be in a position to see emissions stabilize this year & on trajectory to reduce projected warming from 4C to potentially 2C if COP26 pledges are kept. Blanket nihilism favors polluters rather than progress.”

Maybe it’s all of the above. You have many reasons to choose from. You also have to choose for yourself whether you want to only keep complaining, or to take what you have as a starting point and try to change it - with hope, with love, and with passion. If you have ever seen any of my presentations or speeches, you have probably already heard this, but I can’t overemphasize this point: if we only sit down crying and complaining, then we certainly have no chance to change anything. If we get up, try and do something, even if we don’t really know how… then we DO have a chance!

Into 2024 - stay hopeful!

I don’t make New Year resolutions, I stopped several years ago, because I discovered that meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight - whether in my own personal life, in the world, or in the UNFCCC process. But I do have a wish for the New Year 2024: let us stay hopeful, constructive, and helpful towards each other!

Whether you feel energized or tired after COP, inspired or disappointed, encouraged or discouraged, happy or unhappy… There is always space for you in the Open Dialogue! Would you like to join us at the Open Dialogues International Foundation and join the conversation? We will be more than happy to welcome you and bring some more positive changes to the world with you in 2024! 

~Zuzanna Borowska

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