Access to participation falls short at COP26 / Aarhus Convention series: part five

Today marks the final day of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) – as part of our Aarhus series, we examine the high-level summit through the lens of environmental democracy. When it comes to participation and inclusion, COP26 has a lot to answer for, with participants from civil society decrying the unprecedented and unjust restrictions on access to the negotiations.

What connects the COP26 and the Aarhus Convention?

The Aarhus Convention is key to the implementation of the Paris Agreement, the main international legally binding document on climate change. COP26 leads to more concrete action towards the goal of the Paris Agreement while governments have to report transparently on their progress towards the proposed targets. This is where the Aarhus Convention comes into play, as the Convention provides accountability tools for citizens and NGOs through access to environmental information, public participation, and access to environmental justice.

This enables citizens and non-governmental organisations to hold their governments to account on environmental concerns. Especially in Europe, the last years have shown that governments are more likely to stay true to their political promises when citizens are empowered to exercise their rights.

How did COP26 score on public participation?

The COP26 was an excellent opportunity to promote the rights of access to information and access to justice in environmental decision-making. But, first and foremost, the conference itself seems to have failed this time the litmus test for public participation.  

Access to negotiation rooms, connected facilities and to delegates at the COP26 is being described as unprecedentedly difficult. This is of course a major obstacle for the participation of environmental and other civil society representatives and brings into question the quality and legitimacy of such meetings where affected groups are not represented.

The larger the obstacles to public participation, the higher the benefit for those with privileged access and more resources. The fossil fuel industry for instance enjoyed better representation at the COP26 than any single national delegation.

What is the role of Aarhus parties at climate summits?

According to the Convention, all parties are obliged to promote its principles in international environmental decision-making processes, such as the COP26. In this sense the Aarhus state parties, which includes the European Union, must stand up for public participation and climate justice – principles that have unfortunately been overlooked in this year’s climate summit.