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Dialogue of the Deaf?

ItPeter Newell is critical that civil society is actively involved in discussions about the shape of new market mechanisms. But what lessons can be learned from previous efforts to promote reform such as the CDM Policy Dialogue?

Launched at the end of 2011, the CDM Policy Dialogue was a year-long initiative that grew out of the 64th meeting of the CDM Executive Board (EB). In the wake of scandals about the dubious additionality of projects, allegations of human rights violations , and critiques about its failure to deliver sustainable development benefits, the EB attempted to re-claim legitimacy by launching a ‘policy dialogue’. The intention was to generate ‘recommendations regarding how to best position the CDM to respond to future challenges and opportunities and ensure the effectiveness of the mechanism in contributing to future global climate action in an ‘independent’, ‘transparent’ and ‘balanced’ manner. The practice was somewhat different.

Firstly, there was the issue of who would sit on this High Level panel. Members were drawn from the public, private and civil society sectors, nominated by Martin Hession, then chair of the EB and Christiana Figueres, head of the UNFCCC, in consultation with the EB. Nominations were meant to represent a broad geographic area and gender balance and avoid members who are currently engaged in the carbon markets. The panel members nevertheless ended up being either architects of the CDM, civil society organisations supportive of the CDM, or individuals with links to firms that benefit from the CDM. It hardly represented a genuine cross-section of opinion about the performance of the CDM.

Second, limited opportunities for input and stakeholder meetings and inadequate support for travel made it almost impossible for civil society representatives to participate in stakeholder meetings that were heavily dominated by business lobbyists. One participant, Dr. Leena Gupta, from the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, India noted: ‘It was really sad that there was such a low civil society presence in a crowd of companies and consultants …Social and ecological aspects were neglected in the discussion…’  Moreover, the time frame for written submissions was only about 6 weeks and coincided with the festive holidays in many parts of the world. This inhibited the collation of new evidence, the formation and articulation of common positions and inputs from relevant groups and affected stakeholders.

Third, the research underpinning dialogue was selective and produced by supporters of the CDM. The secretariat commissioned a series of reports to evaluate its performance in relation to issues such as sustainable development and technology transfer. Report authors were, however, largely CDM consultants and former architects of the system or members of the CDM’s own panels. Alongside this great effort was made to discredit critical activists and academic research on CDM projects, all the while accepting entirely the positive claims contained in PDDs about sustainable development benefits reported by project developers.

So what difference did the dialogue make? The report of the high-level panel contained a list of 51 recommendations, which inter alia addressed opportunities and guidelines for stakeholder participation, appeals and grievances, monitoring of sustainable development benefits and sanctions in cases of harm. In the wake of the report, Parties to the UN climate negotiations called on the CDM EB to act. It did so by approving a voluntary tool for describing sustainable development co-benefits of CDM projects which still falls short of the binding mechanism sought by Carbon Market Watch and others.

The experience of the CDM Policy Dialogue suggests that civil society actors need to be alert to the ways such processes manage and contain criticism while continuing with business as usual. When claiming to open up dialogue they often then limit its terms to incremental reforms only; include only representatives with a prior commitment to carbon markets; discredit the value of ‘lived’ knowledge produced by ‘non-experts’ while privileging desk-based and quantitative assessments of performance; provide narrow windows of opportunity for effective engagement; and exclude non-market based policy and political alternatives. Fighting for genuinely open-ended and plural processes in which all affected parties can seriously participate is critical to avoiding further dialogue of the deaf.

By Peter Newell, Professor of International Relations at University of Sussex, Steering Committee member of Nature Code.

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