The role of civil society in global climate policy is mysterious to many in China, writes Chen Jiliang. But public campaigning is crucial work that must persist, even in the face of disappointing results.
Civil society has always been a significant force in global climate-change politics. But in China, the long absent NGO sector has only recently started to emerge. Chinese people, perhaps hazy on concepts such as “non-profit” and “non-governmental”, can find it hard to understand what role NGOs play in driving global-warming policy – and whether they are actually doing any good.
Looking at the current state of climate-change negotiations, you might forgive the public for wondering what NGOs achieve that justifies the carbon footprint of their long-haul flights to international summits. The emissions cuts required by the Kyoto Protocol are minimal; several major emitters of greenhouse gases refuse to take on binding commitments to cut their emissions; negotiations drag on year after year at a snail’s pace; the core differences between nations seem to be expanding rather than shrinking. The list goes on.
What, then, is the point of NGO participation?
The principles of NGO engagement in global environmental politics appear to be the same as those underlying public participation in domestic environmental affairs. When, in the second week of the 2009 Copenhagen talks, the majority of NGOs were shut out of the main conference centre, one banner protested: “How can you make decisions about us, without us?”
Civil-society participation is founded on the belief that the ideal solution to a problem can only be found through involvement of, and discussion with, all interested parties. This belief was the basis for involvement of Chinese NGOs in protection of the Nu River in south-west China and, more broadly, in campaigns on issues such as waste management.
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Chen Jiliang is project officer with the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Beijing office.