Climate change is the biggest issue of our time which continues to affect communities worldwide and disproportionately impacts those in the Global South. Since it is a global challenge, there is a need for collective solutions; hence people globally meet every year to discuss and make decisions on how to tackle that challenge which require global solidarity- Intergovernmental climate discussion and decision-making. This has been done since 1992, where countries under the United Nations came together to establish an international convention of tackling climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change guides countries to come to diplomatic agreement on what to do to tackle global climate change. For over 30 years there have been negotiations among the 198 countries that ratified the UNFCCC. Together these countries discuss and make decisions on what needs to be done and by whom. So many pledges and commitments have been made and yet there is still a large implementation gap.
My first time at COP
The first time I attended the Conference of the Parties (COP) was COP22 in 2016 which was held in Marrakech, Morocco; when I was given the opportunity by some former colleagues Mr. Regis Nisengwe and Mr. Landry Mayigane, to whom I am most grateful. My participation at COP22 was all about attending side events as I had an observer badge. This experience provided me with the opportunity to connect and engage with many people from over the world. I also got to explore and learn what different people are doing to tackle climate change through the pavilions.
I am grateful for this opportunity that made me experience somehow for the first time what happens at the COP, but also left me very curious about what actually happens during the negotiations and what the process is for coming to consensus and reaching agreements such as the Paris Agreement! I remember asking a fellow participant why access to some areas was limited, if there was a VIP area or what? Laughing, he responded by explaining that within the COPs, there are different types of badges depending on your accreditation. He replied that the next time if I plan to follow the negotiations, I should try to get the badge from my national UNFCCC Focal Point. I felt like there was a lot to understand about the COP process.
Working in a civil society organisation (CSO) on climate change and development issues, I attended and represented my organisation -Young Volunteers for the Environment Rwanda - at numerous international, regional, and national conferences that allowed me to connect with various climate activists, scientists, researchers, experts and government officials. At every turn, I was able to grow, connect with new people and ideas, and become aware of global trends in climate change and the discussions taking place to address these issues. As my first participation at COP left me with many questions and curiosity, since then I had been trying to understand the procedure of the UNFCCC and its COP and how the negotiations are conducted and the added value of the international climate change process to tackling climate change. While I was trying to get sponsorship to attend the COP again, the world entered the difficult period of COVID-19 which complicated everything. Conferences were cancelled or postponed and many meetings went virtual. Experiencing the difficulties of COVID-19, I did not think that there would be a time again when people could travel and meet at in-person conferences including the COP. Like so many others, during the lockdowns I tried to empower myself, not only to acquire new skills and stay focused on my career, but also to avoid overthinking and focusing on what was going on. I used some of my time to read and get an understanding of the UNFCCC process and some COP outcomes and had been participating in and organising webinars related to climate change. Through all of these experiences, I have gained information and some understanding of these processes and I kept on believing that one day I will be involved in such negotiations.
Attending COP as Party delegate for the first time
After two years of waiting for COP26, the time has come for the world to recover slowly, come out of lockdown and return to normal life. It was announced that COP26 would take place in November 2021. I could only be optimistic that it would be my turn to attend the COP with access to the negotiations. I couldn’t wait to see myself experiencing the negotiations. I had to get information on how I will get the accreditation that will allow me to access negotiations. I became engaged in the preparation process including initiating together with my fellow youth climate actors in my country, what we called the climate youth webinar series on the road to COP26. This series had the aim of strengthening youth leadership and our ability to influence international climate policy. I also attended the national preparation meetings including the pre-COP consultative meeting at the country level which left me with a basic understanding of our country's position and priorities in the UNFCCC.
All these events gave me a clear plan for my participation at COP26 and allowed me to work more closely with fellow young negotiators. It also helped me to understand how the negotiations are conducted in the different thematic issues, which made me decide and choose the issue that I would follow: the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture agenda. Still, there was another challenge, one that perhaps I share with so many young people: getting sponsorship. Fortunately, a few weeks before COP26, I obtained, and was very grateful for, sponsorship from Oxfam, and thanks to the great coordination of my country, I was confident that I would get a visa for the UK to attend the COP in Scotland. When the time came, everything I needed to travel was ready and I went to Glasgow to attend COP26.
My first three days were very confusing because what I expected to see in the negotiations was totally different from what I experienced in reality. I couldn't understand the jargon and most of the acronyms. But within the time, I could get some understanding and am grateful for the excellent coordination of my country's negotiators under the leadership of our UNFCCC National Focal Point. At the end of each day we used to meet to share our daily experiences and concerns. Those who were experienced in negotiation would help and guide the newcomers to understand the complexity of these diplomatic discussions.
By also attending the daily coordination meetings of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) Group, the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) and the G77 and China; I was able to catch up and get a clear picture of what had happened in the previous days. Another thing that helped me a lot was to approach the lead of the AGN group in agriculture, introduce myself and ask him to support me in understanding what was going on and where we stood as Africans. He was very helpful and introduced me to some of the negotiators who also helped me understand what was going on during the remaining days of COP26.
Being the only negotiator from my country to follow agriculture at COP26 was another big responsibility, as I had to understand that I was the only one there to follow and represent my country in that process. When I went back home, I was frustrated by the slow pace of the negotiations. Like so many people experiencing the negotiations for the first time, I wondered if people recognise the urgency of providing solutions to the climate change that continues to devastate the lives of people, particularly the most vulnerable! With my limited experience of these diplomatic discussions, I couldn’t deeply understand the importance and role such negotiations are playing in finding solutions to global climate change challenges.
From there, with all the great support I received from many amazing people, I felt very passionate about the plan of continuing to engage in the negotiation process in a sustained way. I can say that COP26 ended with some of my questions answered, but also with a new commitment. As young people, among others outcomes of the COP26, I am happy on how the Glasgow Climate Pact recognised and urged parties to ensure meaningful youth participation and representation at all levels of decision-making processes including the one under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. This emphasises the important role we play in such a space of shaping for the decisions that safeguard our future; and how we young people need to take advantage of the opportunity. From COP26, I was very fortunate to be given the training and mentoring opportunities that contribute a lot to increasing my understanding and knowledge of climate diplomacy. These increased my commitment to effectively engage in the climate negotiations process.
2022, a year of deepening my expertise in climate diplomacy and negotiations
As they said, when there is commitment and determination, anything is possible. 2022 has been a year of setting a clear agenda of my engagement in the climate negotiation space. This included gaining more knowledge and skills in climate diplomacy and looking for opportunities that could allow me to constantly engage in the negotiation process with a clear plan of what I am involved in. I am very grateful to AGNES Africa for the opportunity to be part of their 8th cohort of climate governance, diplomacy and negotiations leadership training program, which helped me to strengthen my understanding and negotiation skills. This enabled me to engage effectively in international climate change policy discourse as well as to contribute to the implementation of policies and climate actions at national levels.
In 2022, I was also thrilled to join the Generation, a group of emerging young negotiators from vulnerable developing countries which continues to contribute a lot to helping me on my journey to becoming an effective climate negotiator for my country. Getting access to the previously mentioned opportunities allowed me to connect with committed and experienced senior negotiators and has strengthened my expertise through virtual workshops and learning sessions that provided a lot of knowledge and experience related to advocacy and other issues related to the climate policy discourse. Attending and facilitating various sessions with senior negotiators as our guest speakers in our New Generation program helped us to clearly understand the history of negotiations, its progress and the role young people can play in the UNFCCC process.
Having different sessions focused on improving our skills in negotiation intervention, blogging, briefing, and policy briefs gave us additional expertise as young climate leaders. This experience has prepared me a lot for COP27. There couldn’t be a better experience than following the negotiations after spending a year of mentorship under the mentors who are really passionate about the meaningful and effective participation of young people in the negotiations process. I am so grateful for the support I got from AGNES under the leadership of Dr. George Wamukoya and so grateful for the advice and quality time and mentorship from our amazing and powerful mentors under the Loss and Damage Collaboration’s Support Centre to the New Generation which included support from Erin Roberts and Camilla More.
My participation and representation in the negotiation during COP27 was a great experience. I was able to understand the discussions there and know our positions as LDCs and the AGN since I had attended the preparations meetings during the Subsidiary Bodies (SBs) and COP27 and engaged with other AGN negotiators that follow the agriculture agenda. With all the knowledge and experience I acquired during the training and mentorship, I felt confident to intervene and support my country's position aligning with others blocks we belong to including the LDCs, AGN and the G77 and China. With my clear understanding and experience gained throughout the year. I extend many thanks to the European Union to Rwanda for the sponsorship that facilitated my meaningful participation at COP27. I am proudly Rwandan, and my interest keeps growing because of the trust and opportunity we young climate negotiators get through the Ministry of Environment and Rwanda Environmental Management Authority (REMA) under the leadership of our UNFCCC National Focal Point.
Of course, I am still a junior negotiator, but I now have a very clear vision for my meaningful and effective participation of representing the perspective of my country and amplifying the voices of vulnerable communities on the frontlines of climate change. As a young person, experiencing these negotiations and being at table has prepared me to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable me to shape and inform decisions that safeguard our livelihoods and that of future generations. The plan is to keep increasing my knowledge of the negotiations and to continue to engage consistently in the negotiations process. I also recognise the importance of putting significant effort into preparation before going to the COP. This includes reading a lot and understanding where we are within different COP outcomes, understanding and getting involved in the preparations of the position of our country and how it aligns with the priorities of different blocks that the country belongs to.
I look forward to keeping in contact with fellow negotiators from the LDC and AGN groups that follow the agriculture agenda to ensure that I keep on track. Funding permitted, I plan to be at the SBs in June and to also be at COP 28 in December and to engage with the UNFCCC far beyond this year.
Honorine Isingizwe is an environmentalist and action-oriented climate advocate with over five years of experiences; both through grassroots activities, youth movements and engagement in Intergovernmental climate diplomacy broader processes.