Michelle Arellano is WEN’s new climate change advisor, and was a lead representative for Ecuador at the UN climate negotiations in Bonn in June 2015. Here she talks about her experience of the UN negotiating process, and what she thinks will really bring about positive solutions to climate change.

Last year, the 20th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima (known as ‘COP20’ in UN speak) set the precedent for the drafting of a new universal agreement on climate change action post-2020. More than 190 nations  are expected to sign this agreement at COP21, the 21st conference in Paris this December.  The world has set its sights on the results of this conference and we all hold great expectations about it.

However, negotiations have not been moving fast enough, and national  commitments on emissions reduction are not sufficient  to keep us within the  2 degrees warming limit to avoid catastrophic climate change (current estimates suggest that if every country sticks to the climate pledges each has made ahead of COP21, the global temperature will increase by more than 3 degrees). Many fear a repeat of the failure to reach a meaningful climate agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009.

Developing countries -- where the devastating effects of climate change are already being felt -- are desperately seeking  an agreement that can actually reflect true climate justice and take into consideration sustainable development, climate financing, and loss and damage; whereas developed parties -- such as Australia for example, whose pledge is notably weak -- are much more interested in only mild mitigation, simply because they can afford to wait.

Representing Ecuador at the international climate negotiations in Bonn this year was gruelling.  Sometimes I felt utterly powerless, and other times I felt the responsibility of carrying on my shoulders what could become the future for my 15 million fellow Ecuadorians.  There is a lot of work to do, but my hands were tied by a political power much greater than myself and my beliefs.  I found myself in a struggle between what I think is the right thing to do and what the politics behind the complex negotiations dictate.

I have questioned myself many times if what I am doing is enough; I feel like a small fish in a vast ocean.  But in these moments of frustration I remember the power of grassroots projects in  small communities and I know they are making a difference, even when their efforts are not reflected in top-level negotiations, too easily becoming lost in the formalities of the UN framework.

Last year Lima set a precedent for local actions.  More and more governments are feeling the pressure from civil society, asking for concrete action in the long run as well as in the short term (see The Netherlands case, for example).

Civil society action is key during the difficult and bureaucratic process of the UN summit in Paris.  We have learned that the politics of the negotiations are slow, so we have to keep working on our own changes outside the halls of power. One individual can make the difference, and the number of people trying to make that difference is increasing.

With the new Sustainable Development Goals approved by the UN, climate change has gained a privileged place in public and political consciousness. It is vital to keep this momentum building ahead of  COP21.  

We left Lima full of hopes and with all eyes fixed firmly on Paris, but even if we want this agreement to be the answer to our prayers, it might not turn out that way.  Having seen the the top from the inside, I believe it is more important to focus on a bottom-up approach to climate change, through enhancing local initiatives and mobilising people on the ground. It is time to reclaim the role of the people in the most important transformation of society.  This is a time of change, and it is our duty to embrace our responsibilities to nature, to future generations, and to ourselves.


If you want to know more about COP21 and follow the process, Carbon Brief have a useful series of articles to check out.

If you'd like to find out why climate change is a gender issue, head to our climate change page.

To read about gender at last year's COP20, read this blog post from last year: Gender and climate change in Lima: "No one should be left behind"