Good CoP, Bad CoP? Comparing CITES and the UNFCCC conferences

Good CoP, Bad CoP? Comparing CITES and the UNFCCC conferences

by Omar Malik | Bangkok, Thailand

When people talk about the atmosphere of the Conference of the Parties (COP) for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), they often do so with a hint of fond disdain. The COP, one hears, is a hectic affair: a geopolitical battleground where country representatives duke it out over never-ending issues of verbiage and finances. And, what’s more, many participants go into it with the ready assumption that little will get done. But our fellow FESers, who have attended many of the COP meetings over the past few years, always come away having found the conferences valuable—not least because they provide insight into the nitty-gritty realities of the policymaking process.

The conference for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), however, feels different in character. It seems much more… congenial. As I’ve been here at the 16th CoP with my fellow classmates in the FES course on international organizations and conferences, I’ve thought about this distinction and have come up with some broad reasons why I think this might be so.

First of all, the scale of the conference seems much more manageable. The Queen Sirikit National Convention Center is smaller than the one used at Doha, for instance, and there are not as many youth organizations or lobbyists. There are only about 20 exhibition booths, of which our classmates’ Shark Stanley campaign is one. And, there are about 2,000 registered participants, which is less than for UNFCCC’s COP18, for which about 17,000 participants registered. This might be a function of the fact that country delegations are smaller in size, with the average range between two and ten people. And, the workday starts 9 a.m. and ends promptly at 5:30.

Second, the delegates are accessible. They diligently attend the meetings at the lunch talks and they ask a fair number of questions; they have certainly come by our booth and asked us why we are concerned about sharks. A fair number of them are trained as biologists, it turns out, and many come from the wildlife management authorities from their countries as opposed to the economic or foreign affairs ministries that are typically present at the UNFCCC. The United States is represented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service here, for example—not the State Department. It’s a specialist’s politicking.

Third, the scope of the conference is more narrow. The CITES convention adopted in 1973 had a clearly defined goal of protecting wildlife through regulating trade (See Laura Johnson’s and my related post on the YCELP blog). The country representatives come in with their opinions largely formed, and what’s left for the conference is to debate and vote on a series of species-listings and administrative proposals. It’s often a binary choice. Unlike the UNFCCC, it seems that the politics here can get sorted out in small ways, though a series of discrete voting tradeoffs, rather than in the high-stakes policy choices made during the negotiations of global greenhouse-gas limitations. As doctoral candidate and TF for the course, Jeffrey Chow, said, “Everybody gets to win a little bit.”

Of course, the UNFCCC and the CITES are similar in that they both aim to manage international economic behavior in order to solve the problems of the biosphere. The anthropogenic threat of species extinction is still a cause of common concern. It’s just that, while the UNFCCC looks toward the future of industrial processes, CITES is more grounded in the past.