Guest blog: Findings from COP23

by Karijn van den Berg


Karijn am a PhD candidate in International Politics and Human Geography supervised by Milja Kurki (at Aberystwyth University) and Naomi Millner (at the University of Bristol), who directs the MSc in Society and Space. Karijn’s project explores the emerging ‘personalization’ of environmental action in relation to politics of inclusion. Her background is in gender and postcolonial studies and I bring those dimensions into my work by highlighting aspects of in- and exclusion and privilege into my analysis and building upon feminist approaches to fieldwork. More generally, her research interests bring together environmental politics, feminist theory, social movements and activism.

In November 2017 I attended the COP23 organized by the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change. I went to the COP23 for my PhD project, in order to get a sense of the things I was studying in practice, and get first contacts for interviews. Because of limited possibilities for access and accreditation I in the end not only went as ‘researcher’ but also spent part of my stay as a volunteer working for the UNFCCC.  This allowed me to focus both on meetings, events and actors within the COP23, as well as those outside of it, such as demonstrations and other events that happened alongside the COP23.

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About the research

My research project focuses on so-called “personalization” of environmental action: developments through which more and more people are engaging with environmental concerns through lifestyle, social media and consumption. The emergence of such personal action at a time when environmental issues are receiving more attention across governmental, corporate, civil society and activist spheres, implies that environmental action is no longer limited to social movements, nor to discussions between and across government and corporate bodies. One of personalization’s main characteristics is that it moves politics to a personal level, and includes lifestyle practices to engage with a variety of causes. For example, the emergence of sustainable consumption – such as eating local or organic – can be considered as a personal practice to engage with environmental issues and practice sustainability on a personal level. My research focuses on this specifically in relation to inclusion, to explore what the personalization of environmental action means in terms of privilege, access and inclusion. This angle of inclusion is important as it allows to bring into view who participates in environmental activism, practices and politics, and who is excluded, particularly at a time where those most affected by environmental issues are often poor people of colour in the Global South, that are commonly left out of the official negotiations on how environmental issues should be dealt with. In the case of personalized environmental action, the participatory repertoire of activism is changing, which might lead to increased inclusion and accessibility for some actors and their practices, but might exclude others. As such, there are different aspects to this personalization that might have both negative and positive consequences. In the framework of my research I consider who can participate in such personalized forms of action, and what dynamics of in- and exclusion might play into this. The personal action frameworks that emerge might make environmental action accessible, facilitating easy ways to practice environmental action ‘at home’, but simultaneously it might decentralize other forms of environmental action, such as more collective organizing, and might be exclusionary to those who cannot practice specific actions in their personal sphere. Such tensions of exclusion are important to account for, which is why my research focuses specifically on personalization of environmental action in relation to notions of inclusivity. The COP23 provided a first site to conduct my research by observing and attending meetings and interviewing different actors at the COP23 to explore these themes. The first findings from my study conducted at the COP23 are detailed below.

Findings from COP23
One of the main debates, as well as concerns addressed by some of my interviewees, was the role of and focus on corporations at the COP23. Lots of people I met during the COP23 with more activist orientations and motivations considered the COP23 as “a business meeting”, aiding corporations and governments, rather than the concerns that they were highlighting. I wanted to see whether this was the case “in practice”. In order to see whether this strong focus was true, and whether this was negative I attended meetings in the Bonn zone (that focused on social organizations, corporations and NGOs), which confirmed that corporations had a big role here.

One of the meetings I attended focused on “transition to a net zero future” and mainly highlighted business perspectives and strategies in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Strategies discussed were bringing governments and companies together to set goals and come to policy suggestions. Another suggestion and mentioned “trend” was branding, in order to target and convince consumers of the sustainable business model and practices of the corporations. One corporation’s representative said “millennials want to buy from companies that integrate these things”. This raises the question as to whether this is a way to greenwash corporations into becoming more “green”, simply for business motivations. At the same time, it indicates a trend in which so-called “millennials” want to buy green products or adhere to a green lifestyle, a development that personalized environmental action describes. Either way, meetings such as this confirmed personal environmental actions and lifestyle measures as notable trend.
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That personal environmental action is gaining momentum was also confirmed in other ways. A meeting outside of COP23, organized by Transition Towns Bonn (Bonn im Wandel), focused on setting up a food policy council in Bonn. The high attendance and enthusiastic response to this event showed that more and more people want to become personally involved and do something in their homes and communities, whilst this simultaneously showed that the people such meetings and actions attract might be a homogeneous group, as attendees were overall young, white and (seemingly) middle class. Thinking about what this means in terms of inclusivity is important to take into account. In addition, personal aspects or so-called personalization of environmental action were visible at the COP23 itself, as participants of the COP23 were actively encouraged to be more environmentally friendly through personal practices. An example are the cafeterias, which featured TV screens detailing the impact of consumption, and how the meals at the COP23 were sourced. The COP23 also cooperated with the framework “Climate Neutral Now”, which focuses on individuals’ emissions and how individuals can “measure, reduce, offset” these emissions.  Visually a personal framework of action was reflected in the water bottles all participants received, and the bicycles they were encouraged to use.

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But also outside of the COP23, in the activist camps I visited, there was a focus on serving vegan food, and at the People’s Climate Summit an example of a campaign against straws in restaurants was mentioned, showing that a focus on personal practices (food, consumption, lifestyle) is also a part of the less official and more activist spaces. This indicates that personal environmental practices are not just a trend in a consumer and citizen sphere, but also proposed and practiced in the governmental sphere of the COP23, as well as embraced to some extent by activists and social organizers.

Simultaneously the theme and language of inclusivity seems to emerge alongside personalized environmental action. This was mainly present in the focus during the COP23 on the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development. Not only did meetings on the 2030 agenda focus on inclusivity, but also on citizens as main actors and participants: presenting it as a “people-powered agenda” that aims to “not leave anyone behind”. During a meeting held by different stakeholders they argued that citizens need to play a role in “creating blueprints for creating a more sustainable society”. As part of the ways in which civil society can be engaged, “activism” was given as an example, and people joining the climate demonstration in Bonn the weekend before as an example of “what civil society needs to do to get the Paris Agreement implemented”. Still, how actual citizens are involved is unclear, as discussions on this agenda mainly happened on a stakeholder level, at which it was also acknowledged that it can be a challenge to involve “ordinary citizens”, and to engage civil society. During and surrounding these meetings, I also encountered perspectives that were critical of the 2030 agenda. At the People’s Climate Summit that happened alongside the COP23 someone from the social organization Attac voiced critiques of the 2050 and 2030 agendas and their focus on citizen participation, asking on the one hand whether we can even think about 2030 (and whether it is not more pressing to do things within the next year), and on the other hand “what is this ‘participation’ people talk about?” Another comment was that the focus should not be on what citizens do per se, but more about making transparent what corporations do and allow for civil society to respond to this. A member of the German delegation of Friends of the Earth (Bund) also said that a focus on participation might be taking things in a wrong direction, if policy decisions don’t follow. This showed that there is also critique on the 2030 agenda, and how it might be using a language of inclusivity, whilst in practice it being unclear how inclusive this agenda is.

Despite personal environmental action and inclusivity being key themes, there remain some tensions between and surrounding them. For example, some of my interviewees from the COP23 pointed out the importance of the affordability of personal environmental practices, and that it is important to consider the privilege that might be involved in such practices. At the same time, the people I interviewed also showed that personalization of environmental action is not necessarily negative. That personal environmental action also allows for new forms of inclusion was demonstrated by my interviewee of Friends of the Earth who said that environmental movements, known to have problems with elitism, “can’t have barriers to participation. If someone can’t come to a march, they need to be able to do other things. […] Individual activism is still a form of being involved”.  She reflected positively on the role of social media in this regard as they “have lowered the barrier to take part”, allowing mass engagement and making it “easier to engage with activism”, even though “it becomes a problem if it stops at that”. This shows that there are different aspects to the personalization of environmental action to be considered, and that it also positively creates new ways for people to participate, and that it remains important to consider how such personalization can be combined with inclusivity. This points to the need to negotiate such individual and personal practices, both with the earlier mentioned accessibility and affordability, as well as with achieving the desired change people aim to achieve.

In conclusion, my research at the COP23 has shown that the development in which environmental action becomes personalized was something that the actors at different meetings and surrounding actions and events recognized, and something that my interviewees negotiated too. It showed that personal environmental practices are not new, but that they are increasingly taking space in the political spaces, ranging from the COP23 itself to activist discussion and organising. Hence, not only was this personalization of environmental action visible in the organisation of the COP23 and the focus of the sustainable practices of the participants, I also discussed the emergence of personalized action framework with different activists and social organisers at the COP23. This resulted in the findings that the personalization of environmental politics was mainly considered positively, even amongst those wary of its strong focus on personal actions, and that with it also new forms of inclusion can come into being through new forms of being able to participate, whilst there remains debate about how to balance such forms of more personalized action with other forms of (more collective) organising and achieving change, and how to do so.

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