Nov 11, 2022 - Energy & Environment

"Digital portals" tackle COP27 inclusivity issues — somewhat

A repurposed shipping container in Centro de Cultura Digital in Mexico City allows participants to connect to the global climate summit in Egypt.

A container in Centro de Cultura Digital in Mexico City as a virtual gateway to the global climate summit in Egypt. Photo: Courtesy of Museum for the United Nations.

A new UN Live program is trying to mediate inclusivity issues at COP27 through "digital portals," or repurposed shipping containers placed around the world and outfitted for long-distance conversations.

The big picture: Past UN climate summits have been criticized for a lack of diverse representation, and this year's event is no different, as activists from African nations have faced barriers to entry.

  • "Many activists have been denied access to accreditations," Ugandan youth climate justice activist Nyombi Morris told Axios from COP27.

How it works: The 'digital portals' are repurposed shipping containers with floor-to-ceiling screens placed in public and private institutions around the world.

  • This week, they connected people not physically at COP27 with attendees at the event — like a life-sized FaceTime.
  • Designed for UN Live's Global We for Climate Action program — which is funded by the IKEA Foundation — 12 portals in Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Mali, India, South Africa, Barbados, Iraq, Mexico, Denmark and the U.S., were linked to a corresponding portal at COP27.

The backstory: From Indigenous peoples left out of last year's summit to men taking up 74% of speaking time during plenary sessions, issues with inclusion and representation were in abundance at COP26.

  • This year, activists from African nations have been reporting problems with accreditation, visa requirements and funding needed to attend COP27.
  • "Many voices are being silenced," Morris told Axios.
  • Molly Voss Fannon, CEO of UN Live — the main organization operating the portals — told Axios they have been working with African activists who were unable to make this year's summit because of those obstacles.
  • "We are bringing in climate activists who were not able to attend, to come into portals where we already have them standing up in Africa," Fannon said, speaking to Axios from COP27.

What they found: Kumi Naidoo, a South African human rights and climate activist, told Axios in an email that he spoke with officials from the International Trade Union Confederation and activists in Ethiopia and Sudan through the portal in Johannesburg.

  • "The Global We programme is ensuring that those that live on the front lines are not mere spectators but are the central players in trying to shape their destiny, which should be a critical part of our climate response," Naidoo wrote.

Of note: Organizers say portal conversations are recorded with machine learning tools, which then transcribe them and convert them into records that will be shared online in a digital archive to be available as a resource for world leaders, historians and the broader public.

  • Fannon hopes to see the portals used at COP28, and beyond. "We're building what we aspire to become the world's largest and most inclusive conversation on climate," Fannon told Axios.

Yes, but: Around 37% of the world's population has never accessed the Internet, and nearly all of the roughly 2.9 billion people that have no digital access live in developing countries — which are most heavily impacted by climate change — according to a 2021 UN report.

Between the lines: Although most of the portals that launched during COP27 are in developing nations, few are in places without digital connectivity, where representation in the global climate conversation is largely lacking.

  • Only two sites were set up in places without stable Internet access. At the Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda, Africa and the Harsham refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq, portals used mobile data and local nonprofits to connect to COP27.
  • And just four of the 25 portal sites that organizers say will be up and running by the end of 2022, to be used for future social impact conversations, will be hosted in areas without digital access.

What they're saying: Fannon told Axios they "decidedly designed" the program to be able to operate in spots without stable internet connectivity.

  • "We are determined to allow everyone to be part of the conversation."
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