Week 1 of COP22 has come to an end. Listening to music, musing over the experience of being a youth delegate to a UNFCCC conference, familiar lyrics took on a new meaning:
“Our hopes and expectations, black holes and revelations…”
Hopes and expectations
Being the first COP since the Paris Agreement was forged at COP21 (and ratified just the week before COP22 opened), there has been a lot of expectation for this conference to be the ‘COP of Action’ – setting the treaty agreed in Paris into motion. Hopes were high that long-standing divisions between countries (such as those between the US and China), which acted as stumbling blocks for years, would be diminished given the new political paradigm – in which all countries have agreed to take action to reduce their emissions.
Young people in particular expressed high expectations for COP22, building on the momentum created by the Paris Agreement. For example, YOUNGO (the official youth constituency of the UNFCCC) have been calling for enhanced pre-2020 action to close the ‘emissions gap’ left by current NDC pledges, a better policy response to loss and damage to protect the most vulnerable, and improved climate education to build the capacity of young people to respond to the climate crisis. Many people I spoke to seemed to hope that in this new era of climate governance, the negotiations would move more quickly and swifter progress towards solutions could be made.
Sitting in some of the COP22 negotiation sessions, ‘action’ was not the word that sprang to mind… By nature, negotiations between 196 countries are slow and tedious and involve governments (Parties) making long-winded interventions referring to articles and paragraphs that you’ve never heard of. Despite reports that the technical negotiations at COP22 are largely going smoothly, the nature of the talks can leave them feeling like a black hole of endless policy discussions that poorly reflect the urgency of limiting temperature rise to 1.5C.
[A black hole – as seen in Interstellar (not a massive London Underground sign in space…)]
In some cases, it does indeed seem that Parties have been dragging their feet; for example, in the negotiations on the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM), which were reviewing progress on the UNFCCC’s work on loss and damage, a common position was that Parties needed more time as they hadn’t been able to reach agreement within their negotiating blocs. The protracted nature of the talks left many young people feeling frustrated, and I heard several people commenting that the negotiations felt ‘slow’ or even ‘calm’ compared to what they were expecting. (This may change in the second week of COP with the arrival of Heads of State and Ministers, which always makes the talks more dynamic and political.)
It’s also hard to ignore another black hole that appears to be opening up on the other side of the Atlantic, with the election of Donald Trump and the potential that the United States may withdraw from the Paris Agreement. This is a significant threat to the political order established at COP21, and the trust built up between countries that all Parties will begin to transition towards low carbon economies. Whilst it’s too early to know the exact implications of Trump’s election for the climate, it’s undeniable that this cast a dark shadow over COP22.
So, the COP negotiations are slow. But does that mean that ‘action’ isn’t happening?
For me, one of the highlights of COP22 was learning about the many projects and initiatives that are being implemented around the world to address climate change. For example, the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative is a fund which aims to install 10GW of new and additional renewable energy on the African continent by 2020, and 300GW by 2030. It also aims to secure universal access to energy across Africa by 2030, and to leapfrog high carbon development strategies.
Other examples of concrete action were showcased in a side event co-organised by UKYCC and Make It Real International – a youth-led organisation which aims to turn young people’s ideas about climate change into reality. Young delegates from China, Kenya, the Seychelles, France and Japan presented what they are doing in their communities to implement the Paris Agreement to an audience of around 150 people (including some UNFCCC negotiators). The aim of the event was to empower other people to take climate action at the local level, and to connect them to other people by creating a space to share their stories and experiences.
[COP22 side event co-organised by UKYCC and Make It Real International]
Particularly after the frenetic energy of COP21 in Paris, I think it’s only natural to expect that this COP would be full of ‘action’. But I think it’s also important to remember that COPs are not really where the action happens; this takes place in the real world, in another dimension, on the other side of the black hole (stretching the metaphor to its limits… it helps if you’ve seen the film Interstellar…!) The policy agreed at the UNFCCC sends signals to the rest of the world about the collective political and economic direction, and then it’s up to a whole host of actors – governments, businesses and young people included – to act upon implementation.
Civil society, and young people in particular, play a key role in reminding the negotiators of the moral issues at stake and the reality of climate change for people around the world. Many of us pour our heart and soul into these conferences, and it can be devastating when the COP process does not live up to our hopes and expectations. But we must not be disheartened if the UNFCCC does not provide all of the solutions, or to criticise it too much for failing to do so. The power to act on climate change lies within people and communities, as well as within institutions.
The next dimension
The COP is also a valuable space in terms of generating personal revelations, particularly for young people. Attending a conference of this nature is a unique experience, and it helps you to better understand your motivations, your passions, your niche within the climate movement and how you can take action outside of the annual COP meeting. It’s vital that we don’t let what we learn disappear into its own black hole, but pass on our experience in order to transform this privilege into other people’s hopes, expectations and revelations. In my view, this is how we will genuinely achieve climate action.