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COP Reflections: Inside the conferences meant to save the world

March 22, 2023

Aren’t we saving the world already?

I recently saw someone post something on LinkedIn along the lines of: “On any other topic the UN climate conferences would be considered an incredible international success, but Climate Change is complicated”. An incredible success? By what metric? I see variations of this argument often, prompting us not to worry, that we’ve made astounding progress and we should be happy! But there’s a difference between optimism and denial and the science is unequivocable. Since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992 carbon in the atmosphere has risen from 356.54 parts per million (ppm) to 417.2 ppm. To put this in perspective, in the 30 years since the world convened and agreed that climate change poses a grave and international threat, we have warmed the planet faster than ever before. Similarly, since the much-celebrated Paris accords in 2015 we have seen no relenting in our carbon emissions. Not a single country[1] is on track to meet its Paris commitments. In fact, according to a 2021 UN report we are on track to achieve less than a 1% reduction in reduction in emissions by 2030. Less than one percent is not success. Clearly this process is not working as quickly or dramatically as it needs to.

At the same time, the massive fossil fuel projects that national governments continue to undemocratically support and push through, whether it’s the UK’s Whitehaven coal mine, Germany’s Garzweiler lignite mine or even the disastrous Willow Project which Biden recently approved despite massive opposition, makes it clear that a strong international process is necessary if we are going to even have a chance to meet our climate and nature goals. The latest IPCC synthesis report, released just days ago, does not mince words: to secure a livable planet and limit warming to 1.5C we need drastic and immediate cuts to emissions across all sectors this decade. The end of the decade is 7 years away, we are running out of time, and, despite the challenges, these international summits are our best hope. I attended both the UN conference on climate change and the conference on biodiversity and I think we can do better.

What is COP?

I think a lot of the articles you read about the COPs work from the assumption that you can imagine what it’s like. They seem to always begin with an endless list of antonyms which the COP’s supposedly embody. Hopeful and hopeless, welcoming and intimidating, interesting and excruciating, and so on and so on. But this doesn’t give you any idea of what it’s like to stand there, in these giant exhibition halls, where we are supposed to be saving the world. So, let me try to set the scene.

The Conference of the Parties (or COP) is an international yearly meeting of participating countries held within two frameworks. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The UNFCCC has held its annual COP 27 times, the first one was held in Berlin in 1995, the most recent one in Sharm El Sheikh. The CBD has only met 15 times with this year’s meeting split between Kunming and Montreal in a two-part format. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend both COP27 in Egypt in November and the second half of COP15 in Montreal in December.

A Disappointment in the Desert: COP27

Sharm was jarring. 35,000 people descended onto the resort town on the southern point of the Sinai Peninsula. The conference hall was immense. White tent after white tent each filled with hundreds of “pavilions” each putting on hours of events per day for two weeks straight. Maps and schedules meant to guide you couldn’t possibly decipher the complexity of so much pandemonium leaving you only more confused than you began. It was like trying to find your way through an unfamiliar city using a school globe. Even the app that was supposed to guide you was rumored to be a surveillance tool and I soon uninstalled it.

The pavilions (think trade show booths) seemed to cover every possible topic, organization, country, and issue. From national pavilions for countries like Egypt, Colombia, and Ghana to topics like food security or Youth and Climate. There were pavilions for international groups that desperately need more attention, like the Pacific islands, as well as for those, like OPEC, whose presence alone was unsettling. Every day for over 12 hours talks, discussions, panels, presentations, debates, exhibitions, shows, and receptions carried on ceaselessly, filling the multitudinous tents with a cacophony of applause, cheers, laughs, music, and microphone feedback. When this chaos ended each day, people with badges hanging from their necks flowed in the thousands to posh hotel lounges, expensive restaurants, local bars, and private events to continue (or start) their discussions. Then there were the negotiations, often mentioned but seldom engaged with. I don’t even know if they were open to the public as I never found out where they were being held…

Egypt was strange for other reasons as well. Despite an authoritarian police state which jails protesters and denied climate activists access to the convention, the UN decided to bless the Sisi administration with another COP conference and all the economic benefits that entails (Sharm was also the location of the CBDs COP14). The convention itself was sponsored by Coca-Cola, the biggest plastic polluter in world history. The discovery of bottles filled with human waste in the walls of the convention center sparked rumors of labor-rights abuses while foreigners in designer suits sat in air-conditioned tents and talked about justice and equity. Protests, usually a fixture at COPs, had to be pre-approved by the government and only occurred in a small-tucked away corner of the convention grounds. Sharm itself was an altar to colonial materialism with American and European resort chains claiming kilometers of coastline exclusively for their wealthy customers. All this hidden behind a thin green curtain of welcomed eco-friendly preparations like a fleet of electric buses. Ultimately, COP27 left much to be desired.

Same stuff, different crisis

COP15 was somehow exactly the same and completely different. Here there was no constructed city of white tents, or an unending maze of pavilions and events. The government did not intervene to stop protests and I joined thousands of people on the streets of Montreal to demand action on biodiversity, despite sub-zero temperatures. The conference was held in a convention center in the middle of town with numbered rooms that were easy to find and an app that conveniently alerted you of the events you were interested in. Far fewer people attended, making the conference feel more manageable and intimate. Negotiations were center stage and for the most part open to the public.

However, despite all of this, some of the same things continued to bother me. The biodiversity crisis only seemed to be talked about in dollars and proposed solutions only seemed to be seriously considered if they were “market based”. The same private companies and financial institutions who have funded the destruction of nature for decades held talks to showcase the incredible “investment potential” of nature. The “real conversations” happened at extravagant dinners hosted by NGOs at swanky hotels and restaurants. Indigenous people called out the Canadian government and the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) for undermining their rights and power. It was a little more dressed up, but ultimately COP15 saw the same systemic traps that have plagued every international attempt to make progress on climate and nature.

Moving Forward

Let me be clear, I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to go to these events. Not everybody gets the opportunity and there are hundreds, if not thousands, who would happily switch places with me. I am beyond privileged to have been given a seat to observe and even a stage to speak truth to power. All my criticisms are aimed towards a system, and I truly believe there are few maliciously intentioned people. In fact, everywhere I looked I was inspired to meet friends, allies, indigenous leaders, activists, scientists, and civil servants who work desperately hard to ensure a livable planet for other species and ourselves. However, when the world has met for 30 years and still cannot agree to even eventually phase out the very cause of the crisis (fossil fuels), there is clearly something missing. And these clear inadequacies continue; the COP28 president will be the head of the UAE’s oil company, a headline so ridiculous it’s making me want to stop writing and give up on this process all together. So how do I reconcile all of this? I have spent the last months thinking a lot about what it takes to save humanity (let’s not forget that’s what’s at stake here) and whether we’ll do so through the COP process. Of course, I don’t have definitive answers and there are far smarter people who have pondered these questions for far longer, but I’ve come away with four reflections which hopefully we can use to strengthen our processes, change the system of destruction that benefits the few, safeguard the rights of the people and finally heal our relationship with Mother Earth.

  1. Improve the engagement in the negotiation process

The thing that struck me almost immediately was the lack of connection between what I’ll call the “tradeshow” COP and the actual negotiations. Very few people run the gamut between the two and most people I met at these events knew very little about the negotiations beyond that which was being reported in mainstream news. Many were attending the conference for other reasons altogether, to take advantage of networking opportunities, announce exciting new projects/partnerships, or to just observe (I’m guilty of the latter). Perhaps I was just in different circles, but I struggled to meet people who were pressuring government negotiators, building coalitions with political power, lobbying for the inclusion of terminology, reporting on the outcomes of negotiations, or otherwise interacting with what COP is supposed to be about (kudos to Climate Champions and the Global Youth Biodiversity Network for doing this work at COP27 and COP15 respectively).

There was a moment in Montreal that I think encapsulated this disconnect perfectly. Ahead of COP15 I was added to a large WhatsApp group and during one of my first days in Montreal I asked for information on where and when negotiations were happening and whether they would be open to the public. A few uncertain and vague messages trickled in, nothing too helpful. Nobody really seemed to know. A few minutes later my phone began to chime, there was a new topic of discussion which was being greeted with much more enthusiasm and knowledge; “where are we meeting for drinks tonight” …

This is especially disappointing given that the COP’s bring the world’s best minds together in one place. These are the people who can help us plan and work towards a nature-positive world, people who have done the hard work on the ground and seen the effects that protecting nature and empowering people can have. These are the people that we need in the room when decisions on climate and nature are being made. These are the scientists, the indigenous leaders, the ecological economists, the environmental journalists, the activists, the agroecologists and the environmental lawyers. But more importantly these are the people who will be affected by climate change and biodiversity collapse. These are the people that depend on land for their livelihoods, their identities and their joy. Surely, they can be put to better use.

  1. Refuse to be satisfied by small steps

COP, like all social gatherings, is about finding the circles you feel comfortable in. More than once I found myself in the wrong circles, surrounded by businesspeople and private investors who spoke a language I didn’t understand or agree with. Small talk consisted of rattling off a horrifying list of acronyms that I would never decipher, and when people realized it, they would quickly find someone more adept to talk to. I felt awful, especially because everybody else seemed to be in their element, excitedly congratulating each other on their successes. However, in other circles I found myself on the other end of this dynamic. I happily applauded as I heard speakers and colleagues reference the themes and terms that I am passionate about and believe in; indigenous leadership, women in climate, youth activism, ecocide, fossil fuel nonproliferation, science-based initiatives, equitable conservation, etc. Suddenly I was having a fantastic time and making connections with people who I hope to continue to collaborate with going forward. However, I realized that while I was feeling better, this self-congratulation was achieving much of the same: not all that much. Whether I was enjoying it or not, these conversations served to pat ourselves on the back and ease our own anxiety around the escalating crises. Instead of motivating each other, strategizing and creating a single powerful movement, we were enjoying, for a fleeting moment, feeling at home in a circle of people just like us. Surrounded by this bubble of fellow conservationists filled me with hope, but instead of using that to propel the movement forward it was being used like a comfort blanket to help us enjoy the cocktail events just a little bit more.

We must celebrate our victories, we must connect with each other and our work, we must remind ourselves of why we are fighting this fight, but we cannot become complacent. We cannot be content to celebrate our small victories and milestones while our governments and businesses sabotage our chance of a livable planet. We must balance the local with the global, the optimism with the realism and the celebration with the grit to keep on fighting.

  1. Focus on obstacles, not solutions

We often think that our global crises will only be solved when we find that perfect solution. Some genius or billionaire will come along with an innovative plan or a miraculous technology and save us all. However, COP is nothing if not an excess of solutions. Everyone is constantly pitching their solution, trying to secure buy-in so that they can put their plan into action and maybe make a few dollars on the way. During my time at the COPs I heard solutions I loved, solutions I thought were misguided, solutions that weren’t quite ready yet, solutions that were overdue and solutions that would create more problems than they solved. But we don’t need to reinvent the wheel and the world won’t be saved by one person or one plan or one solution. We can get a long way to our climate and biodiversity goals by listening to the solutions of indigenous people who have safeguarded the natural world for millennium. Ecology and science can also help us determine the value and plausibility of proposed solutions. I truly believe the solutions are already out there, they have been for a long time.

The most fundamental realization that I had during the COPs was that we need to be working not on developing new and improved solutions, but on reducing the obstacles that stand in the way of implementing the solutions that we believe in. For centuries people and nature have been sacrificed for the benefit of a few and there is no getting out of this crisis without confronting and challenging this imbalance. Solutions that do so will face fierce opposition by those who stand to lose the most, even if they benefit the rest of us. We must dedicate ourselves to fighting these obstacles with just as much ferocity.

  1. Unify the movement

So, this is where the COPs left me. With all these thoughts swirling about in my head, more questions than answers and a whole lot to think about. Despite all my criticisms and worry, my rantings, and my stubbornness I have never stopped believing for a moment that we can do it. We can build a beautiful new world, in which we are all more equal and free and we take care of mother nature as she has always taken care of us. I have had my moments of doubt as to whether we will, but I firmly believe that we can. But we can only do so together. Every successful social movement throughout history has attracted and maintained support through a shared identity. These shared identities have given humans the courage and strength to fight together against the most unimaginable odds. People need to feel that they’re part of something larger than themselves and they desperately want to identify themselves as such. Whether it’s a symbol (like the gay pride flag or the hammer and the sickle), a gesture (like the black power fist or the three finger salute), a costume (like the purple, green and white of the woman suffragettes or the yellow vests in France), a slogan (like “black lives matter” or the Iranian call of “women, life, freedom”) or a combination of them all, successful social movements are built on the back of a common identity.

The environmental movement is, in comparison, depressingly fractured. The movement encompasses everybody from Texas ranchers fighting against fossil fuel infrastructure to indigenous tribes in the Amazon attempting to protect their traditional stewardship, from ecologists who study biodiversity patterns in Zurich to female farmers who use ancient milpa systems in Mexico. Our success will come when we realize that we are all fighting the same fight and against the same forces. We need something that unites us. Maybe it’s a political party or a war cry or a tattoo or even an armband. Whatever it is, we need it soon because we are running out of time. A symbol or a token or an emblem that people across the world can latch on to and use as their motivation to fight and their reason to win.

Do I think we save the world with one last COP? Perhaps yes, if we do it together.

[1] This statement is based on the Climate Action Tracker and while it does not track every country’s progress it does include enough countries to account for ~85% of global emissions.


Teaser photo credit: By UN Biodiversity – 22dec07-COP15-COP-opening-3185, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=126537453

Giacomo Delgado

Giacomo Delgado is a young climate activist and PhD candidate at the Crowther Lab, Zurich, Switzerland.

Tags: climate change responses, COP agreements, international climate change agreements