Despite what you may think, we’re not discussing climate change over lunch with Obama while Narendra Modi cracks jokes about CO2 levels. In fact, the majority of the 40,000 people that have flocked to Paris for the COP will never even witness the negotiations between world leaders. Though this is obviously a crucial part of these next two weeks, the COP has much more to offer. Some may even argue that the most important work is being done outside the formal negotiation rooms. Read on for a day in the life of a student delegation.
The RER arrives at a bus station uptown. You and the 30 other people in suits and badges get off and flock towards the free shuttles down the road. Some shuttle rides were quiet, others included conversations with other English-speakers who immediately recognized your American accent. The shuttle arrives at Le Bourget, an airport-turned-conference center that was transformed for the COP21.
The entrance to the COP is adorned with poles showcasing flags of UN participating countries. The first taste of sustainability is immediate, as volunteers walk around handing out apples for biodiversity.
After a long trek through airport-esque security, you’ve arrived. The site is separated into six halls, each colorfully labeled. The halls are separated as follows: delegation offices and pavilions, media center, meeting rooms, plenary halls, observer rooms and exhibits. While this may sound simple, the COP has proven to be a mystical maze that took at least 3 hours to navigate our first day.
The exhibit hall consists of both exhibit booths and observer rooms. The booths are primarily run by NGOs, university delegations, and other organizations where educational and promotional material is exchanged. Examples include Greenpeace, the United Nations Environment Programme, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands. We find ourselves browsing booths with down time and between side-events. The booths are excellent ways to network, make connections, and learn about interesting and unique organizations and causes.
The observer rooms encompass the periphery of the exhibit hall. Observer rooms hold all the sponsored side-events, which are panel led discussions about a variety of unique topics. Some examples of side-events Naomi and I have attended include: “Carbon Pricing and Market-Based Climate Finance Solutions,” “Leadership on Climate Change Adaption,” and “Role of Russian Forests in GHG Absorption.” The side-events are organized by a variety of organizations, and range from discussions about food security & agriculture, to energy, and carbon economics, plus everything in between. This hall exists as a platform for education and information dissemination, helping to communicate unique perspectives, causes, and solutions to a variety of civil society actors, government agencies, and negotiators. The hope is that this information makes its way to the negotiations, and becomes a priority in the final UNFCCC COP21 agreement.
The pavilion hall is a display space for countries to showcase their unique contributions and concerns with regards to climate change. Each participating country has its own booth, generally designed to reflect the country’s culture and commitment to the conference. For example, the United State’s pavilion includes a holograph globe illustrating climate models and climate change simulations, as well as a space for visitors to express what they hope to learn from the COP. Each pavilion also holds side-events, which are generally panel and Q&A focused.
The negotiating halls are where the real magic happens. Negotiating rooms are spread throughout a number of halls protected by varying levels of security clearance. While some negotiations are open and easy to access, others are strictly reserved for party delegations and high-level officials. The primary goal of these negotiations is to come to an agreed-upon text that is supported by all country representatives present. The representatives negotiate on a variety of topics, ranging from how much money will be donated to the green climate fund to how much the country plans on cutting emissions and by when. Parties work paragraph by paragraph through a number of documents, most notably the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) (http://unfccc.int/bodies/body/6645.php), that have been drafted in conferences throughout the year leading up to Paris. The negotiations can be a bit dry for observers, as many issues regard tedious changes such as comma placement or word usage. The text being negotiated currently contains thousands of lines with bracketed sentences and phrases scattered throughout. Every bracketed phrase reflects a dispute among parties. The goal of Paris is to remove all brackets and agree on a meaningful and equitable solution.
Take this example from Article 4 (Adaptation), Paragraph 7:
“7. Parties [shall] [should] enhance their cooperation for enhancing action on adaptation, taking into account the Cancun Adaptation Framework, including with regard to…”
In previous talks, parties failed to agree on which term, shall or should, best communicates the responsibility for enhancing adaptation. In the above example, shall indicates that parties will abide to the following responsibilities, whereas should simply recommends it. While many negotiations and disputes concern much more substantive issues, these minor changes still make a major difference with regards to the responsibility of countries. At any given time, there are a multitude of talks going on regarding unique sections of the documents, spin-off groups, and specific country blocs.
Despite the high-level talks going on in negotiating halls, the COP is filled with entertaining and engaging activities and exhibits. Some examples include bike powered charging stations, artistic pieces throughout the conference site, civil society demonstrations, and an unlimited supply of fresh baguettes.
It’s important to remember that of the 40,000 people estimated to descend on Le Bourget over these two weeks, only a small handful of them are actually negotiating; the rest of the COP visitors are engaging in meaningful discussions and planning future action in hopes of addressing our generation’s greatest threat.
Love and Climate,
Taylor McNair & Naomi Maisel