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Reflections on a climate change conference

AAAS member and Qualia blogger Gyami Shrestha, left, with the Nepalese Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal at the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. (Photo: Gyami Shrestha)

The numerous scientific meetings that I attended since my early days as an environmental scientist could not prepare me enough for this one. Raw emotions, intense demonstrations, dramatic speeches, stealthy behind-the-door negotiations and voices from all segments of society from Hollywood actors and military heroes to Indian trash-pickers — they were all present.

I am referring to the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) of the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Copenhagen in freezing December 2009. As the only person from my university, I spent most of my time absorbing and observing everything that was happening there. I interacted with a heterogeneous mélange of folks I would never had a chance to share ideas with, had I not been there — the Bangladeshi, Congolese, Tanzanian, Latvian, Grenadines and UK Marshall Island delegates, UNFCCC secretariat and UNEP officers, the Danish Foreign Ministry head for trade and cooperation, Alaskan natives and the Nepalese Prime Minister and his entire delegation.

One of the major reasons that I loved this meeting was the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, from the smallest of places, but all with brilliant minds and an unstoppable drive to protect the environment, their livelihoods and their climate.

A major voice at the conference was Tuvalu, an island nation. I have to admit that I did not know anything about before December 8, 2009. Now, the whole world following COP15, including myself, know about this tiny state that stood up, repeatedly persisting for its voice to be heard, for the continuation of discussion on a new 'Copenhagen Protocol'. The validity and rectitude of their request and stance is matter of discussion, but they were truly the heroes of the day, and I hope, a source of perpetual inspiration for small developing nations.

After the sizzles of the first few days, the inclement weather of Copenhagen seemed to mirror the general mood of the conference. This is what I found myself reporting to my friends and colleagues in the United States:

"I was one of the few fortunate delegates to have arrived at the conference venue, the Bella Center, early enough to be actually admitted today. There have been many demonstrations outside and many registered delegates who arrived this week did not even get a chance to enter the meeting venue, even after standing in line for 4-10 hours on Monday. Today, the Danish police tear gassed protesters just outside here.

There has been no (non-deleted) progress (in the Kyoto Protocol work group text) with setting emissions reduction standards for developing and developed nations. They have been arguing over single sentences or issues like sets of brackets for hours almost every day since last week.... I am surprised to see how any work gets done here and wondering about how the original Kyoto Protocol itself got drafted, ratified and signed. Now, with the big guns here, it seems like some political show of power may actually solve the problems.

The small island states, particularly Tuvalu and Maldives have been very adamant at demanding a strict adherence to developing and developed country emission cuts ensuring that the targets of 1.5 degree Celsius or 350 ppm CO2e are not surpassed. The big nations have been claiming it's not possible because of their economic goals."

In the end, COP15 did not live up to its expectations in terms of reaching a fair global agreement on emissions reduction. All the disappointments did, however, appear to lead to better outcomes at the 2010 conference (COP16) in Cancun, though. A consensus on climate change mitigation and adaptation measures was reached by all the nations attending the conference, except one, Bolivia.

The Accord in Copenhagen had simply been noted. A number of diplomatic faux pas clearly had not aided the process. On the other hand, the agreements reached in Cancun were adopted by the UNFCCC with each nation party to it promising to implement the changes outlined in it with clearer directions, methodology, policies and a system to track violators and to hold them accountable.

There were apparently no scandals involving leaked documents or offended heads of states such as at COP15. Could the nicer weather and the diplomatic acumen of the Mexican hosts have facilitated this comparative improvement in climate change negotiations? But was this meeting really as successful in carving the way to a sustainable climate future as it claimed to?

As an official from an international organization who prefers to call himself an 'international civil servant' shared with me on conditions of anonymity, 'COP16 represented an optimal balance between a very astute COP presidency (assumed by a foreign minister for the first time) a fresh secretariat leadership (the UNFCCC executive secretary) and countries that were unwilling to relive the trauma of the Copenhagen failure.' According to him, those factors worked together to produce an outcome which (ironically) only reconfirmed what had been rejected in the Copenhagen Accord but in more detail.

The tacit U.S. leadership in Cancun that was lacking in COP15 was reestablished in COP16, largely aligning an outcome favorable with the U.S. position. Apparently, the Cancun agreements left all actors with a perception that they were also winners even though the outcome did not necessarily reflect all their interests. Such candid comments from an insider made me think of the diplomatic grace that will have to lead each step of the now slow race that will soon have to be hastened for carbon emissions reduction and protection against climate change from individual to international levels.

A cure for any global environmental disaster will always require some form of compromise from countries that may realize that others got the better end of the bargain. However, in the long term and in the global scale, if and when the disaster is averted or mitigated, such national cost benefit analyses should not matter as much.

I remember slightly surprising a UN official in Copenhagen when I asked him if they knew how many more COPs there would be in the future — after all if a concrete agreement is reached, would there be a need for all these people to fly in from everywhere every year just to argue and amend the same document over and over again? My scientific credentials and probably his diplomatic training must have superseded the reflection of my erstwhile naïveté concerning the world of climate change politics and bureaucracy because he quickly regained his composure and answered calmly that this will go on for many more years.

Representative Image Caption
AAAS member and Qualia blogger Gyami Shrestha, left, with the Nepalese Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal at the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. (Photo: Gyami Shrestha)
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