Inside the conferences meant to save the world

Giacomo Delgado, master’s student at our lab, visited both COP27 in Egypt and COP15 in Canada last year – his first time at any COP. The events left a curious impression on him. Here he shares an ‘insider’s view’ into COP27 and COP15 and reflects about how we can harness these conferences for more effective and impactful action.

The Conference of Parties (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). Last year, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend both COP27 in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt and the second half of CBD COP15 in Montreal, Canada.

It is difficult to understand what the COPs feel like without having been. In news articles, COPs are described as hopeful (or hopeless), welcoming (or intimidating), interesting (or excruciating), and so on. A long list of antonyms that provide only an incomplete picture. Hopefully, I can give you an idea of what it feels like to stand in the giant exhibition halls where we are supposed to be saving the world.

The Climate COP (COP27): A world of its own

Personally, Sharm-El-Sheikh was jarring. 35’000 people descended onto the resort town where white tent after white tent was set up, each filled with dozens of ‘pavilions’ that boasted jam-packed daily programs for two weeks straight. The scale of it alone was dizzying and even after a week I couldn’t find my way around.

The pavilions (think trade show booths) seemed to cover every possible topic. There were pavilions for entire countries like Egypt or Ghana as well as topic-specific ones 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. These pavilions filled the exhibition halls with a cacophony of applause, cheers, laughs, music and microphone feedback. All of this chaos spilled over into hotel lounges, restaurants, local bars, and private events as the discussions continued on (or started) after dusk.

COP27 was strange for other reasons as well. Despite the current Egyptian 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). Labour rights abuses circulated, protests were downplayed and plastic polluter Coca-cola turned out to be a sponsor. Ultimately, COP27 left much to be desired.

Contrasting impressions of COP27 by Giacomo Delgado

Contrasting impressions of COP27 in Sharm-El-Sheikh by Giacomo Delgado.

The Biodiversity COP (COP15): Same same, but different

COP15 was somehow exactly the same, and yet completely different. In Montreal, I could see no constructed city of white tents, nor an unending maze of pavilions and events. The event was held downtown, in an easy to navigate convention centre, with far fewer people attending. In Egypt, protests  were pre-approved by the government and relegated to the corners of the convention grounds but now their sounds filled the streets of Montreal despite sub-zero temperatures. Even the negotiations were, for the most part, open to the public and easy to find.

However, even when it was a little more dressed up, ultimately COP15 saw the same systemic traps that have plagued every international attempt to make progress on climate and nature. Progress was slow and private interests abounded at every type of event. 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.

CBD COP15 in Montreal evoked similarly contrasting impressions.

Now, let me be clear: I know that I am fortunate to have been able to attend these events, and to be given a seat to observe and speak about what matters to me. All my criticisms are aimed towards a system, and I truly believe there are very few maliciously intentioned people. In fact, I was truly inspired by all the friends, allies, indigenous leaders, activists, scientists, and civil servants who work desperately hard to ensure a future liveable planet. However, when the world has met for 30 years and still cannot agree to eventually phase out the fossil fuels which are driving the destruction of our climate, there is clearly something missing. So how do I reconcile all of this?

I have spent the last months thinking a lot about the COPs’ role in “saving the world” and have come away with four reflections that hopefully can help us strengthen our processes, be more inclusive, and heal our relationship with Mother Earth.

#1 Increase delegate engagement with COP negotiations

One thing that struck me almost immediately was the lack of connection between the actual negotiations and the ‘trade-show’ part of a COP. Most people I met knew little about the negotiations and were attending the conference for reasons such as networking or announcing new projects. Perhaps I was just in different circles, but I struggled to meet people who actively tried to engage with the negotiations such as pressuring governments or lobbying for the inclusion of terminology (kudos to Climate Champions, and the Global Youth Biodiversity Network for doing this at COP27 and COP15 respectively). We need to find a way to bring the energy, innovation and knowledge that is so abundant at the COPs and translate it into real progress on climate change and biodiversity loss.

#2 Celebrate small victories without forgetting the big picture

Given the lacking connection between the negotiations and the side events, the latter can feel self-gratifying. Everybody from business people and politicians to scientists and activists patting themselves on the back (and rightly so!) for the amazing work they are doing. However, let’s remember that not a single developed nation is on track to meet its Paris goals and biodiversity continues to be lost at an appalling pace.  It is important to celebrate our small victories, and to connect with each other, but we also cannot become complacent. We need to balance the local with the global, the optimism with the realism, and the celebration with the grit to keep on fighting. We will not save humanity and insure a livable planet without serious commitment from the highest levels of society. We need real global progress and a system to hold governments accountable.

#3 Work on removing obstacles, not creating more solutions

We often think that our global crises will only be solved when we find that perfect solution. But if anything, COP showed me the excess of solutions around. I heard solutions I loved, others I thought misguided, solutions that were not quite ready yet, others that were overdue and solutions that would create more problems than they solved. But we do not need to reinvent the wheel: the world will not be saved by one person, one plan, or one solution. I truly believe the solutions are already there, like in the wisdom of indigenous people who have safeguarded nature since time immemorial or in the ecological data which can help inform our decision making. We need to move away from thinking of more solutions and work on reducing the obstacles that stand in the way of implementing the solutions we believe in.

#4 Forge a shared identity

So, this is where the COPs left me. With more questions than answers arguably, and a whole lot to think about. But despite my criticisms and worry, I have never stopped believing that we can change things and build a world in which we are all more equal, and we take care of nature as it 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 that encouraged humans to fight together against the most unimaginable odds. People need to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves. Whether it is a symbol, a gesture, a costume, a slogan or a combination of them all, we need a common identity. The ‘environmental movement’ is, in my eyes, depressingly fractured. The ecologist in Zurich shares very little with the vegan from L.A. or the permaculturalist from Rajasthan’s countryside. We need something that unites us, that we all can identify with, that we can use as our motivation to fight and our reason to win. And we need it soon.

Do I think we can save the world with one more COP? Perhaps yes. If we do it together.