COPs often run overtime, which is why CAN even holds a wager for delegates to guessing the date and time COP will end. Earlier this week, we knew the negotiations in Madrid were expected to be prolonged especially when word circulated that staff at the venue had been asked to work over the weekend. We did, in fact, witness how negotiations dragged on because governments with large emissions dragged their feet on targets. Ultimately, the lack of consensus prolonged COP25 to such an extent that this is now the longest ever meeting in UNFCCC history.
Perhaps, these negotiations have been hampered from the get-go by everything ranging from adversaries to the negotiation strategy employed. The Chilean Presidency’s approach to the negotiations has been criticized for not using their office to have set higher ambitions, knowing that “blockers” would want to reduce the targets, and compromise can be reached somewhere in the middle.With the immense and imminent impacts of climate change, old tactics of incrementalism no longer meet the challenges the world faces.
However, what transpired was that the Chileans had expected other governments to lift ambitions so shad et the initial targets too low, which meant a far more difficult uphill battle in the negotiations. Now we are left with a COP that was supposed to be focused on “Ambition” and “Action,” but has not delivered on neither. Even the UN Secretary-General has voiced his disappointment.
There is already enough analysis out there offering a breakdown of the watered-down outcome of COP25, so I’ll touch on more of my personal takeaways from attending the conference from my positionality in a follow-up post. Now more than ever, we need to remain hopeful and not be daunted by the challenges ahead in our fight for climate justice.
Most days of COP, I have stayed in the “Blue Zone, ” which is the area of COP for accredited delegates and where plenary sessions and the vast majority of official side-events are held here. Next door is the “Green Zone,” which also has various exhibits and is open to the public.
One art exhibit in the Green Zone I had looked forward to (and FINALLY got around to) seeing was the “Pollution Pods.” The installation, by artist Dr. Michael Pinsky, uses fog machines and perfumes to imitate the smog of 5 cities around the world: Beijing, Sao Paolo, New Delhi, and London.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Air pollution and climate change are two sides of the same coin: both are largely caused by the same sources and have similar solutions. Ambitious climate action has the potential to both safeguard our health and future, and to reduce the yearly seven million premature deaths from air pollution.”
Walking from one pod/“city” to the next really showed how stark the contrast was. Entering “Beijing” and “New Delhi,” it suddenly looked hazy in a very noticeable manner. Fortunately, the fake smog in the pod is non-hazardous. Still, it’s so sad to begin thinking about how millions around the world are literally being smothered by the toxic fumes due to the burning of fossil fuels (I’ll blog later about my thoughts on climate change/social justice).
The only upside of this situation is that the health impacts of air pollution are convincing citizens and governments in affected areas that climate action must be taken NOW. Protests in mainland China are rare, but people still took the risk to protest against insufficient air pollution measures because they are so fed up with the detrimental impacts of smog. When a problem affects a large swathe of a population, such discontent no doubt raises concerns in a country like China that values social stability. China’s progress on climate change clearly indicates its government’s long-term planning and foresight about the necessity of climate action. I found the experience of the Pollution Pods to be an effective way of connecting the dots between the climate and health nexus.
“Five geodesic domes are connected to form a ring. Within each dome the air quality of five global cities is recreated. A carefully mixed recipe emulates the relative presence of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide which pollute these cities. Starting from the hosting city, the visitor will pass through increasingly polluted cells, from dry and cold locations to hot and humid.
The release of toxic gases from domestic and industrial sources both increase the rate of global warming and have a direct effect on our present day health. In the West, in cities such as London, one in five children suffer from asthma. Whilst in the developing countries such as Delhi, over half the children have stunted lung development and will never completely recover. However, this pollution is difficult to understand through images, as the smog of such as Delhi seems almost romantic and much of the most dangerous toxins are not visible at all.
Much of this pollution is driven by the insatiable appetite of capitalist consumerism. Whilst we here in the developed world live in an environment with relatively clean air, people in countries such as China and India are being poisoned by the air borne toxins created from industries fulfilling orders from the West.
The experience of walking through the pollution pods demonstrates that these worlds are interconnected and interdependent. Our need for ever cheaper goods is reflected in the ill-health of many people in world and in the ill-health of our planet as a whole.”
The irony did not elude me that I spent International Human Rights Day at a UN event, witnessing the UN attempting to curtail the very same rights it adopted 70 years ago. Last week, it was the ECO newsletter, while this week, it was the Fossil of the Day Award, both of which were prohibited but later reinstated. I’ll focus this post on Fossil since I have been part of the team of volunteers putting on the event each night. Fossil of the Day takes place at the end of each day at COP, and select countries (and some terrible organizations) are presented with the ignominious award for being “the best at being the worst” at the UN Climate Talks. Through a very participatory process, members of CAN (the organizers of Fossil), nominate and vote for members based on which country stands out for their atrocious climate policies or for actions such as “blocking” negotiations. Alongside Fossil of the Day, a Ray of the Day is also awarded to recognize the efforts of climate champions.
To put the impact of Fossil into perspective, last night we awarded Japan with a Fossil of the Day, and already multiple news outlets have now covered how Japan’s “environment minister failed to commit to the phasing out of coal-fired power generation in a speech at a UN climate conference.” Also, the other day, as we were setting up the stage for the award ceremony, a man came over and asked what Fossil is and why Belgium’s flag was on the Fossil leader board (a running tally of all the Fossil winners over the course of this COP). Once my colleague explained the award and said the full explanation of why Belgium won is available on the Fossil Facebook page, the curious man explained that he’s from Belgium and shocked to see Belgium on the list. At this point, I noticed his pink badge, which means he’s a part of the government delegation. I saw the man type notes on his phone before walking away. Hopefully, the Belgian man will look into why CAN awarded his government the Fossil Award, relay the information back to his delegation, and then try harder to advocate for stronger climate policies.
No one, and governments especially like to be named and shamed, which is precisely what makes the Fossil award an effective advocacy tool. It’s also easy to understand why, after a long day of dense negotiations and plenary sessions, a crowd of delegates and media gather each night at the Fossil award ceremony. Though it has a serious message, Fossil is a fun and engaging event with costumes, props, and even a theme song for the daily ceremony. Delegates can enjoy the light-hearted and engaging nature of the event, while media is also on hand to capture the novelty and satire that is used to call out insufficient or outright troubling climate policies. Though some countries try to fly under the radar, Fossil of the Day is a reminder for these states that their actions will come under scrutiny!
So now that you’re hopefully convinced that Fossil of the Day is a great event, we can return to my original point about the clampdown on civil society space. On Wednesday, we were told in the morning the award could not go ahead because “it is the start of ministerial day, they have no “security capacity” to cover Fossil of the Day. So they [UNFCCC Secretariat] did not authorize this key daily action today. We tried to push back but we had no success.”
The attempt to stop Fossil was neither the first nor the last time civil society space had come under attack during COP25. Last week, ECO was banned from being distributed at the conference venue. ECO is a daily newsletter put together by civil society to inform all delegates at COP about the developments with negotiations and other informative updates from various NGOs. Without warning or any wrongdoing on the side of ECO distributors (who are just volunteers handing out information), security removed the volunteers and banned the newsletter’s distribution at the conference venue. Fortunately, with support from delegates and coordinated push back from CAN, the UNFCCC Secretariat relented. By the time I arrived for Week 2 of COP, I was able to get my daily dose of ECO!
Given what had just happened to ECO, it’s easy to understand why members of CAN did not want to relent and were suspicious of the UN’s motive in not allowing Fossil to take place. Firstly, this excuse is quite suspect since there is so many security personnel available and especially since few other events are also happening at 6pm that requires manpower. Moreover, Fossil is a daily event and not a protest, it was not like many security guards were even needed for this orderly and predictable event in the first place. It seemed far more plausible that the lack of security was only a cover story for banning an event that was effective in calling out the bad behavior of governments. The CAN organizers negotiating with the UNFCCC Secretariat that the Fossil award would go ahead regardless of their authorization because it never posed a security threat (we would even have volunteers to help with crowd control if security was the “real” concern. There was even a suggestion to nominate UNFCCC for a Fossil because of this attempt to stop Fossil of the Day.
Over the course of the day (Human Rights Day no less!), the discussion was that the Fossil award should still happen even with the risk of “de-badging.” Without authorization to carry out this action, if we went ahead with the event we risked being “de-badged,” which means being banned from attending the rest of COP25. The hope was that if Fossil volunteers really do get removed from the premise, then this was more evidence to be used in the media to call out the UNFCCC for the shrinking civil society space. One of the Fossil organizers was kind enough to explain this risk to me and said I didn’t need to feel pressured to participate because she knew I was a student and didn’t want me to get in trouble with my school delegation.
At this point, I really did consider the consequences of whether I should take part in the fossil award that day. On the one hand, I thought that on the off chance I did get de-badged, hopefully, Swarthmore would be understanding. As a double major in Political Science, Peace and Conflict Studies, could Swarthmore really expect that I wouldn’t stand up for what I believe in? On the other hand, I would feel guilty if I could not attend the rest of COP25 because I know many other students also applied to be on the delegation, so I’d feel like I took someone else’s spot then did not even make the most of this opportunity. I could argue that attending sessions is the only way to “get” something from attending COP because I think a lot of learning can also happen by encountering and understanding more about inherent power structures and barriers faced by civil society, I’ll touch on this point further in a future post.
For better or worse, I was truly saved by the bell and didn’t need to be decisive in this moral quandary. As my colleague was still in the middle of discussing the de-badging risk with me, at 5:29pm (so only 1 minute before our daily set up time of 5:30pm), we received the breaking news in our team WhatsApp group chat that the UNFCCC Secretariat backed down and authorized our event! Luckily, all the hard work of the CAN team negotiating with the Secretariat about the matter had paid off.
Despite the ultimate win for ECO and Fossil, this pressure on civil society is a worrying trend because civil society is so crucial for holding parties accountable. Also, let’s not forget that there is already a massive power imbalance at COP. Civil society, as observers at COP, have less political clout than countries who can directly vote as member states in this state-led UN process. Civil society also has less financial resources than businesses. When highlighting the fact that businesses had their logos on massive banners around the venue. In contrast, our Fossil of the Day backdrop was only a small makeshift display, the Fossil award host joked that we “shouldn’t buy the corporate greenwash unless we recycle it together.” So given the extra institutional and financial constraints compared to governments and businesses, civil society’s power is in having the voice that transmits beyond such barriers.
The ban on ECO led to the use of slogans on Twitter, such as “Not just Time for Action but also Space for Action,” a play on the motto of this year’s COP, and I could not agree more. Also, as our school’s Quaker values continuously reinforce, it is so important to “speak truth to power.” Being a part of the fantastic Fossil of the Day team has definitely been a highlight of COP25. It could not have been more apt, when at the end of the Fossil Award on Human Rights Day, someone from the crowd shouted, “Long live civil society!”
Wow, it felt so surreal that we finally made it to Madrid! Following the Swat Delegation’s posts and keeping abreast of the news coming out of the first week of negotiations had built up my anticipation. Still slightly jetlagged but brimming with an equal measure of excitement, I made my way to the World Climate Summit: The Investment COP, which was conveniently next to the airport. The Summit, dubbed as “the most important official COP25 side event,” has, over the past ten years, brought together leaders in the public and private sectors to seek and share “business and investment-driven solutions to climate change.” This event interested me because I genuinely believe that if we are to tackle climate change successfully, then we need everyone on board, especially businesses. Certain businesses pollute, while others are innovating for solutions to address climate change. Either way, there is no denying that we can’t get close to meeting the Paris Agreement without the private sector’s support.
I arrived at the Summit in time for the first break out session on “The Future of Energy – Decarbonizing the System,” The speaker offered a synthesis of the requirements for stabilizing the climate and why the next decade is critical, which are broadly categorized as “reduce demand, change how we power and fuel our lives, scale up a ‘carbon management’ industry, and tackle other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” On the last point, what stuck out to me was how if all the cows in the world were a country, then the Republic of Cows would be the world’s second-largest contributor of GHGs! Our diets are definitely something that must shift if we are serious about combating climate change, so I will also look forward to reading Isabel’s posts about agriculture. On a lighter note, one of the panelists joked in this session mentioned how he took his first flight on an electric plane this year and joked how the range matters more on an electric plane than an electric vehicle. I found this to be pretty funny and appreciated the humor because climate change conferences can, at times, feel a bit “doom and gloom.” Another session I appreciated was an interactive workshop on “Physical Climate Risk and Response.” The speaker discussed topics such as “will countries like India get rich before it gets too hot?” Such questions really need to be at the forefront of policy discussions considering extreme heat conditions will be at a level when humans cannot survive, so how would India cope when ¾ of its workforce works outside, and only 7% of its population has air conditioning? Another interesting topic was about “how will long-term mortgages exist for risky geographies?” Typically insurances operate on one-year contracts, so with climate change making disasters more frequent and severe, then premiums might become too cost-prohibitive. Also, mortgages are usually for 30 years, but you need insurances to have mortgages. In such situations, this could even lead to a crisis in places like Florida, which depend heavily on property tax. Risk is a very fraught issue because it’s tough balancing the various needs of stakeholders involved. A point brought up in a later session that I thought also fed back neatly into the discussions around insurances was the concern of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Their worry is that the increasing talk about the risks climate change poses to their country will also drive up the cost of capital, leading to a drain on capital. That could then be a vicious cycle because it would leave less capital available for adaption. Jet lag is hitting me, so I’ll wrap up for now! Don’t worry, these are all areas I hope to further explore at COP25. I still have so much to learn/share!