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Two Conferences, Two Zones: My COP 23 Experience

  Two Conferences, Two Zones: My COP 23 Experience

By: Muhammad Allam

Master International Communication, Hanze University of Applied Sciences

“We stand on a cliff edge, either we stand united … or we all stumble and fall and condemn humanity to a tragic future…”

It was clear how worried Mr Saufatu Sopoanga is. He carries a heavy burden, and is expected to convey an urgent message to the international community. Mr Sopoanga is the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, a small island state that I have never heard of before. Tuvalu has a population of just over 11,000, all of them are endangered by the risk of rising sea level as a result of human-induced climate change. Whether we challenge the status quo is a matter of life and death for Tuvalu.

More than two decades after the first Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP) was held in Berlin, the 23rd version was again convened this year in Germany, but this time in Bonn, the former capital, home of Beethoven and Haribo, and where DW, DHL and UNFCCC headquarters are located.

It was my first time in Germany, taking the train from Groningen to Leer, to Cologne to Bonn, I was surprised how the trains were frequently delayed, not just a few minutes, but to the extent of 40 minutes and sudden cancellation. I had higher expectations from the well-known German precision. Arriving to Bonn with almost 27,000 visitors to the climate change conference, I was so fortunate to have found a place to stay throughout the two-week period of the conference. My Couchsurfing host has extended welcome and generosity that I will never forget. Being a volunteer with the United Nations Climate Change, or UNFCCC, my host knew that I’m not getting paid for my participation, hence his endeavour to cater for my need for free accommodation.

Accommodation was not the only thing I got for free, public transportation within Bonn, and to the nearby bigger city of Cologne, was free for conference attendees. This, the regular attendance of the mayor of Bonn, plus other initiatives, marked a clear sign that the German federal, state and city governments cared for the success of the COP. Actually, the city of Bonn seemed to be broadly excited with the COP, as many events in the city built on the momentum of the COP, to tackle the issue of climate change. From cultural events, public lectures, green advertising, holding a parallel conference especially tackling climate justice titled “People’s Climate Summit 2017,” to holding demonstrations in Bonn and Cologne calling for the shutdown of coal-fired power plants in Germany.

Being a volunteer with UN was an inspiring eye-opener experience for me. In the training day, we had the time to reflect on our motivation for volunteering, which for me was threefold. I come from Egypt, one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, where 8 million people are expected to be displaced in Alexandria and the Nile Delta, as a result of rising sea levels, if no protective measures are taken. Second, I always believed that those privileged with knowledge and skills should seek to give back to their community, as this year actually marks 10 years since I started my first volunteering activity, having volunteered locally, in Egypt, and regionally in Africa. It felt like an expansion of my boundaries to volunteer at such an international intergovernmental level. Third, as I’m concluding my Master’s degree now by writing a thesis on climate change communication, it was relevant for me to attend the highest-level negotiations on climate change adaptation and mitigation, gaining more insights, widening my network, and expanding my knowledge in the field.

My assignment involved helping one of the UNFCCC secretariat teams, where I got the chance to accompany them to some of the official negotiations, but also presentations and side events by non-state actors, namely businesses, research institutes and NGOs.

This year’s COP presidency was held by Fiji, marking the first time that a small island state holds this position. The conference main theme was “We Are All in the Same Canoe,” affirming the rhetoric that earth is a common home which we all need to protect to sustain human lives. Another theme, more in terms of organization was “One Conference, Two Zones.” Having the Bula Zone for official negotiations, meetings, and the media, while the Bonn Zone was dedicated for climate action events.
Having been in the two zones, I couldn’t help but noticing the difference in discourse. It almost seemed like two different conferences. The Bula Zone was characterized by formal discussions, and bureaucracy. I got lost in the list of articles, clauses, agenda items and subitems, complex terminology and dry language being discussed in detail. On the other hand, the Bonn Zone was where all the ambition, critical discourse, and showcasing progress and achieved action.

Representatives from the small island states were vocal and advocative of the “Further, Faster – Together” message, since they can now witness first-hand and to the greatest extent, the impact of climate change, whether in form of slow sea level rise, or extreme weather events.

Another trend I noticed in the Bonn Zone, was speakers criticizing their own countries’ positions. Be it the UK, Germany or the US, acknowledging responsibility and lack or insufficient action by polluting countries was a common theme. This was highly visible in an event by Oil Change International (OCI), an NGO that analyses the cost of fossil fuel, and Friends of the Earth, in which they published their report titled “Time to Stop Digging.” In the report, and the event, they highlighted how ‘climate leaders’ such as Germany are massively and increasingly subsidising the fossil fuel exploration, and production. OCI tried to challenge the perception that increasing investment in renewable energy is positive action tackling climate change, as this alone does not stop climate change, if not coupled with halting fossil fuel exploration. This is of special importance, as gas is widely publicized as a ‘transition fuel’ to renewables, hence the question, why not divert all fossil fuel subsidies to renewables now?
Finally, I admit coming out of this experience with a different view of the United Nations system and global governance. As critical as I still am of praising the Paris Agreement as an ultimate achievement, I have more understanding of the facilitating role played by the UN, and the efforts exerted by countries to come to an agreement on such pressing but complex issues. Most importantly, I recognize the role of each and every one of us, individuals, NGOs, business leaders, and local governments in staying critical to the dominant discourse, observing government policymaking and implementation, and acting on all levels to give voice to those most vulnerable, and as Prime Minister of Fiji said: “We are all vulnerable and we all need to act.”

from the small island states were vocal and advocative of the “Further, Faster – Together” message, since they can now witness first-hand and to the greatest extent, the impact of climate change, whether in form of slow sea level rise, or extreme weather events.

Another trend I noticed in the Bonn Zone, was speakers criticizing their own countries’ positions. Be it the UK, Germany or the US, acknowledging responsibility and lack or insufficient action by polluting countries was a common theme. This was highly visible in an event by Oil Change International (OCI), an NGO that analyses the cost of fossil fuel, and Friends of the Earth, in which they published their report titled “Time to Stop Digging.” In the report, and the event, they highlighted how ‘climate leaders’ such as Germany are massively and increasingly subsidising the fossil fuel exploration, and production. OCI tried to challenge the perception that increasing investment in renewable energy is positive action tackling climate change, as this alone does not stop climate change, if not coupled with halting fossil fuel exploration. This is of special importance, as gas is widely publicized as a ‘transition fuel’ to renewables, hence the question, why not divert all fossil fuel subsidies to renewables now?

Finally, I admit coming out of this experience with a different view of the United Nations system and global governance. As critical as I still am of praising the Paris Agreement as an ultimate achievement, I have more understanding of the facilitating role played by the UN, and the efforts exerted by countries to come to an agreement on such pressing but complex issues. Most importantly, I recognize the role of each and every one of us, individuals, NGOs, business leaders, and local governments in staying critical to the dominant discourse, observing government policymaking and implementation, and acting on all levels to give voice to those most vulnerable, and as Prime Minister of Fiji said: “We are all vulnerable and we all need to act.”  

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