Reflections on my first COP

About a month ago I made a relatively spontaneous decision to apply for a program allowing doctoral students at the University of Reading to participate remotely at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ‘Conference Of the Parties’, known as COP for short. I was aware of the Paris Agreement and had recently attended a talk by the UNFCCC Secretariat in London giving a flavour of the humanitarian and resilience works carried out by the UN in the most vulnerable areas of the world. Coming from a background of flooding and extreme weather events across the UK, I was also relatively familiar with the legislation and frameworks that shape local developments. To some extent, I guess I also had a possibly slightly romanticised view of ‘science shaping policy’ and ‘taking my chance to make a difference’, but I confess I had little idea of how any of this this actually happens in practice, let alone on a worldwide stage such as COP.

So why did I apply? Was it the actions of an enthusiastic young first year doctoral student, eager to take every opportunity offered and set herself on the road to a successful, engaged and effective researcher? Or was it rather another chance to feel slightly overwhelmed in the hope of professional and personal self-improvement? Or simply was it just out of curiosity about how the big decisions in policy development are made? I like to think it was the latter…

Fast forward a week or two and I’m attending my first training session. A chance to meet ten fellow PhD students from across the University and, not that I knew it at the time, my first opportunity to practice ‘cross disciplinary’ chat! Less than half an hour later and we were speaking to a well-qualified, experienced and interesting man from Oxfam…via Skype. Nothing quite like starting as you mean to go on I guess! Having never spoken to anyone other than family, friends and the odd academic on Skype this was a whole new experience, throwing us completely out of our comfort zones from the word go. However, it showed us how it is possible to find common ground and stimulate interesting discussions with someone whom you may never have otherwise crossed paths. A result that would become all the more obvious as our engagement with COP progressed.

Monday 6th November rolled round and COP23 had begun. We were participating in COP23 using the Walker Institute’s ‘Observer status’. Being an ‘Observer’ means you can access the side events of the COP, bid for tickets to the conference, as well as apply to have a physical exhibition stand. Walker had both tickets and a stand, and we sent two of our cohort (Ben and Sally) out to Bonn to ‘man the exhibition stand’. We (the Reading-based team) arrived with our laptops and notepads ready to ‘engage’ - not that I was completely sure what that entailed! A scan down the side event schedule (panel discussions, debates, specialised meetings etc taking place away from the formal discussion area) revealed that at any one time throughout the day anywhere between 5 and 10 talks may be ongoing, each with equally impassioned people eager to share their cause to a wider stage. The majority of the talks were streamed live via the (albeit rather tenuously advertised) UNFCCC Climate Action Studio YouTube page, and thus open to anyone with an internet connection and a suitable device. The scale and breadth of COP soon became apparent – how was I to choose between all these topics?

As humans I guess we are drawn towards familiarity and I soon found myself searching for ‘water’ and ‘floods’ and ‘forecast’ in the side panel meeting descriptions. However, with anywhere between 2 and 5 of us in the ‘studio’ at any one time, and the flurry of emails announcing the latest person to have been drawn towards the Walker stand, focussing on a single topic during a such a fast-paced event proved a challenge. By the end of my first afternoon I had listened to two talks, the first on Bolivian deforestation and the rights of indigenous peoples and the second on climate justice in new policy development. Both were presented at a relatively accessible level and consisted of a series of ‘updates’ from members on the panel. As an outside observer this meant that it was quite easy to flit between multiple events or join midway.

A key aspect of us sending two students to Bonn was the ability to facilitate video calls between attendees and the studio back in Reading. Some we had managed to organise via email in advance, although fighting our way through the COP23 website in order to find a list of coherent attendees turned out to be non-trivial… That being said, Sally and Ben did an amazing job of finding, and subsequently convincing, a variety of people to chat to us over Skype. Natalie Bennet, ex Green Party leader, explained to us how attending COP has made her more aware of issues in her own constituencies, and what she currently feels are the main areas of improvement in Climate Policy. As we were comprised of four women in this particular discussion (three of us in Reading and Natalie herself) words were also exchanged as to the gender balance in COP negotiations.

An interesting discussion was had with Tay Stevenson from Generation Atomic about the role of nuclear power in meeting future energy demands. Anecdotal evidence of his presence at the relevant side event suggested that this is by no means a straightforward issue. Next was Kelly Stone from Action Aid, Henrik Grape from the World Council of Churches and Hayley Walker a PhD student from the University of Leuven in Belgium. Each provided a completely different motivation and perspective of the event and what they were hoping to gain from the experience.

As the two weeks drew to a close, I began to reflect on my experience of COP23. As a cohort we had been enthusiastically tweeting, networking and discussing throughout our thoughts and experiences on the process. It had been interesting to see how, despite our different research priorities, we exist united in a desire to contribute in our own specific ways towards a better future - and as such willing to engage in whichever way possible.

Personally, I have found the extent of topics and issues discussed during the event quite humbling; it has made me realise that my work only fits in to one small part of a much greater whole. I guess the idea is that through large conference events such as COP, we can have real impact through our individual research directions by working alongside others from different professional and academic backgrounds. From a student perspective, the experience has taught me that is possible to communicate effectively with those outside of the scientific community; a skill that I believe, as next generation climate scientists, we have a responsibility to sustain to ensure that any climate adaption discussions remain informed and effective.