The realities of being at COP

Carys (right) and Elaine Halliday at COP25

COP25 – the annual UN climate change conference - is currently taking place in Madrid, and myself and another PhD student from the University of Reading were lucky enough to be part of our university’s delegation on behalf of the Walker Institute. All of us have an interest in environmental science and climate change, however we represent a varied delegation – from interests in soil science, to wetlands management and international development, and to me conducting my research on woodland and forest ecology! Having never been to a conference before I knew going to the biggest climate change conference in the world would probably be a bit overwhelming, but I didn’t quite realise the reality of it until I arrived. I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on my first experiences of this manic event, and also to hopefully give a bit of perspective anyone who might be lucky enough to attend next year!

Before coming to COP, I was initially quite apprehensive about spending two weeks away from my PhD, and particularly with Christmas around the corner, it felt like probably not the best time to be heading out of the country.... All of these doubts disappeared, however after just a few hours at the conference.

The first thing you notice when arriving here is the size of the place: it is so big that it’s easy to get lost and end up in the wrong place. We walked into the wrong room for our 9am briefing on the first morning and ended up awkwardly sat in what looked like a very important meeting for a few minutes before realising we weren’t meant to be there! You can easily spend an hour trying to get your lunch or wandering around the venue trying to find a decent cup of tea. There are also TV crews everywhere (something I have never seen on that scale before), and VIPs - during the first event I attended on indigenous rights and territories, the President of Austria walked in. That was when the importance of COP really hit me.

I spent my first few days getting a feel for the place, attending side events, and listening to some empowering speeches by fantastic people from all around the world. At COP, there are hundreds of side events on a huge range of issues - from science and policy, to social issues - and a wealth of other special events, demonstrations and exhibits. As observers, the only we restriction we have is that we aren’t allowed into the negotiations hall - that is reserved for the country delegates to have the important talks which will be written into policy. There are so many activities that on day two I had to take a break and sit down to get my head around what I wanted to attend!

During my time here I am focusing on a lot of social issues associated with climate change, such as the role of gender, youth and marginalised communities in climate change, along with some wider issues on forestry and the REDD+ scheme. The stories I have heard in these first few days are staggering and will stay with me forever. Hearing about how our actions impact the daily lives of indigenous peoples, women in developing countries, and the youth - our leaders of tomorrow - provides the much-needed reality of climate change. This allows me to put my research of forest ecology into perspective. Having the opportunity to knowledge share at COP enables us to face the consequences of the research we conduct as environmental scientists, and also the decisions that the governments make in the plenary halls.

Part of our role here at COP is to arrange interviews with other participants, so that our colleagues back in Reading in the Climate Action Studio (COPCAS). COPCAS enables students who aren’t able to attend COP in person to experience it remotely and interactively through a series of Skype interviews with participants here on the ground, and by watching side events through web casts. Initially I was worried that everyone would be too important or busy to want to speak to us, and sure, a lot of people are running around, too busy to conduct the interview there and then, but even so they are willing to give you their card and arrange a time for a later date. My tip for anyone attending COP the first time who is nervous about networking - approach people who have similar interests to you, or those who naturally engage in conversation with you (for example in the line for coffee which is where I secured an interview for my colleagues back in Reading!). It gives you a talking point and makes the conversations flow much more easily - it also makes it easier to lead into asking them for an interview.

As I write this, I sit with a sandwich reflecting on the enormity of the event - we learnt about this conference in our policy modules at university. To actually be here is the most humbling and exciting experience. With 12-hour days jam-packed with talks and events, I feel like I am mostly running on adrenaline, and crash as soon as I return to the hotel each night. Nevertheless, I am so excited to see what the next week and a half has to offer - even though I can’t find a decent cup of tea in Madrid!