Second Time Around: Reflections from COP17 to COP18

For a week I have been trying to put my finger on the cause of the fog that I feel at COP18.

Durban felt better than Doha.  There is a lingering feeling that something vital is missing, and I’m sorry to say that I am underwhelmed because of it.  To be fair, last year was my first COP, and there’s always something extra special about the initiation experience because the future experiences tend to have diminishing returns.

I’m not jaded, but definitely hoping for something more and not finding it.  Perhaps it is because we are a few months out from Rio+20, and there is a “big conference fatigue” amongst the crowd at the end of 2012.  Maybe I’m just disinclined to sift through the rhetoric of the negotiations to see if the tone of the text has shifted a fraction of a degree to the left or the right, and instead I’m looking for vitality in the spaces that are actually accessible to my participation.

Location, location, location:  Durban vs. Doha

Simply put, South Africa had much more to prove than Qatar.  South Africa hosted COP17 on the heels of the 2010 World Cup, which helped to promote its standing as a thriving developing country that had the capacity to welcome the world to its doorstep.  They set a tone of seriousness and ambition that had an impact on the quality of the conference.  Doha seems to be quite comfortable in its desert oasis, insulated from the realities of entrenched poverty and social challenges that typically greet you in developing countries.

I feel an obvious disconnect between the purpose of the COP and the location where it is being held.  The country host of the COP sets tone and some of the priorities for the conference.  I’m sure that if the Maldives could host a COP, the focus would be very different.   Many countries are coping with resource scarcity and the unavoidable effects of climate change, and the difficult tradeoffs that follow.  However, the scale and pace of growth in Doha is mind-numbing.  Cranes and construction pepper the landscape and almost everything is new.  Absent is the atmosphere of restraint or scarcity.  Present is the perception that man can engineer his way through any challenge, with the help of more oil than you can shake a stick at.  Being here makes you forget that the world is in the midst of a major economic recession.

In a desert country where water is more expensive than oil, there are very few conference side events that address anything related to water reuse or conservation or water technology.   Qatar’s water comes from massive desalination plants, and 95% of all their food is imported because it is more costly to use their own water to grow their own food.  Qatar’s population of 1.8m is slightly larger than the island of Manhattan.   The low hanging fruit of sustainability challenges in this region of the world was ripe, yet mostly left unpicked.

 The Venue

Every COP has two major venues, the conference center and the expo center.   There are also several off-site side events in area hotels.

In Durban, both venues were in the same location and you could easily walk between them.  This helped to make the massive complex feel more like a unit, and it facilitated connections and conversations between delegates.  Over the course of two weeks, I frequently ran into the same people.  The interactions transcended the obligatory networking opportunities to achieve something moving in the direction of friendship.  The layout also helped to give a sense of critical mass to the tens of thousands mulling around.  I think this was key in generating a sense of energy and excitement around the conference which I feel is lacking this year.

In Doha, the conference center and expo center are a cool thirty minute bus ride apart.  Furthermore, the Qatar Sustainability Expo isn’t worth more than an hour of your time because it is, as one delegate called it, “a propaganda machine”.  It is basically a showcase of fossil fuel companies’ renewable energy and clean tech projects, trying to prove that they too are a part of the climate change solution.  I understand that oil and gas companies have both a financial and public relations stake in moving in this direction, but it smacks hard of greenwashing.  I don’t think that anyone goes to a major environmental conference hoping to see how business as usual is really the wave of the future.

 Group Love

In Durban, our hotel was an hour from the conference center.  Our enterprising TA Angel Hsu was eventually able to secure direct transportation, which greatly eased our logistical challenges.  As a result, the majority of the group was traveling together to and from the COP on a daily basis.  This aided greatly in fostering the group cohesion, and kept the morale high throughout the trip.  We were also more familiar with each others projects, and were able to share the highs and lows of the day over breakfast or the bus ride.  Here in Doha, we are closer to the convention center and everyone comes and goes at their own time, or in small groups.  I feel that the transportation changes have definitely altered the feeling that we are all part of a larger Yale delegation.

 COP19 and Beyond

COP19 will be held in Warsaw, Poland.   Yale will likely send a fresh team of delegates to experience the conference first hand.  Opportunities like these are what make the Yale education a unique and coveted privilege.  I think it is important for us to continue to have a presence at COPs because we are the future leaders who will inherit this system, and need to understand how it functions and what we need to do to improve it.  Yale is a global institution, and international conferences are one of the ways that we connect our efforts to the world.  Students also come with fresh ideas and interesting projects that add real-world experience to their academic interests.   They are especially helpful in providing much needed capacity to countries with small delegations, particularly small island states.

However, there are practical limitations to what can be gained from attending these mega-conferences.  With a few exceptions of students who provide direct support to party delegations, we are perpetual outsiders like many of the non-negotiating participants.  Most of us hope to track specific climate-related issues that are subsets of the negotiations because those are the issues that we really care about the most.  Students may be better served to attend smaller conferences that are  more targeted to their area of interest, and could also provide better access to the professionals in the field for networking, research and future job prospects, in addition to a greater sense of efficacy from participation.