Munk One, Munk School

Reflections on COP25 2019: Business as usual

At the beginning of last December, I attended the first week of the COP25 conference on Climate Change as a youth delegate for UTEA, the University of Toronto Environmental Action group. While it provided an extraordinary personal learning and educational experience, the insights I gained into the functioning and practice of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was disheartening, to say the least. Attending the conference has shown me that the nature of international environmental governance must be re-thought before we can expect to see any movement towards substantive change that takes our environment into account.

I felt a surprising lack of eco-anxiety upon entering the IFEMA de Madrid, a huge conference hall outside of the main city on December 2nd. Being there with officials in an environment specifically created to engage in the issues I cared most about was initially incredibly empowering. The halls were awash with fresh, confident and excited faces, ready for two weeks of change-making. Yet, as I soon found out, a large majority of attendees (myself included), had very limited access to any of the real goings-on. All discussions concerning Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which addresses the global cap and trade system, were closed off from most observers. We gained access only to informal discussions, where the negotiators were predominantly very young and mainly women, presumably because they were seen as less vital to the official discussions by their national teams. There were also workshops, action hubs for participants, country pavilions that hosted their own talks, and side events which were mainly panel discussions bringing private actors, NGOs and government representatives into a conversation. The massive and overwhelming number of alternative events left one seeking out a sense of order and brought me to thinking about why these educational experiences weren’t held entirely separate from the international negotiations altogether. Flooded with excitement, free merchandise, and advertising, this side of the COP almost entirely drew away from the true goal of the conference and made it easy to forget that we were here for an international agreement.

We had a good relationship with the official Canadian delegates, who hosted meetings with updates every few days to keep all Canadian attendees informed of the status of negotiations – not that there was much to report. Especially in the first week, there was a frustrating amount of blocking and stalling in the discussion rooms. One day, I sat in on an unofficial negotiation which was two hours long. The moderator announced it as a bi-lateral event at first, which caused debate as there were delegates from over 50 countries present. Over an hour and a half of discussion was exhausted on this semantic issue. Another time, an hour-long meeting was taken up entirely by deciding on the formatting of an Excel table within a document, of which the entire content was supposed to have been covered during the meeting. I suspect that official negotiations didn’t look too different.

A shot of the Fossil of the Day award, sarcastically given by the Climate Action Network to the nation at the COP25 that had been most obstructive in that day's negotiations.The most enjoyable conglomeration of NGO activity within the conference was the ‘Fossil of the Day’ award, organised by the Climate Action Network (CAN). Every evening, they would award the nations which had been the most obstructive in that day’s negotiations with a prize. Those taking home awards most regularly were Australia, the USA and Japan. I was very surprised when one day Canada won an exemplary prize, namely as leader of the day, in standing up for the implementation of Indigenous rights. I thought this was interesting, given our country’s continued marginalisation of Indigenous communities that remains largely obscure in international news circuits.

It makes sense though, that a small symbolic stance by the young Liberal Canadian representative for Indigenous representation means a lot on the international stage considering the absolute lack of respect for Indigenous communities displayed in Madrid. I attended an event titled ‘Presidential conversation with Indigenous communities’, where all Indigenous communities were invited to a hall with Ms. Carolina Schmidt, the Chilean President of COP25, to discuss grievances and options for the movement going forward. After initial introductions and a very happy and pleasant photo-op, the President simply left the event for other (more prioritised) business. A Hodenashone representative expressed extreme disappointment at this and declined to answer any more questions, stating that the Indigenous delegation will not be used as a PR opportunity, but as a proper delegation deserving full rights. If this moment of outright disrespect hadn’t been so awful in what it says about the COP, it would almost have been laughable – or so I thought. The following week, two other UTEA representatives took part in a protest in front of the room where a discussion on Indigenous issues was being held, from which Indigenous representatives were barred. Unlike every other protest that took place within the venue, this one was met with aggression from the UNFCC staff, with a security guard shoving a peaceful Indigenous protester. The countermeasures eventually resulted in 100 delegates, including two UTEA members, being ‘de-badged’. This meant they would be denied access to the rest of the conference. With help from CAN, the UTEA members regained access a day late. However, experiencing such transparent discrimination at a conference entrusted with our collective futures was horrifying.

On Friday evening of the first week of the conference, Greta Thunberg arrived in Madrid and led a huge climate march through the streets.The author and a friend at a climate protest. When she took to the stage at the end of the march, her voice cracked as she rallied the crowds. Unlike the U of T reporter who translated my sentiments into this being about her passion for the environment, I truly believe she was just exhausted, tired and overwhelmed. She had grown into a celebrity, who was more sought after for her fame than her message. Professor Teresa Kramarz, whom I was fortunate to meet in Madrid while she is on sabbatical in Spain this year, said that usually, the Fridays for Future movement sees only about 20 regular protesters in other weeks. This is similar to the situation in Toronto. It is sad that a movement that has so much potential and is supposed to be self-sustained, depends so much on the appearance of a single person.

Despite the real intensity of the COP not occurring until the second week, between the all-night negotiations, sit-ins and de-badging, by the end of the week I was scheduled to be there for, I left feeling very relieved that my time there had come to an end. It was overwhelming and exhausting – events ran from 7 am to 8 pm – and as exciting as it was, it became sadder and more frustrating by the day. It was comforting to learn of various bottom-up initiatives that were having an impact on local scales and the myriad of innovations and ideas which were circulating. However, I still truly believe that government guidelines will inevitably be responsible for creating or killing decisive action as this is the level at which political decisions, economic pressure and consumer options will be determined. Yet sadly, it seems that for the time being, urgency and action must still come predominantly from the public. My time at the COP25 has shown me that this continued condition about the climate action movement is not only a failure building international consensus, but also of responsible government.

Naomi Butterfield was a student in the 2017-2018 Munk One Cohort and is currently in her third-year pursuing a double major in Forest Conservation Science and International Relations, with a minor in Political Science. This past December, she attended the COP25 Conference on Climate Change in Madrid, Spain as part of the youth delegation for the University of Toronto Environmental Action Group (UTEA). Continue reading below for her reflections on the experience!