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Reflections of a researcher at COP25 - Deepa Senapathi

Thursday, December 12, 2019

In the week just gone by, I was privileged to be part of the team from Walker Institute at the University of Reading, attending the United Nations 25th climate conference of parties or COP25 as it is better known. As an academic & conservation biologist, it was an eye-opener for me to attend a huge event where approximately 30,000 people come together over two weeks, with a view to tackling the climate crisis. And what an experience it was…

Day one, I attended the “Research and Non-Government Organisations” or RINGO briefing. This provided a brief insight into how the UNFCCC meeting would work over the two weeks, but the highlight for me during this meeting, was being successful in a ticket ballot to attend the ceremonial opening of COP25. The ceremony had a hard-hitting but inspiring speech delivered by the UN Secretary General António Guterres, while party delegates from various countries and non-party stakeholders were in attendance. The Secretary General warned that we were ‘sleep-walking’ into a disaster and challenged the delegates to choose a ‘path of hope’ over a ‘path of surrender’.

The same day I attended a side event organised by representatives from mostly developing nations discussing equity in delivering the Paris agreement. I also did a brief skype interview with the PhD students in the climate action studio, as part of COP CAS, in Reading trying to articulate the feelings of a first-time delegate. Over the next couple of days, I managed to attend several other side events, including an event exploring what happens if we miss our 1.5°C target and ones exploring nature-based solutions and sustainable farming. In addition, I attended events on climate resilience at the UK national pavilion, went to the launch of the SBSTA-IPCC special report on climate and land, enjoyed the ‘fossil of the day’ awards, and had numerous conversations with people from diverse backgrounds.

As I write this, I am still sifting through the myriad of emotions this event evoked in me. My ecologist guilt at flying to the event was slightly mollified by the fact that the shift of COP25 from Santiago, Chile to Madrid, Spain meant a shorter flight with a lower carbon footprint. The Regional Government of Madrid contributed to efficient transport by activating a special mobility plan for the duration of the conference. All delegates were provided with a free pass to access all public transport, and the metro stations and trains carried clear, concise and noticeable messages on the various ways this climate emergency is impacting our world today.

The fact that this whole event and all the associated logistics were organised in the space of four weeks was nothing short of amazing.

For a first-timer delegate like me, navigating the maze of high-level events, side events, events at national pavilions, researcher briefings, press conferences and pop-up talks was quite challenging. COP25 was a melting pot of political agendas, non-government interests, researcher ideas, indigenous voices and civil action (just to name a few) all happening simultaneously. Sometimes it felt like being caught in a cacophony of conflicting sounds and other times it was inspiring to see people from diverse backgrounds coming together in an attempt to find common ground and solutions that transcend geographic and political boundaries.

As much as I enjoyed the organised events, I felt it was the one-on-one conversations that happened organically that I gained the most out of. A researcher from Fiji who now works in climate justice in Sweden, a career ecologist from USA who has gone back to university to re-train and specialise in environmental law, teenagers and twenty-somethings who have started climate action in their backyards, conversations with individuals from UK Gov / Defra working on climate resilience and sustainable land management issues – these were what moved, enthused and challenged me to engage more with the issues surrounding the climate emergency, more so than I do now.

My research mainly focusses on climate and biodiversity issues. This event gave me an opportunity to learn more about other aspects of the climate crisis including climate justice, climate finance, the difficulties in implementing the Paris agreement across different nations and harsh reality faced by small indigenous communities from the Pacific islands, the Amazonian rainforests and the Canadian Tundra who are watching their homes being devasted and ruined in front of their eyes. I did feel that we in the developed world are quite insulated from these every day realities even though we ourselves are experiencing the rise in frequency intensity of extreme events. While there were voices talking about carbon credits and best ways to finance adaptation and mitigation, there were other voices saying, “Nature is not for sale” and must not be commodified. The real practical solutions, I fear, fall somewhere in between.

I was only there for three days but COP25, for me, was inspiring, challenging and bewildering in equal measure. I was confronted by the enormous scale of the problem that we face, but also encouraged by the fact that thousands of people were in the same place, invested in this process, and individuals, groups and communities are mobilising action across the globe at present. As an ecologist and conservation biologist, I came away with the optimism and certainty that provided we work together, sustainable land management and nature-based solutions can still provide answers to tackling this climate emergency within the next decade. There is only a narrow window of opportunity, but we can definitely still engage and make a difference - #TimeForAction!