COP24 Report: Why am I Here?

(December 6, 2018) Michael Paparian, former Deputy State Treasurer, Board Member of the California Integrated Waste Management Board, and Sierra Club California State Director, gives live-updates via blog post at COP24, the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

I’ve been at COP24 for nearly two weeks and will be heading home soon.  I’ve been asked by friends back in California what it’s like and why I’m spending so much time here.  COP24 is my fourth COP climate summit. My first was the landmark COP21 in Paris in 2015.

The setting is Polish coal country.  The host town of Katowice was a major coal producer until their mine closed down around 2001.  All that’s left of the mine is a museum where you can descend into the old shaft and see what it was like for the miners who supplied the energy source that made modern Poland possible.  

The COP24 meeting site is centered around a futuristic arena with a look somewhat like the Starship Enterprise on top of the reclaimed coal mine.  Though this locality is making the transition away from coal and is proud of their newer tourism and service industries, the greater region still relies on coal.  On the way from my AirBNB to the venue every day, I pass over a railroad track where I can see a line-up of coal-laden railway cars heading to a nearby powerplant.

Poland gets a significant portion (about 80%) of their power from coal and their government, despite hosting the climate summit, expects a much-too-slow transition to other power sources. Poland plans to reduce their coal power generation to around 60% by 2030.

Over 22,000 participants from governments, research institutions, media, non-governmental organizations and many others have travelled to southern Poland for many climate reasons.  The statistics below show nearly 14,000 representatives of 198 governments are here. This is somewhat deceiving as country delegations have many guests.

Participants have many reasons for coming to a COP.  Government ministers and their staff negotiate the minute details of the climate agreements and implementation documents.  Scientist present their latest findings. Governments and some organizations showcase their climate work and hold seminars in their “pavilions.”  Non-governmental organizations try to influence the proceedings, connect with partners around the world, hold media events, or otherwise try to impact global climate efforts.

At the COP, there are large meetings of country representatives to review and approve the latest agreements and documents that govern the implementation of the Paris Agreement and related agreements.  These aren’t developed in a vacuum. Rather, they are discussed, reviewed and dissected at seemingly endless meetings of “subsidiary bodies” and other groups of government representatives. Most of these are open and many of the non-government participants monitor and attempt to influence these proceedings.  

Single words can cause great debate.  An extreme example occurred when the US (i.e. Trump Administration) aligned itself with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to object to the submission of a scientific report.  At COP21, governments asked their scientific advisory body to work with the leading scientists of the world to report back on the potential and implications of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade.  

That report was submitted in time for COP24 and it paints a stark picture of carbon emissions, calling for a very quick reduction and ultimately net-zero level of carbon emissions.  An innocuous resolution to “welcome” the findings of this report was objected to by the four countries, including the US. They would rather just acknowledge that the report exists than give credence to the findings.  They are pushing for language to “take note” of the work of the scientists rather than welcome the findings. In a statement, the US said, “the United States was willing to note the report and express appreciation to the scientists who developed it, but not to welcome it, as that would denote endorsement of the report.”   The US isn’t winning any friends here as it as it moves towards the Trump-imposed withdrawal from the COP proceedings in 2020. A side note on all of this … there are two groups of US representatives at the COP, the policy and political folks from the Department of Energy, State Department and elsewhere.  There are also career State Department employees who know how to professionally handle international relations. I am told the career folks are handling their tasks honorably and should the US re-engage on climate issues, will be welcomed back into the process.

For many of us the discussions among the country representatives are a small portion of what’s going on.  At any time, there are several dozen “side events.” There are so many side events, that it can be a major challenge discovering which ones may be of interest.  I attend these side events for several reasons, including connecting with new and old acquaintances, learning the latest in areas of interest, and supporting people I know who have organized or are speaking at the events.  There are also regular press conferences and some of the groups I’m involved with use these to convey information about the COP process or broader climate related information. The UN makes footage of these press conferences available online.  An example of one I assisted with is here.

Acronyms abound at the COP, starting with “COP” itself (Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).   LGMA is a Local Government and Municipal Authority. Youth participate as YOUNGOs (Youth Non-Governmental Organizations). Academic and other research entities are RINGOs (Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations).  Business groups are part of the BINGO group (Business and Industry Non-Governmental Organizations).

The list goes on and on for both participants and what they’re talking about.  In the COP context, NAPA is not a wine growing region .. it is a “National Adaptation Program of Action.”  A LEG is not a body part. Rather, it is the “Least Developed Countries Expert Group.” The UNFCCC has a long glossary of acronyms and terms for the acronym-confused (here) like me.  The list even includes “NN” for “Not Named.”  No further explanation of NN is given.

I’m here with a few organizations.

I’ve been a long-time Board Member of the InterEnvironment Institute, a California based public policy center that works on a variety of internationally important environmental issues, including natural areas within or contiguous to urban centers, connecting conservation areas and environmental programs to museums and other partners, and collaborative problem solving.  Thanks to the accreditation the Institute enjoys with the Unite Nations, I am able to obtain the necessary credentials to enter the main venue of the COP.

I’m also on the Board of Solar Cookers International (SCI), an organization that promotes human and environmental health through support of carbon-free solar cooking.  Last year, I helped introduce SCI to COP and it has turned out to be a very useful venue to promote solar cooking. We analyzed all of the country-specific climate plans and found that few mention cooking as an issue and even fewer mention solar cooking (see analysis here).  

Because SCI has an affiliate in England, the UK government allowed us to display a solar cooker and use their pavilion space to meet with interested people for the first week of the COP (it lasts two weeks).  Our display was in one of the busiest areas of the facility and were in constant conversation with country representatives and others interested in deploying more solar cookers in their region, especially in Africa and south Asia.  For the second week, SCI has booth space for similar interactions with participants. The connections are significant. As I write this, SCI staff is preparing to attend a dinner with Nepal government representatives, have their third press conference and consider invitations to consult with several African and south Asian countries on improving solar cooker deployment.

The other organization I work with is the Climate Bonds Initiative (CBI).  CBI promotes the use of green bonds for infrastructure and other projects.  I worked on green bonds when I was with the California Treasurer and I continue to believe they offer a necessary framework for funding infrastructure and other projects.  The specific effort I’m working on is to promote the Green Bond Pledge.  At COP24, I’m participating in finance related side events about green bonds and meeting local government officials and others to promote the pledge and other green bond work.  I even met with two California legislators at COP24 to brief them on how the green bond market could expand with California leadership.

I attended several sessions with the scientists working on climate issues.  I’ve done this at every COP to improve my understanding of what we truly know about climate change.  The mood of the scientists feels much different than prior COPs. They are more direct, more specific and seem much more scared about what they are conveying.  They know sea level is rising, temperatures are rising and extreme weather events are getting worse. They’re telling us that we have 12 years to dramatically reduce carbon emissions ratcheting up quickly to get to a 50% reduction in emissions.  We then have until 2050 to get to net-zero carbon emissions. In 2018, worldwide carbon emissions actually INCREASED. There’s even quiet talk of a “runaway climate change” scenario if we don’t get emissions under control soon.

As I walk the halls of COP24, I proudly wear my California flag pin.  I don’t agree with the climate policies of our national government (an understatement!!) and the world is moving much too slowly on this existential threat.  But I’m happy to be among those from US state and national governments that are “still in” and showing how to move forward with policies that take us towards climate solutions.  As California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols told those gathered here, when we’ve set ambitious clean energy and clean air goals we’ve met them faster cheaper and less painfully than expected.

So, why am I here?  To connect, to learn, to assist and hopefully to make a little contribution to the efforts to slow climate change.

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