COP15 in Copenhagen: chaotic and incredible

As a third-year law student, I had no idea what to expect from my first “COP” (Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). I had spent nearly a year seeking accreditation and funding to attend COP15 in Copenhagen, where world leaders were supposed to determine what would follow the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period in 2012.

In retrospect, the conference was alternately exciting, frustrating, and exhausting – but the experience was invaluable and unforgettable.

At first, everything at the conference centre seemed very chaotic. There were tens of thousands of people handing out flyers about veganism or dressing up as polar bears or lugging enormous video cameras and fuzzy microphones. Expensive suits bumped into dreadlocks, and protesters ate lunch next to members of the press. I was running several kilometres a day around the enormous, disorienting centre while my feet rebelled against the imposition of high heels.

Given that I had been working like crazy to complete all my exams and papers before leaving for Copenhagen, I arrived somewhat worn down. Finishing the semester three weeks early had seemed like a much better idea in June than in November.

Fortunately, the people and work with which I was involved at the conference were extremely energizing. I was volunteering with the organization Islands First, whose mission was to assist Pacific small-island developing states  in the climate negotiations. The islands are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change but have limited resources to advocate their position.

It was exciting to feel like I was contributing a little bit to the UN negotiations. I was preparing briefs requested by actual delegations! I was publishing my interviews of statesmen and ambassadors about the effects of climate change on their small island states. I was attending side events by international experts in my areas of interest.

The honeymoon was fading, however, by the second week of the conference. Due to security and logistical concerns, the UN began rationing a limited number of secondary access cards to NGO delegations. The UN had accredited over 45,000 people to attend COP15, but the conference centre had capacity for only approximately 15,000.

I had to share one card with two other delegates, so we divided up the days into morning, afternoon, and evening shifts in the centre.

Unfortunately, last Wednesday a few people accredited with NGOs caused some disturbances inside the centre, and UN security had the extreme reaction of denying entry to any more NGO delegates that day, including myself.

By Thursday, yet another set of entrance passes had been issued — only 300 among the tens of thousands of NGO delegates. My delegation was unable to secure even one pass, so we were permanently locked out of the conference centre for the rest of the negotiations.

For the rest of COP15, I did my best to follow the negotiations and to assist Islands First from a variety of Internet cafés. Needless to say, it was disappointing to have to watch President Barack Obama’s speech via spasmodic online streaming.

After being in the thick of the action in the conference centre, it was frustrating to struggle to follow the progress of last-minute negotiations via Twitter and e-mail updates from the few people I knew who were still inside.

The outcome of the conference was also dissatisfying.

An agreement was reached between Obama and a handful of other world leaders, predominately Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. It promised billions of dollars in climate financing for developing nations, but did not require deeper emissions cuts by major emitters.

Most states, including the PSIDS, were not invited to participate in negotiating this agreement and protested the opaque and undemocratic process. However, many states ultimately approved the U.S.-brokered agreement as a basis for further negotiations.

The agreement is clearly only the first step in achieving an effective and legally binding climate change treaty for the post-2012 period.

Science requires far more stringent emissions reduction targets to prevent global warming of more than two degrees — or 1.5 degrees as endorsed by the PSIDS and other states that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Negotiations will continue in 2010, possibly culminating in COP16 in Mexico City. With the experience I amassed in Copenhagen, I plan to be there (wearing more comfortable shoes) and to help finish what we started.

Christie Kneteman is a third-year law student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

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