University students reflect on attending COP23 Conference

Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - 11:52am

Twelve students from the University of Michigan’s Climate Blue organization just returned to campus after attending the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference earlier this month in Bonn, Germany. This year marked the 23rd meeting of the Conference of Parties, held under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; the UNFCCC is an international treaty that was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to mark the beginning of international cooperation in addressing climate change.

This year, the UNFCCC’s 197 parties came together to discuss the implementation of the Paris agreement. The agreement, which was designed during COP21 in 2015, aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb the global temperature rise. However, in June 2017, President Donald Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the agreement in an effort to preserve jobs.

The Climate Blue student group, which discusses climate policy across southeast Michigan, began as a blog created by a delegation of University community members who attended COP15 in 2009. Today it reaches graduate students, professors and business people, among others who focus on different areas of study across the country. The organization continues to send a delegation, comprised of students and faculty, to the conference each year. The conference itself primarily consists of negotiations among parties and side events, which serve as platforms for “observer organizations” — like the Climate Blue delegation  — who don’t speak in formal negotiations, according to the UNFCCC website. Side event participants can engage with parties and other attendees to network and share ideas.

Rackham student Matt Irish, who is studying for master’s degrees in Applied Climate Science and Electrical Engineering, attended this year’s conference as well as COP21. He explained at COP21 there was a lot of fanfare and excitement as national leaders came together to sign the Paris agreement; however, he said after the signing there was still work to be done.

“(During COP21), the leaders came the first week actually to kind of say, ‘Hey, we’re here signing off on it, now make it happen,’” he said. “There was some real stuff that needed to get done but because they had that sort of front-loaded thing, the idea was that those national leaders put their name on it and they had it done … since we just really wanted to agree, that was mainly all that happened. There were some really important parts of the text that were extremely vague that were left to be figured out later. This year was when that actually had to happen.”

This year at COP23, Irish explained, leaders and representatives were charged with “writing the rulebook” to implement what they agreed upon in Paris. He explained COP23 was an exciting opportunity to substantiate some of the more abstract concepts in the Paris agreement.

Pertinent to the conference, Irish explained, was whether the United States would be involved in certain parts at all, given Trump’s announcement.

“What I was most excited about, personally from this last week, was that it seems to me that … in the past it was everyone waiting — is the U.S. going to play? Is the U.S. in? The question was, what’s going to happen to the world if the U.S. is in or not?” he said. “And now, because the Paris agreement has been signed and we’re kind of past it, I feel like … the questions is more, what’s going to happen to the U.S. if the U.S. isn’t in?”

Rackham student Samantha Basile is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering. She is the director of the Climate Blue, and attended this year’s conference.

Basile explained the official United States delegation was really only present in name. She said the other nations had already agreed to work without them.

Basile herself spent a lot of time in negotiations, and said it was interesting to see how all of the nations’ voices come together to agree on certain steps that need to be taken. She said such agreements are sometimes taken for granted.

“We assume that things aren’t moving fast enough and we get very frustrated as students, especially because we see, we just have so much energy and we want things to move forward,” she said. “So it was a little frustrating to see things get kicked down the road, but at the same time, they’re keeping everyone on board and keeping everyone under a consensus vote system so it’s pretty amazing that they get anything done.”

Environment and Sustainability graduate student Chris Karounos is pursuing his master’s degree in Environmental Informatics and Conservation Ecology. He said going into the conference he underestimated the “goodwill” of everyone involved in negotiations.

“It seemed like everyone had their hearts in the right place and it really needed to be that way because you’re in a room of at least 50 different upper-level delegates that were representing an entire country, and they all had to agree on something,” he said.

Karounos said it was rewarding to be a “fly on the wall” in the negotiation process.

“We’re really serving a purpose by being there as students,” he said. “(Initially), I thought it was kind of a fluff thing, but the U.N. really wants it to be a transparent process.”

Environment and Sustainability graduate student Tyler Fitch explained the dynamic among conference attendees operates much like a bureaucratic power structure. He said a lot of the negotiations are closed to non-party entities and he said most delegates tend to keep to themselves. However, he said there are a lot of open discussions fostered by the side events.

Some student delegations work directly with countries, taking notes for them and helping them navigate their schedules. The Climate Blue delegation, Basile explained, worked specifically with the United Nations Secretariat, which allowed them to interact with the formal process.

Rackham student Cesar Luis Barraza Botet, an international student from Colombia, said he approached the Colombian delegation.

Barraza Botet said the groups discussed specific topics or articles in the Paris Agreement in the plenary sessions. One article, he explained, discusses technology mechanisms, which requires the development of mitigation and adaptation technologies as well as the ability to transfer them from developed countries to developing countries. 

“It was amazing to me how they had to agree on every single word that was going into these rulebook documents,” he said.

In terms of side events, Rackham student Emily Gargulinski — who is pursuing a master’s degree in the Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering department — said they took place in what is called the Bonn Zone. The zone comprised country pavilions — spaces in which each country could exhibit their culture and display their climate change initiatives. The exhibitions comprised of small booths that displayed new technology and initiatives. There were also meeting rooms that held side events on topics such as nuclear power and sustainable cities.

One key component of the delegation’s COP experience is the Climate Blue blog. Through their blogs, members can reflect on conference highlights.

“We tried to set it up as a system where everyone could be involved, but hopefully wouldn’t be overwhelmed, because we knew the negotiations would be overwhelming in itself,” Basile said. “Everyone participated on the Twitter, on our social media, and then our requirement was either before, during or after COP, you would write one blog kind of reflecting on a certain topic. We didn’t want it to just be like a diary entry, we wanted it to have a little more of a perspective behind it.”

In his blog, Fitch discussed the We Are Still In movement, which comprises cities, companies and universities that support action to implement the Paris agreement despite Trump’s intent to withdraw. According to Fitch, there was a series of events related to this movement at the conference.

Additionally, in October, Climate Blue and Michigan and The Climate Crisis wrote a letter to University President Mark Schlissel asking him to sign the We Are Still In pledge on behalf of the University, which he did.

“I think the conference was sort of a, ‘What is the next step for We Are Still In?’ And frankly I don’t think they know yet, but the idea is that … the We Are Still In folks are going to keep abreast of these negotiations and continue to make climate action happen in the United States,” he said. “(The University of) Michigan is a part of that which means it’s all the more relevant for us.”

Irish explained though the United States government did not have a climate pavilion of its own at the conference this year, there was a We Are Still In pavilion area that became the United States’ de facto location and was bigger than past federal pavilions.

“The idea is just telling the rest of the world that we have federalism in the United States — the federal government doesn’t get to call the shots on everything so in a very real sense the U.S. is ‘still in,’” he said.

Noting that the United States plays a large role in mitigating climate change, Irish also explained the rest of the world has responsibilities as well. He explained the bottom-up approach to reducing emissions outlined in the Paris agreement, which allows each country to bring their own emission reduction proposal to the table, and to which all parties agreed.

“The good thing is it finally helped all the countries build trust together to actually want to do something and try to make this virtuous cycle, but the bad thing is there is absolutely no guarantee that we’re actually going to meet our goals,” he said.