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COP 15: The hum of expectation

Updated Thursday, 10th December 2009

Climate change conferences sound as though they’re going to be really boring, stuffy affairs. The first of our series of blogs from COP 15 suggests otherwise, however.

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The atmospheric pull of COP 15 begins the instant I leave home. The taxi driver thinks it’s all too late (only a population cull will save us, he tells me kindly) and at the train station fellow 'COPers' nod respectively to each other like incognito football supporters. “I bet they’re off to the COP,” we whisper. On the ship to Esbjerg we meet a couple on their honeymoon; they too are off to COP 15. “Well, I work in local government,” the groom purrs proudly, lovingly rubbing his bride’s thigh, “I wanted to treat her”. At least he didn’t ask her to cycle the 250 km across Denmark to the capital, unlike the group sitting next to them.

Two days after leaving home we reach the police-cordoned gates of COP 15. The conference is at the Bella Centre – a vast trade exhibition centre near the airport on the outskirts of Copenhagen. A dozen or so groups of climate activists, NGOs and climate science sceptics eerily entertain us in the long winding queue for delegate registration. “Here, plant a real seed – a real tree seed,” “Do you believe in climate change?,” “Can I give you one of these?,” ...oh yes, it’s COP time.

COP15 - a hive of activity Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stephen Peake

COP 15: a hive of activity.

As we snake towards the check-in desks, strangers face each other and strike up conversations like old friends. A fabulously engaging Australian woman gently prods a charming Parisian carbon trader about the significance of recent developments in climate politics down under. We talk about power, about change, about transformation and about hope. “Hope ‘n’ Bacon,” I joke. For a brief, bored moment we play a game and look up at the signage in the airport style hall of registration desks (there are different check-ins for Parties, Observers and Media/Press) and try to guess where the real power for change and transformation lies.

The official Documents Distribution Desk is tactfully placed near the entrance to the meetings so that weary delegates may collect vital paper updates on the full goings on of the day before. There are a handful of key sources that are essential morning reading at the meetings. You may be surprised to hear that in many ways – thanks to the internet - it is much easier these days to follow the climate negotiations at home than it is actually attending them. Fresh, lovely, paper documents help fill the gap.

The most critical is the official daily programme published by the UNFCCC secretariat. This provides details of where the negotiations have got to, Article by Article, as well as details of the day’s official special events and other meetings. The second document delegates pick is a copy of ECO. This brief and entertaining look at the events and political shenanigans of the previous day, can be found in the hands of most delegates along with their morning coffee. The third and most substantial daily update comes from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. This is an incredibly good update on what’s happening across the whole of the negotiations.

It is impossible for any one person or indeed small delegation to keep up with the plethora of committees and separate agenda items (running in the thousands) and the ENB people deploy a large team of highly skilled rapporteurs to produce this report.

COP15 protesters Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stephen Peake
COP 15: protesters.

I’m struck by the simplicity of some of the communications devices used in some of the opening speeches on Monday morning’s curtain raiser. The UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer likens the process to a wedding cake and enlightens us “There is a Caribbean saying that goes: “one, one dutty build dam,” which means “build a sturdy wall one brick at a time.” COP 15 President Connie Hedegaard takes up the theme in a teacherly way; “For a long time, Copenhagen was the name of a distant deadline. Next year, next COP, next month… but now, it is now! Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Danish capital! After 'B' for Bonn, Bangkok, and Barcelona the turn has come to 'C'. C for Copenhagen. But also C for Constructiveness, C for Cooperation, and hopefully in the end C for Commitment and Consensus!”

How best to describe the scene at the heart of COP 15 in the social hub of the Bella Center? It could be a busy mega out-of-town shopping centre in the week just before Christmas. Or a salubrious version of Glastonbury’s post-apocalyptic dream world Trash City in Shangri la. Or is it Kew Gardens meets the Eden Project? No, that’s it – it is the AGM of a 20,000 strong international moon station comprising every nation on earth. A giant migratory flock has descended and is now resting, feeding and socialising. Within 20 metres there are half a dozen film crews setting up and to film the scene as a backdrop to their pieces to camera. At any one moment, dozens of bewildered people are taking photos. Filming me filming you, a-ha! CNN are next to me interviewing a representative of the African Nations and he’s calling for ‘trillions not billions’ to be made available in order to help developing countries prepare for climate change.

The hum and expectation is different to anything I can remember since I went to my first COP in 1998. I often get asked how the overall process works at a COP and today I’ve already oriented several bewildered new delegates. There are 3-4,000 representatives of Parties (Nations) to the Convention. These are the negotiators. The rest of the 20,000 (like myself) are Non-Governmental Observers and Media/Press who are following the proceedings as well as attending a carnival of side events and exhibits. The NGOs are themselves divided into different groupings. The Open University is part of the Research NGOs group (RINGOs), but there are also Business NGOs (BINGOS), Green NGOs (GRINGOs), Youth NGOs (YOUNGOs), Trade Unions (TUNGOs) Indigenous Peoples Organizations (IPOs), and local government and municipal authorities (LGAM), who don’t rhyme for some reason.

It’s 1 pm and the walkways suddenly swell with crowds carrying papers, bags, laptops and all other manner of strange goods and objects. The plenary sessions have finished for lunch and a trail of tired looking people are now foraging. The physical scale of what it takes to sustain a conference city of this size - the food, water, energy, waste systems - is a poignant metaphor for our common purpose. Bishop-like processions of white-hatted chefs make their way purposefully through the thick crowds on various food missions.

Every so often, some group or other pulls a stunt. Suddenly there is a distant whoop and a cheer and then the rush of the media. Well I say media – just about everyone it seems has a fancy still or video camera so it’s hard to tell. Three giant trees walk by with “Don’t chop down EU targets” written on them and suddenly what seems like every camera in the building goes off. Every so often, a gentle wave of around 20 voices rises up into a distant crescendo. It’s a bunch of students (the YOUNGOs) doing a ‘bed-in action’ dressed in pyjamas and holding pillows singing ‘Give peace a chance’ on the 29th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination. A Friends of the Earth ‘useless magician’ attempts to make models of polluting objects disappear by covering them with a black cloth, and using an offsetting spell (or course it doesn’t work).

COP15: students bedding in together. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stephen Peake

COP 15: students bedding in together.

In amongst this spectacle I spot my old boss Michael Zammit Cutajar struggling through the crowd. He’s one of the most important figures at the Conference (he Chairs the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action – a critical negotiating group at these meetings) and was for many years the first Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC. The converse of the carnival-like ‘time is running out’ narrative being played out in front of the world’s media, is some very serious, quiet diplomatic work behind the scenes in the days ahead.

Stephen Peake will be blogging here throughout the COP 15 conference.

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