27 November 2011

The Real Deal!

The real deal! Get it? They're negotiating a new climate deal at COP17! Oh no she didn't! Yes, I did. Anywho, my dry sense of humour aside (I still find it highly amusing) - yesterday the real thing started, the reason I'm here in Durban - the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, otherwise known as COP17. It actually feels so strange typing COP17 without a hash tag in front. But I'll get back to twitter-talk later.

The excitement of COP really started to hit on Sunday when I got my badge to enter the ICC. I've been in Durban since Thursday and I was starting to get a bit sick of being driven around the ICC, navigating blocked roads and whatnot, but not actually being allowed anywhere too close to it. So finally being able to enter the complex, beyond the central transport hub was a massive deal (there she goes again with the puns!) to me. On top of that, just like when I interned at WWF, the excitement of having an official lanyard with UNFCCC on it was possibly the coolest thing in the world. In fact, the novelty of the badge still hasn't worn off.

I had to
Sunday was also when I finally met the kids I'm supervising. It's something I had been anxious about ever since it was organised. I knew nothing about the children, how old they were, if they spoke  fluent English, what I would have to do with them in Durban - all I knew was that with them I'd be at COP17. Now, I know it all. There are four of them, two boys and two girls - Shreya Bharti, Lakshay Rastogi, Vineeth Udayakumar and Charu Dixit. What I instantly loved was that all of them are from four completely different corners of India and that they're all only in 11th grade. There's Lakshay from Gurgaon - an area on the outskirts of Delhi, which in my lifetime has developed at a ridiculous rate. So he comes from the land of skyscrapers and shopping malls. Charu is from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh - India's most populous state. Shreya comes from Jammu, all the way up north, in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. And then Vineeth who's come all the way from the Lakshadweep islands, which are actually closer to the Maldives than India (which I also imagine are very relevant when it comes to climate change and sea level rise). Through a selection process which lasted almost a month, the four of them were eventually chosen to be the lucky students to attend COP17 in Durban with the official Indian delegation. As an initiative of the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests' Centre for Environment Education, they did online quizzes, essay-writing competitions and workshops to get here. Now that they're in Durban, I'm their local guardian and "mentor". The fact that they're here and attending COP17 is huge and I want them to feel like they're in the most important place in the world right now (because it is). They need to realise the gravity of the negotiations and take that back with them, regardless of the outcome of the talks.

Sunday night ended with a dramatic thunderstorm, so appropriate on the eve of COP17. Ironically enough, the next day there was news of people dying due to flooding in the region. But to put a more optimistic spin on it, as Christiana Figueres mentioned in her opening speech at the talks, "the gods rained on us with blessings before COP".

Day 1 of COP17 was overwhelming, to put it simply. The venue is massive, there is so much happening simultaneously in so many places, so many people buzzing around and so many documents to collect. Absolute madness (though very organised madness I must say - well done Durban!). However, once you finally get your bearings and figure out what's happening where, it doesn't get much easier. The first event we attended was a meeting of the G77+China group. To be honest, it made no sense to me. They just dealt with formalities and a provisional agenda and it was difficult to follow. Only later, when speaking to one of the Indian delegates, did I realise that what they were talking about is actually really important. There was a lot of debate over the agenda because India added three new points of discussion to it, which they want to have considered in the negotiations but some countries disagree with. I won't go into that now because it's too long to explain but when I do a post that's more about the substance of the negotiations, I'll mention it. Then there was the opening plenary session, which was straightforward as it was just a series of opening speeches, the highlights being President Jacob Zuma, Christiana Figueres and Minister Maite-Nkoana Mashabane. JZ didn't say anything too special, in fact many people think he didn't show enough leadership. But the two women were absolutely inspirational, I've become a huge fan of both. Another thing I still can't get over is how cool it is to be in the room where an international UN conference is happening. It's everything you expect from TV! UN flags and rows of tables with country placards, each with the little mic to speak from - amazing. For the rest of Day 1, we sat in on the rest of the plenary and the beginning of the CMP to the Kyoto Protocol session. Again, the formalities and the jargon were a LOT to keep up with and only made sense when broken down to us by one of the Indian delegates. Mr. T.S. Tirumurti, one of the men who helped organise me being at COP, has regularly been meeting with the kids to check in with them and also to give them little briefings on what's happening at COP and what India's stance is. It's been so valuable, both to them and myself. After his first briefing to us yesterday, the children had two interview sessions with the press where they each got to tell their story. After a long day at the ICC, heads full of technical jargon and climate policy, we came back to the hotel.

My second day of COP17 couldn't have started more gloriously. I left early without the kids so that I could make it to the ICC in time for the YOUNGO (Youth NGO) spokescouncil which I had missed yesterday. They arrived later with some of the other Indian delegates. Firstly, while on the shuttle and driving past Umgeni River, I saw a group of pelicans. If that's not a good start to a morning, I don't know what is. I arrived at the Durban Exhibition Centre right on time for the meet. Once again, I was in a room of vocal young activists, including many familiar faces from COY, and the inspiration was back. I said this enough in the last post, but I really can't believe how pro-active these guys are. One of the actions they carried out today was to deliver an intervention at the plenary meeting on the Kyoto Protocol. At the meeting, one of the youth delegates read out a statement drafted by YOUNGO members, which urged nations to sign onto a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. A Canadian delegate was chosen to deliver the statement because Canada is one of the countries most strongly opposed to the second commitment period. The fact that we can make our voices heard in front of all the negotiators is amazing. Whether they listen to us or not, a document drafted by us, the youth, was directly delivered to the Conference of Parties. It's pathetic that YOUNGO talk always makes me so emotional, but when I read the intervention statement, my eyes tingled a little. Another thing which is fuelling my excitement about COP17 and YOUNGO is Twitter. Every time I open it on my phone it's full of tweets about COP17, tweets by the various youth coalitions and people engaged in discussion about the talks. It's so encouraging to see COP17 being spoken about so widely. What I love even more is that just because I've tweeting regular updates from COY and COP from my own account @jessleena and from the GCI's @greencampus_UCT (promotion, yes), the number of followers and general viewership has gone up madly. It's amazing that a social networking site like twitter is being used at this kind of scale for an event this significant. I now appreciate Twitter so much more! The fact that it's being used as a platform for activism and awareness on an issue like climate change calls for some twinkles. Don't ask, new thing I've picked up from YOUNGO and am loving. It's like jazz hands. Anyway, because of the buzz, I've been tweeting like a maniac. Follow me and the GCI, it would be much appreciated :) (by the way, I'm aware of what a cliche it is to blog about the power of social networks - apologies but I'm excited by it)

After the YOUNGO meeting I made my kids have a good look around the stalls at the Exhibition Centre. I'd spent all of yesterday in the main ICC building so I saw all the stalls for the first time today and went mad. Every environmental NGO I could think of had a stall with pamphlets and whatnot. I picked up so many things I don't know how I'm going to take it all back to Cape Town. But I did get to pick up stickers - I'm a sucker for stickers and badges - and have put them on my laptop. Little Blue Bear (yes that's my laptop's name) has finally fulfilled his destiny and has a 350.org sticker on it. Get me WWF and Greenpeace and we are in business!

From the stalls, we were called down to the Indian delegation office. The delegation offices at the ICC are being housed in the basement parking lot - serious optimisation of space happening at COP17! It's a labyrinth down there. I got lost repeatedly. We were given another debriefing/policy lesson from Mr. Tirumurti and then the kids were taken to the office of the Executive Secretary for a special meeting with Christiana Figueres. The fact that she took 15 minutes out of her insane schedule to meet the kids says so much about her. As soon as we walked into the conference room of her office, she took a piece of paper and told the kids "whichever one of you is good at drawing, draw me a map of India and then show me which part each one of you is from". She asked all of them about the selection process and about their backgrounds and also taught them a couple of things about what they should take away from their COP17 experience. In short, she was lovely and inspirational!

We also later sat in on a press briefing the Indian delegation gave to the (mostly Indian) press and NGOs. It was an awesome insight into the behind-the-scenes working of such a large conference. The journalists were raising things like "in the media there's a strong impression that India is blocking negotiations on signing a second commitment period, etc, is this true?" and then the delegate answered back - amazing! I even recognised one of the guys from my WWF-India internship last year. Incidentally, I remember sitting in on his post-Cancun debriefing presentation and have the notes from it in the same notebook I'm using here. These interactions with the Indian delegates has been amazing, because we get to hear directly from our country's negotiators on what's going on. I love it!

Christiana Figueres stressed the importance of youth in climate change, and also on how the kids must realise that as important as international level measures like COP and KP are, they need to also understand the impact of lower level work done within countries by NGOs etc. So since there were no sessions to attend, I took them back to the stalls in the exhibition centre to look properly. I've been trying to be more mentor-y by giving the kids little inspirational talks and by testing their knowledge, but I'm not sure how good I am at this. I gave a little lecture to a couple of them about how top-down and bottom-up efforts have to work alongside each other and right after that they went and had a closer look at the NGO stalls. I was well chuffed with that :p I'm going to also try arrange for them to meet with some people I met at COY so they know about the youth climate coalitions and the work they do. Maybe they'll be inspired like I was!

The whole of today was spent between the exhibition centre and the Indian delegation office so I think tomorrow it'll be time to get back in touch with what's going on in the negotiations, but as far as I know, the first couple of days don't cover much of substance so we should be fine. I've currently got a countless number of tabs open on my browser, as I'm busy researching the UNFCCC, previous negotiations, expectations from COP17, country policies and so on. It's an overwhelming amount of information to take in! The whole process is so complex. But I'm starting to get a better grip on it all so that hopefully, once the negotiations start to heat up, I'll know what's actually going on.

Tomorrow won't be too active because I'm first taking the kids sight-seeing, starting with Phoenix - where Gandhi lived when he was in Durban. Only after lunch will we be back at COP17 and the side events. I'm a little upset that I have to be away from the ICC all morning and out of the loop with what's going on. I'd also hate to miss out on cool side events and YOUNGO actions while I'm busy with the kids but I guess I'll just have to rely on Twitter :)

More to come soon!

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