Impressions from COP22: Lessons from Marrakech

First year Grantham Scholar Kaisa Pietilä joined world leaders at the second week of the United Nations Conference on Climate. Here, she reflects on what she learned, from John Kerry and the mysterious world of ‘corridor diplomacy’.

Find out more about the Grantham Centre at COP22

Grantham Scholars Rob Hardie and Kaisa Pietilä at COP22
Grantham Scholars Rob Hardie and Kaisa Pietilä at COP22

About two months into my PhD, I found myself on a plane headed to Marrakech, Morocco, which hosted the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As a Grantham Scholar in my first year, being part of the University of Sheffield delegation to the COP was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the practice of international policy-making in person, and I certainly made the most of it.

My background is in international environmental politics and conservation policy, which is probably why I felt very much at home at COP22. For some years, I have been following global environmental governance for my studies, work and, at times, pleasure. Besides reading about what goes on in these international high-level meetings from IISD Reporting Services (which I highly recommend!), I often flick through the daily summaries by IISD, which usually consist of a lot of pictures in and around the meeting venue besides the detailed report. After coming home from Marrakech, I was glad to find myself in a photo (green shirt, round glasses) looking very serious whilst watching John Kerry deliver his final address to a climate COP.

Perhaps because of my background, I was not surprised or amazed by what I saw when walking around the venue. My conference partner, a fellow Grantham Scholar and a second-time COP-goer, Robert Hardie, seemed slightly disappointed in my reply to his question on how I was finding COP22: “It’s pretty much exactly what I was expecting!”. I believe knowing what to expect allowed me to focus on the things I thought most relevant to me: ‘corridor diplomacy’, biodiversity in a climate change COP, and networking. What I encountered within these spheres was what surprised me most.

I have always been interested in corridor diplomacy. This can be summarised as the casual discussions that take place outside official meetings and spaces – for example as people bump into one another on the corridors of office buildings, sit at the same table for lunch, and in general exchange views in semi-unplanned encounters outside the official and the accepted. The reason behind my interest in this type of diplomacy is that you cannot capture it in writing, and you cannot learn it by reading books. You need to be there in person to experience it. I was by surprised how openly people were willing to talk about their views of the COP, the negotiations, as well as their own agendas. It was in these corridors where I found the most intriguing insights into what was going on behind closed doors and the most accurate analyses of what the COP22 would result in, rather than in the official statements by ministers and heads of states. Experiencing how to function within such unofficial spaces of knowledge exchange and decision-making is one of the key lessons learned for me.

Considering that my research is on the sustainable use of natural resources, biodiversity and the economy, I had given some thought to whether going to a global climate change conference would be relevant to my research. I found it easy to justify going to the conference, since climate change is the main indirect driver of biodiversity loss, whilst biodiversity loss contributes to climate change: in tackling one you tackle the other simultaneously. However, at COP22 I was surprised by how little emphasis there was on biodiversity. Besides a handful of conservation organisations, it seemed that biodiversity was by and large absent. This experience has reassured me of the need for the type of research that I am embarking on because no solution to the current environmental crisis – climate adaptation, mitigation, green economy, carbon capture, and so forth – is a sustainable one if biodiversity comes as an afterthought. At a side event, Inger Andersen, the Director-General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), answered my question on what role biodiversity should play at a climate COP saying that “the story of climate change is the story of biodiversity, and vice versa”. She also noted that there is work being done to synergise activities between the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), but that much more work remains to be done. We will need to look at the whole story rather than a part of it if we are to be truly sustainable going forward.

The third lesson I learned from COP was about networking. Some of the most interesting sounding side events which I had thought would be excellent networking opportunities turned out to be dull and not particularly useful. It did not take me long to apply a key skill from reading journal articles and books: if halfway through you realise that what you are reading or hearing is of no relevance, it is better to move on. In doing so, I wandered into events that I would not have thought to be relevant from reading the title, abstract and speakers, and ended up meeting fascinating and exciting people with different views on what to do about climate change. This unexpectedness of networking opportunities caught me by surprise not only at the venue, but also in leaving the venue. One of the most interesting discussions I had was on the bus on my way home!

With these lessons in mind, I feel much better equipped as an academic engaging with the policy world. Here’s to many more COPs to come, to unexpected networking, to corridor diplomacy and most importantly, more emphasis on biodiversity everywhere!