CLIMATE CHANGE | The end of a week: COP16, day 5


“The approximate value of this car,” said Paco, our driver, “is $500,000.  That’s because it’s a prototype.”  I was riding with two other undergrads from Cancunmesse to the Moon Palace in a Nissan Leaf, one of 20 all-electric cars which Nissan provided to the COP16 organizers to supplement the buses that usually operated on this venue-to-venue shuttle run.  This time, we had gotten lucky: a Leaf happened to be the next vehicle in the shuttle queue and we happened to be there. 

“The torque is amazing — almost 100% from a standstill,” said Paco, who spoke very good English despite his many protests to the contrary. 

“Let’s see it!” I said. 

“Everybody OK with that?” Paco asked, and when we nodded, he slowed the car to a near crawl on the highway and then punched it up to 70km.  It WAS fast — and quiet, since the electric motors made almost no sound.  “I haven’t slept in 48 hours,” Paco said, “between this and my other job.  And the security here is so intense.  I nap on the bus to and from work.  But the pay is really, really good.”

An electric car waiting to pick up passengers at the Moon Palace

Photo: An electric car waiting to pick up passengers at the Moon Palace

To tell the truth, we were all tired on Friday: a very busy week of COP16 was coming to a close.  I spent much of the day at the Moon Palace listening to negotiating sessions, which by this point in the week were specific enough to be quite intriguing.  All the negotiations I attended on Friday were classified as “informal meetings of Convention and Protocol bodies” instead of large plenaries, meaning the focus was more on actual decision-making and less on recitations of known positions.  The intent of every session was to finalize wording on papers which had been drawn up based on other meetings or work sessions.  As delegates entered the room, they were handed the current draft of the paper in question, which was then examined bit by bit with every country present getting multiple chances to edit the draft.  As delegates made suggestions, the live document was shown on a projection screen that tracked each change.  Each session had a chairperson / moderator who worked to bring about consensus on wording.

It might seem like approving the wording of papers would be relatively noncontroversial, but to think so would be a mistake.  Every session ran longer than its allotted time slot as delegates picked at tiny language nuances that could potentially result in real policy differences with implications for the various countries and groups present.  The first of these sessions I attended was a contact group on Article 6 of the Convention, which was also well-attended by other observer groups (particularly youth delegates) since part of the document in question dealt with the involvement of young people in the U.N. process.  The second was a joint contact group on matters relating to Articles 2.3 and 3.14 of the Kyoto Protocol, which dictated the amount of time allocated to scientific & technical advice as well as implementation of the Protocol in future meetings.  And the third session (which was the most interesting to me) was a contact group on arrangements for intergovernmental meetings, which specifically dealt with the involvement of observer organizations and their delegates in the negotiation process.

The amount of haggling that goes on over comma placement, word choice, and sentence order is astounding at first: the countries’ negotiators have a fairly deep grasp of the implications that minute differences in language may have and fight fiercely for what seem to be the smallest issues. 

Where the original document draft relating to intergovernmental meetings specified that parliamentarians and legislators were valued participants as observers in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process, the United States’ negotiator asked that “as observers” be removed, which caused some slight tension with the European Union negotiator who had originally suggested the “observers” language.  After a brief discussion, the E.U. relented, seeming slightly puzzled as to the reason for the U.S.’s insistence, which also puzzled me.  Then another country (I think it was Saudi Arabia but couldn’t catch the name for sure) asked that “parliamentarians and legislators” be removed, essentially making the paragraph say “Participants are valued” and therefore be worthless. 

The moderator then called a five-minute recess and asked the U.S., the E.U, and Saudi Arabia to come up to the front of the room and sit down and work their differences out.  Stuart, a fellow undergrad from the U of M who I was attending the session with (and who has also been blogging this week) turned to me and said, “Amazing — this is what it all comes down to.  In the end, it’s five people sitting on the floor in a circle.”  I felt like this moment took me closer to the reality of COP16 and the U.N. process than anything else had throughout the week.

So from here on in, I’ll be thinking about those circle-on-the-floor meetings, where the expectations of 194 countries and the hopes of the world get reduced to the simple humanity of a few people having a conversation.  I’ll be following the second week of COP16 from back in Minnesota and trying to catch up from the week of late-semester classes that I took off to do this trip.  While I know I won’t hear about a binding international climate treaty coming out of Cancun, I have hopes for progress, especially in regard to increasing the likelihood of a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol and moving closer to an international framework for emissions reductions to be implemented at a future COP.

A number of people from our University of Minnesota delegation, primarily graduate students, will be presenting their experiences and reflections from the trip at an open event this Thursday, December 9th on the U of M’s St. Paul campus.  I’ll be presenting some of my stories from the trip as well.  The event, which is free, is from 3-4pm in room R380 of the Vocational-Technical Education building.  Anyone interested is welcome to come.  If you’ve been reading my blogs or those of my fellow delegates and want to chat, we’d love to see you there.

And this closes my series of posts about COP16.  It’s been a pleasure writing these updates and I appreciate the Daily Planet for publishing them.  For now, I’m signing off and heading home — thanks for reading.


State Senator Ellen Anderson, Representative Kate Knuth and a delegation of University of Minnesota students are attending the COP 16 conference in Cancun, and students will share the experience with TC Daily Planet readers through blog post from the conference.