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Report from COP15

From ANU Human Ecology student Jasmin Logg-Scarvell

I had the opportunity to attend COP15 last December as part of the ANU climate change science and policy field school. I came out of Copenhagen with many experiences and insights, but this blog focuses just on my ‘research’ area, which I presented a couple of weeks ago at the Human Ecology Forum.

At COP15 (amongst the range of my other interests) I was studying the inclusion of health co-benefits of climate change mitigation in the conference agenda, with a comparison to what is presented in the literature. I kept it pretty broad, including issues such as direct health impacts, socio-economic impacts from environmental change and the ethical dimensions of these issues in my research scope. Being at COP15 gave me a chance to attend health-related events and booths on topics as diverse as water and food scarcity, disease, meteorological science and the displacement of people. The aim was to explore how health issues were perceived and represented, and if there was any agenda push or official inclusion of health co-benefits in the negotiations and text. Due to the access restrictions of the NGO pass issued to ANU students, the bulk of my experiential research concentrated on the health issues presented by the side events and booths and is therefore weighted from the perspectives of NGO delegates. At the same time I was conducting a literature review looking at how the health co-benefits and impacts are presented, and if there is any discussion of how to argue ‘health co-benefits’ external to the conference of the parties.

To my surprise, there were few side events at COP15 explicitly about health, but many others I attended mentioned health either:

-       As part of a national climate change agenda (e.g. the government of Kiribati, who impressed me with their level-headed explanation of measures they were taking rather than just appealing for help)

-       In relation to other climate change issues

  • Migration
  • Employment
  • Youth
  • Gender
  • Technology transfer

-       As part of a broader agenda (e.g. in an event on adaptation including the International Human Dimensions Program- a very promising ‘human dimensions science’ collaboration)

For me another highlight was the World Health Organisation, who was at the conference with a very clear mandate to argue the health co-benefits. However, from my personal experience as an ‘NGO’ delegate, this mandate was weakened by the rabble of so many other events going on at once, and then by most of the interested conference attendees being locked out in the final days in which the specific health events were concentrated.

How does this compare to the literature? I was happy to see that in terms of facts, statements and graphics, the information presented to me at COP15 was very similar or the same as the arguments currently going around in the literature. But what surprised me is that inclusion of the health co-benefits of climate change is only really a recent thing in the ‘official’ dialogue, even though it has always been implied (e.g. in the UNFCCC, where adverse climate change effects are explained to include health issues).

The real difference between the literature and COP15 was not the information itself, but how it was presented and pushed as an agenda. I found that presentation of the health co-benefits was there- but all over the place (as is true of the conference as a whole). In COP15 health issues were also brought up in light of thier potential to become part of a wider issue grouping of the ‘human dimensions’ to climate change, which goes beyond most of the sector-focused literature. This could be in part due to the sheer number of applications for  side events which the organisers received for COP15, which resulted in them having to ask various groups with similar interests to work together within single events (with mixed success).

My main realisations from looking at health at COP15 go beyond the health agenda and are probably true for any interest grouping in these sorts of conferences. I have been considering whether these groups (such as WHO) could have done any better in the foray that was COP15, and realised that even with some effective presentation of the health co-benefits and collaboration between groups, my focus as an NGO delegate had missed the main problem. Before I came to the conference I did not realise how much of a disconnect there would be between the rabble of side events/booths and the official negotiations, which were too busy in themselves to consider any other happenings. It was like there were a number of different conferences going on at once, with different audiences and different purposes. With this sort of forum, I should not have been surprised that there was very little run through of the health agenda (being presented in one forum) to the actual negotiations (going on in another forum, and almost totally decided upon already).

This study has, surprisingly, made me consider issues which don’t just apply to health co-benefits. Notably, my frustrations have centred on the question: what is the point of having side events and booths at the conference, when it is clear that the negotiators have no time at all to engage with them, and can’t really change their official positions anyway? I realised that at COP15, their real role was to help networking and collaboration between different organisations, rather than reach the negotiators. I’m hoping that for the health agenda at least, the range of events also helped to broadly engage and encourage grassroots action in parallel with an international agreement (which some including myself would argue is the more effective mode of change).

Then, is there any more effective and open way to try to bring branching agendas such as ‘health co-benefits’ to a COP? I was forced to conclude that by the time a COP is underway, it is too late for any new agenda to be introduced. The really effective agenda push has to come in the years leading up to the conference itself, when the substantive part of the text is drafted. Organisations such as WHO have been working on this, for example, by making repeated submissions to the secretariat outlining their agenda and where they want to the text to change. However, I’m not sure how effective this has actually been in getting changes realised in the text- maybe a topic for my further undergrad study?


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