The 23rd Session of the Conference of the Parties (“COP23”) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in 2017 in Bonn, Germany. 

Group photo in Bonn

(L-R) Kristin Koetsier, Tia Driver, Siya Agarwal, Natalie Heldsinger (IC3, UWaterloo), Sandra Biskupovic, and Sanchi Sharma in Bonn, Germany.

The students shared their experiences with daily Instagram posts (@cop23uwaterloo), through various personal social media channels, and many reflected on their experiences in the blogs below.

The student delegate experience at COP23

Vanessa Corkal

Building bridges through better collaboration at COP23​

When it comes to international climate change negotiations, it’s an ongoing struggle not only to get consensus among countries, but to ensure marginalized voices get equal participation and representation in decision-making. Climate change is a complicated, multi-faceted problem. We need solutions coming from all sides, including from voices we don’t hear often enough.

In a recent Scientific American article, Christina Figueres, former chief of the UNFCCC, describes how bringing “female energy” into the negotiations was key to getting the Paris Agreement signed. Similarly, a big step forward was made this year with Fiji hosting the Presidency. They introduced an important indigenous perspective to the negotiations process through the Talanoa dialogue.

Vanessa at COP23Fiji is a Small Island Developing State that climate change is already impacting through rising sea levels and increased storms. Talanoa is a traditional, indigenous Pacific way of sharing knowledge, engaging in conversation with others, and working towards a common goal. Many of the people I spoke to at COP commented that the approach was a game-changer because it emphasizes the spirit of collaboration and encourages parties to consider the future. Where do we want to go as a global community, and how can we get there?

On a personal note, I was excited to go to COP23 to learn more specifically about food security and community development. But as with any big conference, plans are one thing, and reality is another. When I got to COP and started running around between events (after all, there is so much going on!), I found myself drawn to panels and meetings addressing how gender rights intersect with climate change.

One of the most memorable sessions I attended was at the Fiji Pavilion, featuring indigenous Pacific women from Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Fiji, and New Zealand who spoke first-hand about the impacts climate change was having on their communities. A young Maori woman gave a powerful speech arguing that for many indigenous people, climate change is simply the latest iteration of a long history of colonization. A woman from Vanuatu described that when Cyclone Pam hit in 2015, 75% of the country’s agriculture was affected. Women were often unable to go to market or harvest foods because of the damaged infrastructure. Violence against women rose by a massive 300% in the months following the disaster.

These themes were later echoed at the daily meetings of the Women & Gender Constituency, a network of women from around the world pushing for better gender inclusion in climate action. The energy in the room was unlike any other event I went to. There was an incredible spirit of unity, solidarity, optimism, and strong work ethic. Those who were there didn’t shy from the reality of what women are up against. During a ceremony conducted on Indigenous Women’s Day, a Chippewa woman from the Bad River Band (Wisconsin) commented: “They treat Mother Earth like they treat women.”    

There are many amazing climate change organizations worldwide working on gender and indigenous rights issues, and I’m lucky to have met a handful at COP. There were also opportunities to gain practical knowledge about how to bridge some of these barriers. I went to a workshop run by GenderCC where I learned about doing gender assessments of urban climate change policies. They presented a useful tool to determine whether a city’s mitigation and adaptation strategies are equitable and to find synergies to integrate gender inclusion and advancement.

If we’re going to tackle climate change successfully, we have to acknowledge the larger social and political landscape that has enabled environmental degradation to happen in the first place.  The good news is that thanks to the Talanoa dialogue and the continued activism of groups like the Women & Gender Constituency, progress is being made. This year’s COP saw the passing of the Gender Action Plan and the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform, which attempts to better incorporate gender and indigenous issues into climate action.

Vanessa at COP23On the last day of the conference, I met Canada’s Dene National Chief, Bill Erasmus, and asked him for his thoughts on the progress made at this year’s COP. He said the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform is “an important starting point. It gives us something to work with.”

“If we take the time to understand, everything is possible. But a great deal of people worldwide don’t understand what’s in the [UNFCCC and Paris Agreement].” He emphasized that in addition to better education, civil society needs to put pressure on national governments to implement the Paris Agreement.

We have the framework, but national implementation is the next step. And that means harnessing some of the energy happening at the grassroots and channeling it into large-scale political action and governmental policy. It also means supporting what’s happening at the grassroots, from community-based adaptation to local justice struggles.

A special feature from Vanessa in UW's student newspaper, Imprint - COP23: Change starts at home 

Samantha Gray

Sam at COP23The best week of my life. That is how I describe my experience at COP23 in Bonn, Germany when friends and family ask me about my trip. Having a BSc in Environmental Science, and now studying for my Master’s in Climate Change, COP has been on my radar for some years now. My first exposure to the COP conferences was in 2010 with COP16 in Cancun, Mexico. I saw a documentary of a conservationist filmmaker who attended the conference and I immediately began researching the conference and how I could get involved. It wasn’t however, until years later when I was looking at future Master’s programs when I came across an article talking about a group of students from the University of Waterloo who had the opportunity to attend COP21 in Paris. The University of Waterloo hit high on my radar after that and two years later I began my Master’s of Climate Change at UW. To me, COP felt like home. I was surrounded with tens of thousands of people who just got me. There’s no easier way to describe a group of people who not only acknowledge that climate change is real, but who are also actively doing their part in reducing its impact instead of pretending it wasn’t happening, something I have been advocating for for much of my life with little interest shown from outside friends and family. I set foot in the Bonn Zone with a rather extensive background in climate science and climate policy and governance, yet I came out learning so much more than I ever expected. The events that really hit home for me, were the Food and Climate events. COP23 was the first conference of the parties where the connection between diet and climate change was extensively included in the side events. Although a long-time advocate for a greener diet myself, I was in awe to see such an extensive amount of people who were also advocators for diets free of resource and emission heavy foods such as meats and animal by-products, a fact either undiscussed or unknown much in the media today. I was able to connect and network with several experts in this field, a field I was unaware I could even gain a career in, and I was even able to connect with the director of the UN Environment in New York City, who himself has been plant-based for over a decade in the pursuit of a greener planet. It was humbling to see that I was not the only one fighting climate change in this manner. After talking to many researchers in the field, I learned that next year’s conference, COP24 in Poland, may be the first conference of the parties to include agriculture extensively in the negotiations as well as the side events, which is a huge step for COP.

Sam at COP23As much as I learned from the side events, I learned just as much from talking to people throughout the conference. A conversation that struck with me was one which I had with a man from Namibia. He approached me while I was reading a pamphlet at the Mali Pavilion, and asked me what I knew about Africa. I admitted that I had never been and knew very little, and he then took the time to talk with me about his home continent, speaking of it as everyone’s home since the earliest humans can be traced back to African lands. The way he encouraged me to visit by saying that I would be returning “home” really struck a chord. The way he talked passionately about a continent frequently disregarded in the Western world, and often thought of as inferior to the West, was incredibly humbling to hear. After our discussion, as well as several others with residents of Mali, Turkey, Kenya, Mexico, Egypt, Indonesia and more, I realized how little I really understood of the world and how easily our perceptions of those in other parts of the world can be skewed through learning about these places from Western media sources. These regions of the world are most often the most impacted by climate change and are the most vulnerable, yet they have so much positivity and fire in them to make changes. It was the pick me up I never realized I needed. Overall, the conference was a chance of a lifetime and I will be forever grateful to UW for giving me the opportunity to experience such a dream in person. I was asked more than once after returning if I recommended others apply for following years, and there was no hesitation when I said 100% yes.

Tia Driver

What is COP really like? This was the first question posed to me when I returned from the first week of COP 23 in Bonn, Germany. To be honest, it wasn’t what I expected.

Tia at COP23There is this common perception that UN conventions and conferences are attend exclusively by high ranking officials or delegates, and they spend their time behind closed doors. This perception paints a gloomy picture for international politics and raises the question of where are the other international NGOs? Needless to say, the common views about any international conference capture only a portion of what actually occurs.   

It became apparent during the first day that were a multitude of side events (or panelled lectures) to attend, and we could not attend them all. Many of these events occurred during the same time slot, so it was very difficult to decide on which one to attend. If there ever was a moment to invent a time-turner, COP 23 was it! I’ve learnt more about climate finance than I ever thought I would, and experienced an Al Gore presentation. The most interesting side event was a discussion regarding blockchain technology and sustainability. I knew of blockchain and how its algorithms are used for cryptocurrency (Bitcoin). However, the concept of applying this technology for eco-certification and monitoring for sustainable initiatives was new to me. For many of the side events, the panels were comprised of representatives from different organizations and you would think that the panelists for these events were experts in their field, but many openly admitted that they were not. Fortunately, many panelists were kind enough of offer some guidance on where or whom to contact for more information.

It was interesting to see the variety of booths and venues set-up. There were some groups I was already familiar with, such as the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI) and ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability. As well, there were pavilions by several nations, including Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Brazil. Many pavilions provided an opportunity to view different technological projects designed to either assist with the adaption of climate change or provide new energy sources. Oddly, enough some of the more controversial booths, such as the Nuclear for Climate booth, never seemed to have a representative present. It should be noted that we didn’t have access to other groups working out of the Bula zone and I did not have much interaction with official delegates. Most of my time was spent talking with various civil society groups and NGOs.

Of all the pavilions and booths, the ITER booth was very impressive. It didn’t have any flashy promotional pens or buttons, and it didn’t have much by way of interactive experience. Nevertheless, this booth had an idea and sometimes this is more valuable than any pen. The ITER project aims to share any intellectual property and results with the 35 countries involved. This collaboration will not only provide developing countries with access to new technology but is also serves for a model of future international endeavours.

Overall, I anticipated more interaction or ability to converse with other researchers and delegates. But, the Bonn Zone for COP 23 was exclusively for civil society and NGOs. I learnt a lot while attending the convention, and was able to observe how different NGOs collaborate on large scale projects. In the end, COP 23 essentially expanded my understanding of international politics, and it left with me more questions than answers.

Benjamin Sanchez

BenjaminI had the honor to be selected to participate as part of the University of Waterloo Delegation for the COP 23 Fiji UNCCC 2017 in Bonn, Germany. This was my first experience participating in such an important international event. I had the pleasure to participate aside other UW students who also have a strong background and interest in the debate of climate change. I had the opportunity of learning from all of them about their different topics of expertise, points of view and backgrounds. This was a great opportunity to listen to the voices around the problem of climate change, coming and from all around the world. I just realized through this participation how challenging is the problem that we face, and the importance of our active participation from the different sectors that we represent in our society, in my case, the research in sustainability in construction. It is well known that the sum of all these little efforts are the ones that could sum to make the difference and to push towards to a global sustainable development.

BenjaminFollowing this order of ideas, my focus during my participation was to follow closely the discussions related to sustainability in the construction industry. I found very interesting that the topics of energy efficiency in buildings and the promotion of a Circular Economy (CC) in construction were reiterative topics in this area. My conclusions and lessons learned in this respect are the next. The restorative and regenerative approach in construction industry is based on: (1) an enormous proportion of all the materials ever extracted in human history are in today's built environment, (2) the turn-over rate of buildings is considered relatively low, (3) the price of materials extraction is increasing as is the negative environmental impacts due to the natural constraints of the more dilute and distant stocks of ores and other resources, (4) understanding the real value of the built environment in terms of circular economy through merging cutting-edge Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology with the most updated, complete, and realistic databases of the existing building stock is improving, and (5) the accurate monetization of environmental impacts through technological development and research in the field is improving.

BenjaminAlso, I learned that there are different points of view about the same problem and that all of them changes according to the background of each nation. I really appreciate the enormous effort that the participating nations have to organize and promote this kind of international summits, and the good willing for keep pushing toward a more fair, efficient, and worthy human development. I was sensibly touched by the different presentations that showed how cruel could be an unbalanced development. In some way, I felt identified since I come from a developing country, México, and I am a witness of the big challenges for this kind of societies. After all, now I feel even more inspired and committed in order to create an impact in my sphere of action. I am so thankful for having the opportunity of participating and I would be eager for do it again in the future.

Steven Jia

Empowering Everyone to Take Climate Action

It has been my goal to attend a Conference of the Parties for quite some time and COP23 certainly did not disappoint. From the prospect of visiting Europe (in my case, for the first time) to furthering my knowledge of issues related to climate change, attending COP23 both humbled and motivated me.

In many ways, the experience was exactly on par with my expectations. There were numerous discussion panels and talks on a range of climate-focused topics. There were environmentally-conscious people from all over the world in attendance. There were cultural displays and presentations. There were protests. And of course, there were climate talks and negotiations led by each country’s government representatives. However, many aspects of COP23 also surprised me. In particular, the ideas presented at several discussion panels challenged my mental paradigm of how individuals and societies should go about tackling the massive and complex issue of climate change. It is these learnings that I found to be the most valuable takeaways of my experience.

Steven at COP23One prevalent theme that I saw throughout COP23 is the increased emphasis placed on involving more than just national governments and environmental NGOs in solving climate change. This ‘big tent’ approach isn’t just a feel-good suggestion; it is very much necessary to get as many different groups on board as possible. While climate policy and governance may be crafted by federal politicians, the implementation of solutions has and will continue to be done at the industry and grassroots levels. Thus, it is advantageous to work with groups that are not traditionally associated with environmental causes or are not typically represented in any meaningful way in climate negotiations. These range from business leaders to indigenous groups to sub-national governments to youth. For example, I heard a bank CEO talk about one of her company’s initiatives to incentivize its corporate clients to be more sustainable by providing them with discounted loans if they meet a certain sustainability standard. I listened to a panel of indigenous women from Peru describe the intersectional challenges that they face and how they’re still fighting to protect their lifestyle and land. I’ve sat in a room full of law students and lawyers discussing climate-related lawsuits and how litigation can be used as a tool to keep governments and corporations accountable. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, were the speeches given by the governors of various US states on what their governments have been doing in the absence of federal leadership on climate action. At COP23, they represented a bipartisan coalition of 15 U.S. states and signed an unprecedented agreement with Canada and Mexico to affirm their commitment to climate action and the Paris Agreement. Their presence and actions showed that federal governments aren’t the only actors who can make a significant impact and that we shouldn’t rely solely on them to do so.

Students at cop23As an engineering student, I was also really interested in learning about the role of technology in all of this. Technology obviously has its place in fighting climate change, but to what extent can it be used? As it turns out, much of the technology that we need is already invented, available, and becoming increasingly affordable. Renewable energy has steadily dropped in price over the past decade and is now actually cheaper to both build and run than existing coal and nuclear plants in many areas. Advancements are being made in increasing the efficiency of buildings, transportation systems, and city design. According to one speaker from Solar Pulse, a company that builds long-range solar-powered aircrafts, if everyone were to switch their light bulbs to the most energy-efficient ones that we have today, we would cut our lighting energy consumption (and carbon emissions!) in half and save billions of dollars. These aren’t some futuristic light bulbs that are still being developed—they’re LEDs. So, while innovation and new technologies are great, we don’t need to wait for their development in order to make meaningful reductions in our carbon emissions. We have the power and relevant technologies to act now.

Overall, COP23 has been an immense educational experience and instilled in me a renewed sense of hope for our ability to fight climate change. As Washington state governor Jay Inslee puts it, “Without victory, there is no survival”. Since we have the capabilities to do so, the question becomes: How do we reach this victory as quickly as possible?