Wednesday, December 12, 2018

COP 24 Day 1 -Que Nguyen

Monday, December 10:
Que Nguyen '19

Events that I attended (day 1):

At this COP, I hope to learn more about climate justice and about initiatives that different industries are taking to mitigate and adapt to climate change. On my first day at the COP, I attended several events that focus on these themes.

1. Mining Industries and the Sustainable Transformation of Towns with Circular Economy and Just Transition. In this panel discussion, experts from different companies and research institutions highlighted case studies on the transformation of mining towns. Highlights include:

  • The area that we are currently using for COP24 used to be a coal mine. It has been transformed and become a complex that has an event venue, a museum, and some art galleries. 
  • Mining tourism: mines become museums, concert/wedding venues, golf courses, lakes.
  • Repurpose mining infrastructure in Jastrzębie-Zdrój, southern Poland: a mining area was renovated into an industrial complex that hosts a spice company, a meat processing factory, and a recycling factory. 
  • Phytomining: planting trees that can accumulate high metal concentrations in their biomass and harvest the metals from these trees.
We still need to mine raw materials. They are needed in everything, including wind turbines and solar panels. The transition to renewable energy does not mean that we stop mining. We just change the thing we mine for. Instead of mining fossil fuel, now we mine minerals. We need to engage in the circular economy (see photo), which means sourcing, using, and recycling these resources mindfully.

  • Need to rethink prosperity, i.e. let’s think about the Sustainable Development Goals, let’s use metrics that take into account social and environmental well-being, diversity, and inclusivity. 
  • Non-state actors can play an important role in creating equitable, inclusive policy and in putting policy into practice.

  • There are still many closed mines left but you can have only so many art galleries. What else can we do?
  • We are creating new spaces out of mines but are we creating communities? There are many communities whose livelihoods and cultures center around mining. 
My thoughts:

When we talk about the transition from fossil fuel, we tend to talk about the future being powered by renewable energy and ignore that facts that our present is being powered by mine workers. We too often paint the fossil fuel industry as villians, as enemies, and forget that there are real people whose livelihoods depend on this industry. What will their future look like? How can they participate in a low carbon future? In order to move towards a sustainable future, we cannot leave anyone behind.

2. Side event: U.S. innovative technologies spur economic dynamism

According to the schedule posted on the COP website, there would be representatives from the United States government and Midwest Research Institute/National Renewable Energy Laboratory speaking at this event. There was a rumor that they would promote “cleaner” fossil fuel in this talk. Curious about the U.S. involvement in this COP, I decided to go to this event. As I anticipated that many people would also be attracted to this talk, I arrived fifteen minutes early, hoping to secure a seat. To my surprise, there was already a long line in front of the entrance. In general, during any given hour at COP, there are numerous higher-level events and meetings taking place, so meeting rooms for side events are rarely filled to their maximum capacity. It is very unusual to have to queue for a side event. Interestingly, at the room right next door, Saudi Arabia was also hosting a panel discussion showcasing the roles of oil and gas technology in combating climate change. However, there was no queue in front of their room.
The crowd in front of the event room
I waited in line for a while until the queue did not seem to move anymore. As the event had already started, I decided to leave the venue and go to another event. It was not until later that I found out that the room was over-occupied on purpose! It turned out that the minute the keynote speaker started speaking, a number of youth and indigenous activists in the room stood up, waved banners, and chanted “Keep it in the ground”. They then walked out of the room, leaving it more than half empty. Read more on who were at the demonstration and their reactions here.
Inside the room (photo from

It is worth noting that on Saturday, the United States, along with Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait, blocked the full endorsement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report in the COP document. The report, released in October, warned that to keep the increase in global temperature below 1.5 degree Celsius, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. The four countries objected to the COP “welcoming” this report. Instead, they insisted a much more neutral phrase, “take note”. Since no consensus was reached among countries, the text had to be dropped (BBC).

3. Side event: Voices from the Climate Frontlines: Protecting the rights of the most vulnerable and furthest behind
  • Human Rights Day, 70 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 
  • People who are most vulnerable to climate change are the ones who are already living sustainably. We need to build on their knowledge and include them in climate-related decision-making. 
  • In order to reach sustainability: need to think not only in data and numbers but think holistically. 
  • Call on other states to finalize the Paris Rulebook, engage in the Tanaloa Dialogue, and be inclusive. 
My thoughts:

Overall, I don’t think this panel discussion fully reflects the title “Voices from the Climate Frontlines: Protecting the rights of the most vulnerable and furthest behind”. It could be due to the unexpected changes in the availability of guest speakers. I was hoping to hear more from grassroots leaders. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to see that a governmental representative (the woman from Luxembourg) and an activist (the woman from Kenya) share the same vision of a human rights-based COP.

I also appreciate the facilitator’s acknowledgment that visa can be a barrier to participation. To travel to a country without needing to apply for a visa is a privilege that we don’t usually talk about. Citizens from developed countries tend to have strong passports that allow them to travel to numerous destinations visa-free or visa-on-arrival. For example, Japanese citizens, currently having the strongest visa in the world, can go to 190 countries (out of 218) without needing to apply for a visa beforehand (CNN).


A demonstration by the Korean Youth Delegation. You can write what you want to be included in the Paris rulebook on the PAWP Champion’s Book poster, then slam the gavel as an act of ratifying your own proposal.

Waste bins at the venue. No compost bins :(

Advertisement for a free nap cube for COP participants. The actual cube is located in a more private location.

Free apples!

I also attended two other events, “Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action” and “Getting the message right: how to effectively communicate carbon pricing”, and will share notes about them tomorrow.

4. Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action
This panel discussion is in celebration of the newly launched Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. Any company or organizations engaged in the fashion sector can join the charter. So far, 43 fashion brands, supply chain associations, along with WWF International have committed to reducing their GHG emission by 30% by 2030 and becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. Representatives from popular fashion brands, Puma, H&M, Hugo Boss, Burberry, are invited to speak at this event. The representative from Puma pointed out a couple of reasons for fashion brands to engage in climate action. First, energy efficiency would reduce cost. Second, climate has become more unpredictable, which makes it harder to predict customers’ clothing preference. For example, a few months ago, there was a cold day in summer and people rushed to stores to buy coats. However, the stores, unprepared for this spike in demand, and ran out of coats. Furthermore, shorter winter, a result of climate change, will lead to decreased demand for winter gears. The speaker then emphasized the significance of this charter. The supply chain for the fashion sector is fragmented and energy intensive. By working together, brands can have stronger leverage and implement large-scale changes in the supply chain. H&M representative continued the session by introducing the brand’s ambitious goal of being climate positive by 2045. Currently, H&M is increasing its energy efficiency, renewable energy, and climate resilience, which will help the brand become carbon neutral. Becoming climate positive will be challenge as it is an uncharted territory. H&M is working with NGOs such as WWF International to figure out what else it can do.
It is good news that more and more industries are getting on board with climate actions and setting ambitious climate goals for themselves. However, in certain cases, their intentions can be questionable. As noted above, according to the representative from Puma, in order to stay in business, it is essential for fashion brands to help mitigate climate change because climate change would make it more challenging for brands to sell clothes. This point of view indicates a fixation on profit instead of genuine concerns for humans and for the environment.
I would also like to hear if these brands have thought about recycling textile instead of using virgin materials from their already energy-intensive supply chain. Members of the audience asked questions on these issues at the end of the panel discussion. However, due to time constraints, their concerns were not addressed adequately.

Feel free to email me at if you have a question or would like to discuss anything!

Friday, November 17, 2017

COP 23 Day 12 – Katie

Sadly, today is our last day at COP23! We arrived to an increasingly empty Bonn Zone as pavilions were wrapping up their programming for the week. It was a stark contrast to the chaotic excitement that we experienced earlier in the week. The day felt calm and subdued and lent itself well to some reflection on our week at the conference.

Experiencing a COP is unlike anything I could have imagined. It was exciting, inspiring, challenging, and exhausting all at once. The opportunity to immerse myself every day for a week in learning and discussing climate policy and action was instrumental in helping me gain a new understanding of where we stand and where we need to go as a global community. I was surprised at the amount of organizing that goes into such an event at this scale and the sheer expense of it all. At times the conference felt superfluous. Did we really need all that free coffee and chocolate? How many resources went into building a conference space that saw over 20,000 people pass through its walls? I’m still not sure how I feel about all the money and resources that surely must go into putting on such an event every year, but I do know that gathering together as a global community on climate change is a necessary and valuable endeavor. It encourages knowledge sharing, collaboration and enables the critical task of negotiating international agreements. Despite the fact that my experience at COP was so valuable to me personally and academically, I have concerns - and many of these concerns were discussed in our first event of the day in the German Pavilion on climate diplomacy in a post-Paris world.
From L to R: Moderator, Ambassador Jumeau, Krishneil Narayan from Climate Action Network, Peter Fischer of the German Foreign Ministry, Prime Minister Sopoaga

This side event was one of the most impactful events I attended during my week at the COP. The panelists included the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, the UN Ambassador from the Seychelles, an official from the German foreign ministry, and the director of the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network. In some of the most passionate and engaging remarks I heard this week, Ambassador Jumeau criticized the climate “inaction” of the Bula zone, the lack of urgency of Western climate professionals, and the condescending treatment of island states, while advocating for a better integration of youth in climate action. This was followed by Prime Minister Sopoaga calling for action to help those most vulnerable to climate change - the Pacific Islands. They made clear that while the Pacific Islands are most vulnerable to climate change impacts, they are at the center of climate action - they are leaders, innovators, and pioneers and should not be viewed narrowly as victims (which is a role that some at this COP has subscribed to them). Ambassador Jumeau said, “We cannot afford for this to be an academic exercise”. He elaborated that he is not interested in seeing people getting doctoral degrees in human impacts from climate change - it is almost demeaning because people are really suffering and losing their livelihoods.

This event caused me to think more critically about how this COP was conducted - how was Fiji and fijian culture represented while holding the COP Presidency, whose voices were amplified and whose were not, and what role does/should academia play in the subject of climate change? While I have been skeptical about the efficacy of academic work to actually translate in helping people in areas such as climate change impacts, this discussion problematized the issue even further. I do believe that the work that we do at institutions like Macalester is important, but is not the most important when it comes to climate action.

This is something that I will continue to think critically about the rest of my time at Mac and into my future career.

Photos: From upper left to lower right - Fiji Pavillion, Trying out VR glasses in the Fiji Pavilion, Negotiation meeting during the last day, Christmas decorations at the central train station in Cologne

Thursday, November 16, 2017

COP 23 Day 11 – Julia

While Katie shared her experiences with the education-themed events at the conference, I couldn’t stop rambling with overwhelming excitement and emotion about climate litigation panels that I had attended (we later discovered that we heard the same lawyer from Fiji who we both really appreciated, but I’ll talk about it later!)

I started my day with a cup of coffee and chocolate at the Nordic Pavilion where I heard from three women politicians from different Swedish parties about Sweden’s climate legislation, and particularly about their newest Climate Act. The Act comes into power on January 1, 2018 and sets binding obligations for the government to fulfill its climate targets. I found particularly interesting that the Act triggers the creation of an independent task force that will review government compliance with climate policy goals

every 4 years to ensure political continuity to climate agenda. I found Swedish legislative model really progressive since the speakers mentioned that the Act will help to harmonize all government ministries, institutions and budgets. Overall, the panel presented Sweden as a leader in climate change legislation and I think Swedish politicians aimed to channel the idea that all EU policies need to be made consistent with the Paris agreement, and that Sweden can spearhead that process.  

In the afternoon I attended three more side events on climate legislation that complemented one another really well. All the panels discussed the place of litigation and dispute arbitration in climate change response. As Katie said, this i field is just emerging so lawyers, activist and policy makers have a lot of enthusiasm but also a lot of questions and guesses about how to best move forward.

I enjoyed the presented from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment from the London School of Economics (LSE). They have a Climate Governance and Legislation Center which is currently developing a topology to determine what constitutes good climate governance. One of their speakers emphasized the need to look at both laws and policies since different countries may have different approaches to regulate climate action. They do both quantitative and qualitative studies, and I was impressed to learn that since 1997 to 2017, the number of climate laws increased from only 70 to 1400 laws! The laws, however, are disproportionately skewed towards legislation of the energy sector—so in the near future we can anticipate more legislation in other sectors like agriculture, forestry, etc.  

While all events I attended discussed specifics of litigation, I appreciated that all of them also looked at legislation itself critically. Laws certainly create enforceable rules and accentuate responsibilities, however, institutions should also work together well to operationalize legislation. This resonated to me with the Swedish discussion in the morning about the Climate Act which seems to incorporate monitoring of institutional and ministerial harmonization to ensure successful application of the law.

Although many activists seem very enthusiastic about rights frameworks applied to climate issues, several panels also discussed limitations of law in achieving climate goals. I took the point that adjudication and litigation help clarify the law and mainstreams other issue areas such as women’s rights through land ownership that cumulative strengthen climate change resilience. On the other hand, negotiations are more cost-efficient under economic theory, but do not solve disputes. One speaker in particular emphasized that the Paris agreement will be in a constant state of re-negotiation due to the paradigm of national sovereignty (which means government changes will trigger different commitments to the Paris agreement). As we see, some states that agreed to the Paris provisions now disagree on some aspects,  and vice versa, so negotiations will probably still remain key in driving climate action.

Photo: LSE event. You may see that many of the event pictures look generic—well, this is a standard set-up of side events in Bonn (Climate Action) zone. There were two types of events at Boon Zone: side events (often catered, 1.5-2 hr usually bringing different panelists together under a  them), and pavilion events organized by the governments (these varied from country to country, so you can tell about national priorities from the events and tone in each pavilion. I attended an event at the Russian pavilion— and it was pure and shameless propaganda which was easy to tell if you are from the region.

Throughout the day I also have learned about many climate litigation cases, like the recent one in which a Peruvian farmer sued German energy company REW for contributing to climate change damages in his homeland. The court found the case admissible, and it will move forward. Another case to watch out for is People v Arctic Oil in which an Alliance of Greenpeace, youth activists and scientists sued Norway for the violation of the national contribution and the Paris agreement with a decision to open up Barents Sea oil exploration in 2016.  Also a series of interesting cases are coming from the Pacific. Katie mentioned a woman lawyer/activist from Fiji who also spoke at one of my events. What fascinated me most was how the lawyer talked about the need to educate the community for a long time before filing the lawsuit. She mentioned that people in rural areas who are affected by climate change most do not see it as rights issue and often explain it through God’s will. She implied that education is necessary to ensure that people can give good testimonies that will help shape the case. This made me think about relational dynamics of different world views. I am particularly intrigues to see how we can deal with the interaction of cultures, norms, political and legal systems and entire worldviews in climate litigation since these cases often involve wealthier, post-industrialized states—polluters, and poorer states that are most affected. When this lawyer was making remarks about education, I read as “we need to indoctrinate people to think in the western notions of land, rights, ownership, individual, etc. to win these cases”—and  I am not sure this is a good thing.

I really enjoyed Q&As in these sessions as they were more practical and specific, so I learned a ton. For example, someone asked about the possibility to put awards from court cases into a special fund to then cover climate financing gaps more efficiently, or the possibility to litigate against banks who finance fossil fuel companies. In fact, several attempts to hold banks as potentially liable are underway (i.e. banks funding Dakota Access Pipeline came under pressure from investors). Another fascinating case, is with Pennsylvania Pension Fund suing Exxon Mobile for climate deception!

My major takeaway was that both adjudication and litigation have a lot to offer, but should be advanced carefully so as to not damage negotiations. This sounds like a quite challenging task, as the pursuit of justice often requires non-compromise. But despite uncertainties, I am very energized by these talks and the potential of a new wave of climate litigation that can change both state and corporate responsibility for climate action.

COP 23 Day 11 – Katie

Today was Education Day at COP23! This meant that there were many events focusing on youth involvement in climate action and the interconnection between education and climate action. One of these events was the High Level Event on Climate Change Education that featured prominent speakers such as Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Patricia Espinosa and Princess Lalla Hasna of Morocco. The event was probably the most theatrical one that I attended while at the COP. The room was the largest meeting room at the venue and was packed with people excitedly taking pictures and video of the Princess. The speeches were preceded by a performance from local children from Bonn singing about climate change. The event was more about bringing awareness to the critical role that integrating climate change into curriculum plays in climate action, and less about a critical discussion about current and future practices. It was similar to the COP Presidency events in which COP President and Prime Minister of Fiji Frank Bainimarama addresses the Bonn Zone along with other prominent speakers with a focus on a prominent issue. These events are intended to draw big crowds, be almost theatrical in nature, and raise awareness - in contrast to the more focused and technically oriented side events.

Today was also the last day of programming for the US Climate Action Pavilion and as I stopped by I collected some souvenirs and other free stuff (bags, lanyards, pins, and “We are still in” M&Ms!). It was fascinating to observe the U.S. presence at this COP. On the one hand the official delegation from the State Department was bare bones and played almost no role in the negotiations. On the other hand, you have what some have called the “alternative delegation” made up of local leaders, corporations, and other non-state actors taking up residence in the U.S. Climate Action Pavilion, declaring that the United States is “still in” for the Paris Agreement even if the federal government is not. I observed a fair amount of hostility towards the United States government in the different panels and discussions I attended, but experienced only friendliness and engagement as an American at the conference. It is clear that there are many leaders in the U.S. ready to step up and do their part for climate action, which is very encouraging, but I am also worried because while local leaders are leading on climate action, federal policy still does have a role to play. Overall, it is clear that the rest of the world is ready to move on without the U.S. - we will simply be left behind. As the rest of the world forms coalitions to power past coal and Germany experiences pressure the phase out their coal by 2030, Trump’s unreasonable grip on coal will prove to be backwards and regressive and will simply leave us lagging behind the rest of the world.

I also attended a side event detailing the current field of attribution science and the growing interest and practice of attributing climate change impacts to fossil fuel companies. The panel was made up of a climate scientist, environmental lawyer, and a lawyer/activist from Fiji. While this field is currently still developing, it seems to have a bright future and I will be following current lawsuits against fossil fuel companies closely in the next few years!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

COP 23 Day 10 – Julia


Photo: from the very early morning, protesters began gathering outside Bula (diplomatic zone), anticipating the arrival of state leaders, and demanding stronger statements, especially from Angela Merkel.

Photo: after attending several events about coal phasing out and financial instruments for climate action, I was headed back to watch webcast from the High-Level opening ceremony (where Merkel and Macron delivered their statements). This new comment appeared on the sign at the train platform.

Personally, I found both Merkel and Macron’s speeches too generic, especially in contrast to the language of the leaders from several Small Pacific Island states who I heard speaking more ambitiously and disruptively before. Merkel and Macron obviously made aspirational, abstract statement and reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris agreement. However, aside from Macron’s promise to top up the financing gap to the Green Fund created by the US withdrawal, I was not convinced that we should expect serious political climate actions from these states. Looking at how much needs to be done even at the EU level, I have a hard time imagining necessary steps taking place without major paradigm shifts.

COP 23 Day 10 – Katie

After spending the last two days navigating the conference halls I used my third day to go out and see the Energiewende in Germany in action as part of the Nord Rhein Westphalen Energie Agentur excursion program, like Ellie’s trip last week! I was especially intrigued to see German energy innovation in action after seeing many events the last two days on Germany’s ongoing fight to fully phase out coal by 2030. It was also nice to experience a change of pace from the chaotic environment of the COP.

I visited a pumped storage hydropower plant in the Sauerland, a rural and hilly region of the state. I heard from many different professionals about the context of the Energiewende, the advantages of pumped storage hydropower, and the specific technical workings of the plant. I found it particularly interesting to see a power company, who has shut down all coal plants but one (which will be closed next year) take on the challenge of the Energiewende so thoroughly. They seemed to be simultaneously ambitious and realistic; they envisioned a future where they could work to phase out all fossil fuels, yet maintained that for the time being natural gas was a critical part of their energy portfolio in order to supplement the fluctuating supply of energy created by wind or solar. We walked up to the reservoir, but the fog limited what we could see. The tour guides told us that on a clear day you could see all the way to Dortmund, about 100 km away!


We were treated to snacks, pumpkin soup and sandwiches for lunch, and a visit to the Bigge Skywalk. The skywalk is a scenic overlook on the Bigge Lake and dam, which were both created in the 1960s, forcing some local villages to relocate. Dams are yet another way this region is using hydropower to meet their renewable energy goals.

On the trip I got to meet more students from the States as well as an employee of the Energie Agentur for the state of Nord Rhein Westphalen who works on a project called Climate Smart Municipalities which connects Minnesota cities with cities in this region who have developed innovative sustainability projects in order to exchange ideas. We talked about the Minnesota Vikings, craft beer, and climate action on the local level. Minnesota connections really are everywhere!

Things are starting to pick up at the COP. National leaders arrived at the conference today to give national statements at the inauguration of the high-level segment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron both gave speeches addressing the need to continue to work to implement the Paris Agreement. The Bula Zone in particular is starting to experience a flurry of excitement as negotiations start to wrap up and it will be clear what the results of this COP will be.

Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron both gave speeches addressing the need to continue to work to implement the Paris Agreement. The Bula Zone in particular is starting to experience a flurry of excitement as negotiations start to wrap up and it will be clear what the results of this COP will be

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

COP 23 Day 9 - Katie

Gender Day at COP 23

Like Julia, I appreciated to opportunity to delve deeper into the interconnections of gender and climate change on COP 23 Gender Day. It was great to see so many events focusing on this critical issue. After the morning session in the Talanoa Pavilion about women leading the climate agenda I started to think more critically about the dynamics that I have seen so far at the conference. I started to realize how many events have been dominated by “manels” (as one speaker put it), focusing on the voices of men and often including only one or very few women. I was inspired by the women who spoke not only because of the amazing work they have done, but because of their willingness to criticize organizers of the conference and challenge them to do better. It was clear that we have to move from conceptualizing women as the first “victims” of climate change to thinking about women as the first leaders and innovators in climate change solutions. Women have the power, they simply must be enabled to exercise it.

We closed out our day at the U.S. Climate Action Center - a pavilion funded by Michael Bloomberg after the U.S. federal government refused to fund a country pavilion leaving the U.S. without while many other countries such as Germany, France, U.K., Fiji, Thailand, Mali, Senegal, and many others showcased their efforts. We met and chatted with many other college students participating at this COP at the Higher Ed Reception. We also met up with fellow Minnesotans including Minnesota House of Representatives Minority Leader Melissa Hortman over dinner. It was a great way to connect with students across the country and within Minnesota about what they hope to learn from attending the COP and their perspective on climate action.

Julia note: People were wondering if Bloomberg himself showed up at the conference. A film-maker from the virtual reality (VR) pavilion told me that indeed Bloomberg showed up one day—briefly tried a VR headset and was rushed to a next event.

COP 24 Day 1 -Que Nguyen

Monday, December 10: Que Nguyen '19 Events that I attended (day 1): At this COP, I hope to learn more about climate justice and ...