Impressions from COP21

Part 3 of 4: Mini-series by Asheen Phansey

The Green Zone at COP21

My company sent me to COP21 to demonstrate our commitment to sustainable innovation. This is the first COP I’ve had the privilege to attend—and it wasn’t exactly what I expected as a seasoned Net Impacter. (For those of you who’d like more background on past COPs, see the previous two blog posts in this mini-series!)

The main venue for COP21 was Le Bourget, a close suburb of Paris. Here the negotiations took place in the “Blue Zone”, an area strictly reserved for UN-credentialed negotiators (of which I wish I were one!). The adjacent Green Zone (pictured above) was open to the public, as was a neighboring Tech Gallery. Away from the main venue in the center of downtown Paris was the “Solutions COP21” expo at Paris’s most storied art exhibition center, the Grand Palais (pictured below). Additionally, independent organizations hosted hundreds of COP21-related side events around Paris, mostly to support the climate negotiations and spur the participants towards an international accord.

In my other posts, I noted the presence of both the business community and the general public at several of these venues and side events. The thing that really surprised me about COP21 was the disconnect—and simmering conflict—between the participation of the business community, and that of the general public. This is really a regressive view compared to what I’ve experienced at each of the eight Net Impact conferences I’ve been lucky enough to attend.

For the first time ever at a COP, the host city accepted corporate sponsorship to help defray their costs in putting on the conference, which was one major source of the conflict. For example, an artist-activists’ campaign called “brandalism” impugned companies for our sponsorship. Some of this pushback was well warranted: fossil-energy companies are still promoting dirty technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as a bridge to more renewable technologies, which is controversial at best. Still, many of the sponsor companies were also unveiling cool innovations for a low-carbon society, such as (below) this scale-model column of algae biofuel production that Suez Environmental is proposing to build to capture and utilize excess CO2 and heat from power plants; and (right, left side of photo) your humble scribe sitting in this city-connected, autonomous electric concept car from AKKA Technologies:

Adding to the public-corporate disconnect, many of the business community’s discussions and exchanges took place in private meetings such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) meeting and the Sustainable Innovation Forum that were closed to the general public.

My company and others were unwittingly on the front lines of this corporate/public conflict as protesters tried to stage a public protest against the sponsor companies at the Grand Palais, shutting down the expo for a few hours. As France is still under a state of emergency following the Paris attacks, such public demonstrations are banned, and so the government was fairly forceful in removing the protesters. Security was tight at the Grand Palais public expo—though I was credentialed as an exhibitor, I was patted down and my bag searched each time—and there were heavily armed guards patrolling our exhibition area. Still, this youth hip-hop group that was on stage one night in the Grand Palais was left undisturbed as they called for divestment from some of the sponsors’ dirty fossil fuels. The people would be heard!

Youth group raps about divesting from dirty fossil fuels

Youth group raps about divesting from dirty fossil fuels

My takeaway from these split interests is that we as Net Impacters still have a long way to go to prove to the general public that business—corporations, non-profits, social enterprises—can be a part of the solution. Look out for my final post on the agreement that came out at the conclusion of COP21, coming shortly. My initial assessment is that the negotiations this year took the radically different approach of focusing on what countries can do to innovate for a low-carbon economy and society, rather than setting legally binding targets with no guidance as to how to meet them. This means that our roles as sustainability professionals will be central on the path forward from Paris to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Melting ice clock art installation

Melting ice clock art installation

Time is running out—as this melting ice clock art installation made clear and visceral for all participants!

(Asheen Phansey is a corporate sustainability leader in the Boston area, and a member of Net Impact Boston’s Advisory Council.)

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