COP21: A Young Professional’s Experience at the Groundbreaking Event

A Young Professional shares her perspective on COP21 and the resulting Paris Accord, after spending two weeks at the heart of the groundbreaking negotiations in Paris earlier this month.

In mid-October I addressed a Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP) panel on climate change, where I outlined my optimism for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21). The reasons for optimism were sound: a solid text (ahead of the final intersessional meeting), high levels of political will, the constructive engagement of the world’s largest emitters. But with nearly eight years of experience in these negotiations, I quietly suspected that my optimism was misplaced, and might not be reflected in the reality of the Paris outcome.

Weeks of preparation, long days, and sleepless nights later, I walked into Le Bourget conference center at 6am on Monday, November 30. With 151 heads of state and government in attendance, the opening day of COP21 was reportedly the largest ever gathering of world leaders in one place—a demonstration of the immense political commitment to achieving an outcome.

Over the following two weeks, ministers, negotiators, civil society, and media worked around the clock. I spent the fortnight working with my country’s climate change minister: attending his meetings and negotiating sessions, and providing advice on the negotiating dynamic. This insight into the high-level political side of the negotiations is fascinating. Additionally, for my delegation, as with many small delegations, covering the numerous “spin off” negotiations was a challenge—and there were times when I was asked to drop everything, pick up a brief, and negotiate the important and politically charged issue of adaptation. In a negotiation this significant, flexibility is crucial for small teams.

The buzz of an event this large just doesn’t wear off: as Secretary General Ban Ki Moon reminded us just hours before a final deal was struck, “this negotiation is the most complicated, the most difficult, but the most important for humanity.” It took two weeks, intensive discussions, political compromises, and deft chairing by the French (not to mention a lot of coffee). But through an iterative—and at times painstaking—process, gradually parties were able to find convergence around the big political questions as to how we govern the environment: differentiation, finance, and the legal form of the outcome.

The outcome of COP21 is a step forward in the way the world governs our global commons—we now do so more collectively than ever. The Paris Accord is not, in my view, a perfect agreement—and much will rely on its effective implementation. But it establishes an architecture that gives the world the best chance it has ever had of limiting global warming to the levels which science tells us are necessary. And on that front alone, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s words to delegates in the final hours of the negotiations can, I think, guide us into the future: “je pense, chers amis, que nous allons y arriver.”

I think, dear friends, that we will get there.Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 11.10.12 AM


Renee Heal (@ReneeHeal) is a member of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Her career has focused on multilateralism, with a specialization in international climate change negotiations. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of her employer.

Headline image credit: COP21 Paris/flickr. All other images belong to the author.

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