Undercover COP

I was so pleased to be asked to represent The International Coral Reef Society at COP26, but, once I said Yes to going, I quickly realised I didn’t actually know much about what happens at COP meetings. In fact from talking to friends and family it seemed like no one knew. So several Google searches and rabbit holes later I was much more informed… yet still, I didn’t really know what to expect.

Usually when I attend academic conferences, you arrive on the first day and mill about chatting with a cup of tea and biscuit in hand. Not at COP. The first day I felt an adrenaline rush that no other conference has ever given me. The venue felt like being in a very large, and very busy airport, but where everyone felt guilty about taking their flight. Thousands of people were rushing to be places, whilst many people had seemingly given up and were watching conference events on their laptops in the corridors. I felt like a very small cog in a very large machine and at that point I felt like I was going to have very little to offer COP26.

This overwhelming sense of being out of my depth quickly dissipated when I started talking to people. Everyone I encountered was warm, bright and, most importantly, keen to hear about coral reefs and our campaign to save them. I had wonderful conversations with everyone from fellow PhD students from the USA, to indigenous peoples from Panama, to Stewart Maginnis, IUCN’s Global Director of the Nature-based Solutions Group.

I attended several talks about nature-based solutions, the concept where we utilise what we know about nature and use it to tackle environmental issues. For example, marine ecosystems such as kelp forests and seagrass meadows are great at storing carbon, and provide breeding grounds for many commercially important species, such as crabs and fish. This ability of marine ecosystems to store carbon is called ‘blue carbon’ and COP26 did really feel like a Blue COP. It was clear from the talks I attended and the chats that I had that blue carbon was on many people’s minds – even the food hall had an animated video about it on loop. It was wonderful to see the ocean front and centre.

I did wonder however whether our plan of targeting people at ocean related events was the most effective way of lobbying to get our message across. Were we simply preaching to the choir? I certainly saw some very inspirational talks from advocates for the ocean, such as the charismatic Peter Thomson, the UN’s Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, and Prof. Rashid Sumaila, a professor of ocean and fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia. This made me feel really positive that we were going to achieve our goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C and save coral reefs. Therefore, the final outcome of COP26 was a real shock and my heart broke, especially for the small island states, whom I saw fighting to save their nations, not just from disaster, but in some cases total eradication. Many parts of countries like the Maldives, whose highest point is only 2.4 m above sea level, will disappear underwater with our current targets.

Two weeks later and I’m able to reflect more on my experience. I can safely say that attending COP26 was not only a pleasure but great learning experience. Although many positive steps were taken (the creation of a new 500, 000 sq km marine reserve off the west coast of South America for one!) it is unlikely that the pledges made will limit global warming to 1.5 °C, hopefully 2 °C, but likely more. The stark reality is that for coral reefs this will have a profoundly damaging effect. We will no doubt see reefs change dramatically over the coming decades.

What I will say though, is that whilst there will no doubt be change, what that change looks like still remains largely unknown. We will lose a lot of coral cover, yes, but what replaces it and what species might thrive in the future is still up for some debate. Should we give up? Should we stop trying to save our beloved reefs? NO! We should continue to fight for the ecosystems we love and depend on. I certainly think it is worth investing all we can in protecting and restoring habitats despite the unknown future. We should continue trying to build a picture of what future reefs might look like so we are well equipped to respond. We should also invest in science based decisions and further research into methods of protection, because we don’t know what might unlock the door to a brighter future.

So, after attending COP26, am I more clued up on what happens at COP than I was before? Maybe. I certainly have a better sense of what 99% of people at COP do, but it’s the 1% behind closed doors doing the negotiating that really matter, and I think for those who want to protect the planet the challenge now is to make sure our message crosses that threshold.

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