Some COP26 Reflections

Some COP26 Reflections
2021-12-14

This blog post is part of the AUCEL COP26 series

I was honoured to attend COP26 in week 2 as part of the University of Aberdeen delegation.

On the final day, I shared my thoughts “live” at 4pm while protestors walked by, as part of the Aberdeen Festival of Social Science Conversation on COP.

Three weeks later, the flurry of activity and people, lack of fresh air, double masking, security, art, selfies, media, protests, daily Lateral Flow Tests, passing world leaders and celebrities (very few with an entourage), working out where to get a seat to view events online if one could not get in physically behind the door, and queues, queues, queues has started to fade, as life returned to “normal”. But with that came the fear that the learnings and resolves, as well as the frustrations, might also start to fade. Time, then, to reflect.

My main area of teaching is intellectual property (IP) and the appropriateness of its balances and limits in the rights.  My research builds on this - exploring the intersection, or lack of it, between IP and other legal fields in addressing key societal challenges; and in recent years, I have focussed on climate change and the ocean, both in scholarship and in  public engagement. Being part of the University of Aberdeen’s delegation to COP26 provided, as hoped, a valuable opportunity to learn and network, to share my thoughts about the importance of information and technology control and sharing, and to inspire my future teaching and research.

Attending COP26 in my home city was exciting and unforgettable. Even the frustrating bits were worth it: one can be very informed about the negotiation of previous international treaties relevant to IP, information, technology and climate change  (such as TRIPS, the Copenhagen Accord and the Paris Agreement); the questions about the size and scope of the delegations and advisers of some countries; the extent to which NGOs are able to observe and inform negotiations; the links between side events (as in outside the main plenary), protests and negotiations in the immediate, shorter and longer term; and the power imbalances between countries and the impact of this.  It is another thing to be refused entry to events, to be deluged by the number of events and struggling to work out which events there were, wondering if there would be a space because of Covid-19 restrictions, and seeing colleagues understandably taken aback by all this. The political economy of IP and climate change (and of international negotiations in general), was suddenly very real. 

As hours passed at COP26, I gathered my bearings. I adopted the technique for several days of having no particular plan – all events provided invaluable insights, new perspectives and challenges: be they more external side events online such as through Scotland’s Climate Ambition Zone, the Green pavilion which was by week 2 open to all (two highlights were a disability event and the Living Wall (see photo)), in the Blue Zone (open only to COP26 delegations) and the online Ocean Pavilion, and all alongside the Presidency and other official events (see photo).

I found the Earth Negotiations Bulletins invaluable each day, as well as social and legacy media, in trying to assimilate what else had happened. I tweeted my own reactions each day, including some photos @IGFTowardAccess (#COP26 #TogetherforOurPlanet #UniABDNCop26).

Two overall messages were the need for adaptation finance (alongside arguments that one should look beyond money) and addressing loss and damage which is already occurring - strong messages from big ocean/small island states were very compelling. From the Blue Zone I went to, and have continued to reflect on, events led by NGOs challenging present fossil fuel activities and their large contingent of lobbyists at COP26; industry presentations exploring their innovation and sustainability approaches, changes to business models and the place of standards; sessions led by indigenous leaders setting out how a Western capitalist approach to nature is fundamentally at odds with their sacred values – a valuable reminder given the ongoing place of carbon trading; and the sharing of lived experiences and data about the differing impact of climate change on gender and the need for a holistic and fair approach for all.

After having obtained one of the much sought after phone boxes with charging for devices (see photo), I was able to share my experiences in real time with one of my masters classes. We were discussing whether the exclusion on patenting if the commercial exploitation is contrary to ordre public and morality, should apply to renewable energy technology. A protest emerged in the background. There could be no better way to remind students that the space in which we work is contested and that negotiation of treaties is difficult.

Given my own interests, I found frustrating, but not surprising, the ongoing lack of engagement with IP, including on 9 November in the Presidency Event “Accelerating Innovation” which explored getting products to market. Technology had a varied place in the discussion: views that the answer lay in technology (rather than in changes in behaviour) were criticised by many; there were also important reminders that new technology, such as green fuels for road and green shipping corridors (I was proud to witness the launch of the Clydebank Declaration) come from somewhere and may still have their own costs and implications. Reflecting this, deep sea mining was explored in the Commonwealth Blue Pavilion, led by World’s Youth for Climate Justice. From the Green zone, a message lingered long: “Nature’s Odyssey when you think of climate technology, where does your mind drift to? Ginormous wind turbines... more effective are the powerful, natural spaces all over the UK that are constantly working hard to absorb carbon from the atmosphere”.

Technology was also noted to have a positive role in mitigation and adaption – through renewable fuels, drought resistant drops and also in predicting natural disasters. The first two have been established themes in my research and teaching, and since then I have been able to explore all of them further in my work as a Senior Expert in the NERC Constructing a Digital Environment programme, an RSE funded project exploring “Scientific Knowledge Across Jurisdictions” and in preparing for two EU research grant applications.

Then came the plenary exploring the second draft of what came to be the Glasgow Climate Pact.  Optimism, at least from some, was growing. The draft referred to fossil fuels, the ocean and loss and damage. The plenary contributions brought informed and compelling sharing of lived experience and arguments of the need for collection action – particularly from Big Ocean states of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu. China and India were notable in taking a different approach – still calling for action, disagreeing as to how, and calling for more flexibility and the opportunity for their industry to take the path previously taken by industrialised western nations. 

When I left on the Friday evening it was interesting to watch people: some were leaving in hope, some were ready for lengthy off-line negotiations. Pizzas went past, rooms were made available for dialogue and it seemed to be more key than ever if a delegation was staying in a hotel on site or far away and with more limited support and information.   

As I followed remotely on the Saturday, the third draft was delivered late. It was less strong than the previous versions on loss and damage and the ocean, and, as has been widely noted, ultimately a further last minute change was agreed regarding fossil fuels before agreement was reached.

My own view is that something was achieved, but there could have been more and there needs to be more; including new approaches to values, goals, rewards and collaboration. In the Conversation on that last Friday, I was asked if I thought that the public engagement, the side events, the protests make much difference or if everything is agreed in advance. The COP26 experience suggests that the negotiations are alive but also that there is more to be done to fully entrench the need for a fair, coherent and new approach to climate change – and that time has run out for a longer term approach.    

What can I do? As well as some personal reflections on use of plastic and travel, my International Intellectual Property Class two days after I returned from COP26, originally framed with a focus on the (also fundamental) relationship between IP and the World Health Organization in relation to Covid-19, went through some widening to share my COP26 thoughts. With colleagues in the Aberdeen University Centre for Energy Law and the Centre for Energy Transition, a new research monograph, and work with the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, I look forward to making other future contributions to this most fundamental of issues.

Published by Research, University of Aberdeen

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