Sail to the COP Update “Attending a Climate Conference from two sides of the Atlantic Ocean”

The morning sun licks the horizon as Regina Maris, a three-mast sailing ship, quietly slides into the bay outside of Point du Bout, Martinique. The Caribbean island sleeps, unaware of the 34 young climate sailors soon to setup a two-week conferencing extravaganza there. Their goal is to remotely influence international climate politics from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Due to a series of unfortunate events, the youth ended up on the ‘wrong’ side of the Atlantic from their intended sailing destination: the 25th UN Climate Summit, Conference of the Parties (COP25). After witnessing Brazil’s refusal to host the conference at COP24 (in Katowice, Poland 2018), Chile stepped up to take the mantle as the Latin American organiser. However, failing to deliver justice for their own citizens, Chile experienced significant civil unrest and consequently forfeited just a month before the intended start date of the COP. Despite the widespread confusion and an incredibly tight schedule, Spain managed to “step up and setup” in time to organise COP25 in Madrid for December 2019. Indeed, these events put 6,000 kilometres between Sail to the COP and the COP. Inviting the challenge; the sailors start to explore the shores and cities of the island for work space. The need for caffeine and stable wifi drives them from hotels to pizza restaurants, from fanciful cafes to grungy bars…

COPs are annual events organised by the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change) where nations come together to decide on their individual and shared actions against the exacerbating climate crisis. As customary for international politics, the process is slow and meandering, and the progress incremental and ambiguous. The inclusion of civil society and environmental advocacy groups is therefore extremely important; to project the urgency of immediate action (due to the extremely high and diverse costs of inaction). Sail to the COP was built on this founding principle; trusting that effective movements can lead to changing political, societal and economic systems.

Most human activities have a climate impact: i.a. energy, mobility, food, leisure, trade, forestry and construction, all require resources and energy. Transforming technologies or decreasing units of consumption, through political devises or behaviour change, can decrease the climate impacts of a given activity or sector. Indeed, in several countries in the world, solar is now cheaper than fossil energy thanks to a combination of technology, policy innovation and shifts in habits and norms. Some sectors escape action however. Travel, and aviation especially, has escaped most forms of climate regulation. As a particularly polluting behaviour*, flying has also surprisingly survived the scrutiny of the public; decades after the open shaming of private car use, non-recycling and inefficient light bulbs. This is why Sail to the COP chose the particular problem of travel, dissected it through a think tank process, built solutions and ran purpose-built advocacy campaign for sustainable travel at the COP.

In December 2019, two months after the departure of Regina Maris from Amsterdam, COP25 starts in Madrid, Spain. In Martinique, Caribbean, 3am, 34 Sail to the COP activists sit on the upper deck of the ship and watch the livestream of the opening ceremony. At the same time in IFEMA (Institución Ferial de Madrid) in Madrid, 8am, 22 new faces, recruited to act as Sail to the COP representatives, eagerly await to put their lobbying skills to action. The representatives are armed with Sail to the COP one-pagers (sailtothecop.com/onepager), detailing the specific political demands to transform the travel industry:

  • Aviation in line with the Paris Agreement
  • Nationally Determined Contributions include aviation
  • Socially just Ticket Taxes
  • Kerosene Tax
  • Ban on State Aid to aviation
  • Robust carbon reduction targets by ICAO
  • Limiting intra-European flights
  • Support for Night Trains
  • European Emissions Trading Scheme reform
  • Limiting airline advertisement
  • Data sharing to enable pan-European booking systems

For two weeks the two teams: ‘Ship’ and ‘Ground’, coordinated together to make most possible impact at COP25. The teams take to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to spread their message, and live updates from the negotiations and side-events. The lobby hotline in Martinique enables the Ground to receive up-to-date information on politicians, speakers and allow them to formulate tough questions backed by hard facts. Sail to the COP side events, and keynote and live-streaming opportunities are coordinated sometimes in real time by people on both ends of the optical fibre. The circumstances are challenging, but the team spirit and work ethic (sharpened during the two-month’s sailing and think tanking) finally comes to good use. The participants are somehow able to gather their wits every day for 13 days straight. This combined with the flexibility and fresh enthusiasm of the Ground team, the Sail to the COP takes the Climate Summit head on. Read about COP25 outcomes, and Sail to the COP’s demands for nations ahead of COP26, in the next article: “COP Achievements and Outlook for 2020”

Although the relocation of the COP was a somewhat traumatic, it did not pose an existential threat for the project. On the contrary, Sail to the COP had to dig deep into its core values, re-evaluate and introspect in ways that many young movements don’t have to. Moreover, participating in the COP remotely provided a hidden opportunity: (unintentional) research on the possibilities and futures of virtual participation. This is important because: UNFCCC events are still quite exclusive and non-accessible, leaving many outside of the international climate policy process. At the same time, the number of participants is increasing every year. This brings into question of how many participants could or should skip the trip and join the conference online instead. However, current forms of remote participation are antiquated, rare and poorly marketed. Thusly: 1. We need innovation and bold thinking to build new, more attractive and functional forms of remote participation. 2. We need to strengthen the inclusivity of COPs (and other UNFCCC events) and empower voices from ‘the outside’, by for example allowing more active participation by taking questions from online attendees. Experiencing some of the pains and opportunities personally, helped Sail to the COP to understand the problem more intimately, and build solutions like the VirtualCOP (read about it and the other 15 solutions in the Sail to the COP report here).

The two-week experience of a remote COP mission control from a Caribbean island was that of contradictions: physically challenging, yet almost entirely electronic; intimate, yet 6000 kilometres from location; tiring, yet invigorating; and confusing, yet empowering. The climate crisis is a great enemy, and the Business-As-Usual that feeds it is deeply ingrained in the present. However, the agility and resilience displayed by both the Ship and Ground team serves as a good example that if a movement has a purpose and a clear mission, an unyielding and unstoppable force is created.

______________________

*) a single flight can drain over 50% of an individual’s sustainable carbon budget for the year. To reach the Paris Agreement goals and stay at 1.5 degrees warming each person may only emit 2300 kilograms of CO2eq through their activities until 2030. (350 Gt budget, 8 billion people). – atmosfair / Sitra

 
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