Climate talks serve as a networking opportunity

Young activists try to get their message across to the COP21 negotiators in Paris Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Networking is as important as diplomatic manoeuvring at the United Nations climate talks underway in Paris.

This content was published on December 8, 2015 - 19:20
Paula Dupraz-Dobias in Paris,

It is estimated that around 40,000 people will attend the UN climate talks in Paris, known formally as COP21, which runs from November 30-December 11. The majority are state delegates from around the world coming to discuss often opposing positions on issues like finance, the role of developed and developing countries, and the fairness of the climate deal. The negotiators are accompanied by teams of specialists exercising their diplomatic skills. 

Alongside the climate diplomats, there are numerous non-governmental groups with observer status, as well as international organisations, 3,000 journalists and a growing number of representatives from the private sector. They each sport different colour-coded badges to identify themselves.

Davos on the Seine? 

One recent morning, a large conference room at the venue site in Le Bourget, north of Paris, was packed with a mostly male crowd in suits. It was not very different from the line-up you would expect at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos. The panel involved discussions on the roles of the public and private sectors. Participants included the former mayor of New York and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney.

The language was very different from that of the diplomats sat not so far away. Carney told the audience that private businesses would act on the climate in an emergency, whether or not there were regulations. Meanwhile, Bloomberg admitted that industry responds to public pressure. 

At the end of the presentation, the audience, including pension fund managers and chief executive officers, exchanged business cards, before having to free up the room for the next talk. 

In recent years, the UN climate change presidencies have vowed to have a more inclusive conference of parties (COP) to include all stakeholders.

Laurent Fabius, president of the current talks and Christiana Figueres, UN Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretary general, opened Action Day on Saturday in the plenary hall. Dramatic lighting and music punctuated the UN happening, which included a message from the International Space Station and interventions from members of the private sector, NGOs, scientists and an eloquent warning against climate inaction by actor Sean Penn.


Michel Lies, CEO of insurer Swiss Re, took the stage to talk about how poorer countries disastrously fail to resort to insurance to cover the consequences of climate change-induced loss. “I encourage politicians to take into consideration the way in which they budget (for disasters) and how we could offer some solutions,” he declared.

Lies condemned short-term political decision-making, saying that for politicians, the climate change “time horizon is totally outside of their political careers”. 

David Bresch, also from Swiss Re, is acting as an advisor to the Swiss delegation on the issue of climate-related risk management.

He acknowledged that the private sector did have a platform at the talks, and that while governments had to lead negotiations, the private sector plays an important role in reinforcing official actions. 

Bourget and beyond 

Climate-related events – cultural, business or political - are organised across Paris throughout the talks. These take place at different spots across the capital like the Grand Palais, corporate offices or even a repossessed garage, which was used for a mock public trial of ExxonMobil by American activists Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein.

At the Global Landscape Forum at the huge Palais des Congrès conference space not far from the Arc de Triomphe, Swiss banking representatives were in attendance. Dozens of private and public corporations sponsored this privately organized event. Companies presented their environmental credentials - often in the form of public-private partnerships – but in between meetings, it was also a chance for networking to match funds to sustainability projects.

The Geneva private banking group, Edmond de Rothschild, set up a promotional stand to present its Moringa FundExternal link, focused on sustainable agroforestry in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, Credit Suisse presented its Nature ConservationExternal link project at the conference that was filled to capacity. 

“While the world moves towards a lower carbon future, we need to be part of that and on top of what is happening,” said John Tobin de la Puente, global head of sustainability at Credit Suisse.

“Market place of ideas” 

Back at the official conference, Isaiah Kipyegon, global policy and advocacy coordinator at the Geneva-based Act Alliance, which regroups some 147 NGOs globally, described the COP as “a market place of ideas”. 

“Networking, meeting other organisations, governments and movements, and other types of people is great,” he declared.

What is important, he went on, is “to bring the voice of people and communities that don’t sit around the table to negotiate, because governments negotiate. We feel that our voice and those of women and gender, children and youth around the world need to be amplified.”

For Océane Dayer, of Swiss Youth for Climate, the COP offers a valuable opportunity to be in contact with other youth groups, and to ensure their message has a greater impact.

“Often young people are less listened to. People think that we don’t know what we are talking about. But when there are dozens of us talking we carry more weight on issues like measures to be taken to reduce energy from fossil fuels,” she said. 

The Swiss group took part in the Conference of Youth (COY), a climate summit that preceded the arrival of country delegations. Youth – or YOUNGO, in UN lingo - is one of the many “constituencies” represented at the summit, alongside business and industry, women, farmers and human rights. 

High-level networking

But ultimately an international climate deal is the result of considerable political networking or manoeuvring behind closed doors. 

“There are always confidential discussions but at the very end it is the bilateral process between very decisive countries that will help negotiators reach an agreement,” explained Makane Moïse Mbengue, a law professor from the University of Geneva, who was present at the Paris talks. 

The professor said that the danger was that certain key players may be excluded in such discussions. This is what happened during the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, which were widely viewed as a failure, he said.

Swiss climate rating

Franz Perrez, Switzerland’s chief climate negotiator, gave his reaction to a critical press release from WWF SwitzerlandExternal link, ranking the country in 14th place on climate policy.  

The press release said that while a “glimmer of hope prevails in international climate policy… Switzerland contributed little”, to efforts. 

“It does not take enough measures in favour of climate protection and domestic energy reform, or on international climate finance,” the message said. 

Perrez explained that the rating probably reflected that the country’s energy policy is still in formulation, and that there has not been an increase in funding to climate finance. 

But, the diplomat said, “Switzerland still belongs to a group of countries that are amongst those that should do more.  It is not the brilliant student, but in Switzerland we like to perceive ourselves as being the best.”

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