A group photo of Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, meeting with interns at the UNFCCC.

Behind the scenes at the UNFCCC: Imperial students on internships ahead of COP24

A group photo of Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, meeting with interns at the UNFCCC.
Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, meets with interns at the UNFCCC (c) UNFCCC

Albertine Pegrum-Haram and Goodwin Gibbins, Research Postgraduates at Imperial College London, are more at home with chemistry and climate models than the politics of global cooperation. However, as part of an internship to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat, they joined a team dedicated to supporting the international climate change process – at a key moment for global climate negotiations.

The UNFCCC Secretariat (UN Climate Change) was created in 1992, to support the yearly climate negotiations referred to as Conferences of the Parties (COP). From its base in Bonn, the Secretariat prepares background information for the negotiations, implements mandates, and facilitates the meetings. The task is as varied as the climate change challenge itself, and very, very busy.

This week, over 400 Secretariat staff have travelled Katowice, Poland, to support COP24. Delegates at this conference, which comes three years after the landmark Paris Agreement was signed, must determine exact details of how it is to be implemented – the “Paris Rulebook”. Following hot on the heels of the IPCC Special Report, which warns of the consequences of allowing global warming to reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is the most important COP since the achievements of Paris.

Over the past few weeks, the UNFCCC Secretariat campus in Bonn has been bustling with preparation: gathering data, creating name-tags, preparing events, inviting speakers and finalising details for the crucial Katowice talks. It is essential work – as the Secretariat’s Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa says, “COP21 in 2015 saw the birth of the Paris Agreement. In Poland, we will put together the pieces, directions and guidelines in order to make the framework really operate.”

From geochemistry to the science and policy nexus

At the UNFCCC, Albertine was based with the Global Climate Action (GCA) team, immersing herself in the processes that support the global climate negotiations. At Imperial, she is part of the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership, focusing her research on the biogeochemical cycling of rare earth elements in the ocean.

The GCA team encourages, mobilises and recognises climate action in a range of stakeholders to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. The team that works tirelessly to engage and enable collaboration between cities, regions, businesses, investors and governments. The work culminates at this month’s climate summit, with a series of events to provide a platform for a diverse range of voices. Albertine’s work ranged from relationship management and stakeholder research, to data management and analysis.

Albertine Pegrum-Haram sitting by the COP24 letters outside the climate summit in Poland
Albertine Pegrum-Haram at COP24 in Katowice, Poland

From atmospheric physics to adaptation and disaster risk management

Goodwin joined the UNFCCC’s Adaptation team to support the National Adaptation Plan Process (NAPP), which engages with the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to help them prepare for the impacts of climate change. At Imperial, she is part of the Mathematics of Planet Earth programme and the Atmospheric Physics department, studying energy flows within the climate system as a mathematician and a physicist.

This jump from science to policy reflects a real gap between the production of the data available and the application of data needed. When it comes to adaptation, the most difficult-to-predict details of future weather can be the most important for specific local choices. How can the scientific community both focus on what is knowable and also respond to what is important? And how can decision-makers use what is understood to make decisions that perhaps hinge on other unknowns? In light of this, Goodwin’s work focused on researching decision-making under uncertainty, and the climate information available to support adaptation problems.

She also researched the interface between adaptation and disaster risk reduction (DRR), which, despite being very much linked on a practical level, are managed by different international treaties. Adaptation forms part of climate negotiations, while disaster response and preparedness has long had its own arrangements in the Sendai Framework under the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Adaptation is a broad challenge, anticipating and responding to subtle background shifts as well as tragic events, but there is opportunity to learn from the well-developed best-practice in DRR.

Goodwin Gibbins with Patricia Espinosa and colleagues
Goodwin Gibbins with Patricia Espinosa and colleagues

Uniting for change:

Now, fresh from working in the heart of the Secretariat and equipped with much better knowledge of the interface between climate science and policy, Albertine and Goodwin are following the COP24 negotiations very closely. The progress made this year will outline the way forward the global climate change agenda and, in essence, our future. So stay tuned and share the news – these talks are a key step in procuring a safe climate future.

Find out more about the Imperial College London delegation at COP24.

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