Is It Possible to Go to Too Many UN Climate Conferences?
Laetitia De Marez, RMI’s “Queen of COPs”, shares how the climate confabs have evolved and why they matter.
Laetitia De Marez has been to 17 Conferences of the Parties, or COPs. Her run spans more than half of these global gatherings, where priorities and policy are hammered out to combat the climate crisis.
At her first — COP8 in New Dehli, India in 2002 — De Marez joined as a grassroots climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace, focusing on fighting climate deniers.
For a stretch, she attended while working for Climate Analytics, a scientific and policy organization, where she focused on climate change’s implications for small island nations.
And most recently — at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, this month — De Marez joined as a senior principal for RMI’s Climate Finance Access Network (CFAN), where she’s building on-the-ground solutions to climate change in the Global South.
As a seasoned attendee, De Marez was part of a generation of negotiators and advisors that labored for years to draft language and pass the landmark Paris Agreement approved and set up the Green Climate Fund.
Walking around COP with De Marez is like going to a school reunion with the graduate who knew everyone. At every turn, she is greeted warmly by longtime friends. I sat down with RMI’s unofficial “Queen of COPs” to capture her reflections on the past, present, and future of these meetings.
Q: You have been to COP so many times. Why is it so important that you continue to go?
A: I’m a huge supporter of multilateralism. It’s the only way to address a global, inequitable transboundary problem like climate change. And even if it may look from the outside like some COPs don’t achieve much, or only small incremental baby steps, they are still getting us closer to the level of international cooperation and understanding we need to tackle climate change.
I’ve predominantly worked in support of the most vulnerable developing countries, namely Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDC). They have been the moral compass of the international negotiations because, to them, climate change is an existential threat.
COPs ensure these marginalized groups can negotiate — in theory — on an equal footing with bigger economies. COPs are a lifeline for them. COPs offer them a platform where they can express their adaptation needs, make demands, and push for mitigation ambition.
Without these country groupings relentlessly punching above their weight, there would be no 1.5°C temperature target in the Paris Agreement. It’s their legacy in this process.
Q: From your perspective, what’s the most important thing COP has achieved? What’s the most critical thing it can still achieve?
A: The most significant achievement of the international negotiation process is the Paris Agreement, no doubt. The Paris Agreement did three things, which are still being operationalized:
- It determined a 1.5C temperature limit based on the latest science,
- It called for a global effort on supporting adaptation, and
- It called to redirect all financial flows towards adaptation and mitigation actions.
Basically, COPs produce international law, which is not the strongest nor an easy kind of law to enforce. But more importantly they also send strong signals to governments and private sector actors on what goals need to be achieved which they can then translate into policy, investment decisions, and business plans.
Q: What is your most memorable moment from a COP?
A: I’d say COP16 in Cancun, Mexico. We were trying to rescue the process from the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark and to agree on a global treaty. The $100 billion pledge had been announced the previous year but we still needed to establish a vehicle, a fund to channel these pledges.
COP16 focused on agreeing on the establishment of the Green Climate Fund. And at the time I was very involved in the negotiations advising Small Island States.
We pulled so many all nighters, we were exhausted. Then, one night we negotiated the operationalization of the Green Climate Fund and the governance that would set up the fund.
Around 3am of the last night, we needed to get to an agreement, people were dropping one after the other from exhaustion. Several people from delegations, the secretariat, and myself included, woke everybody up and led them towards a consensus.
The committee’s mandate to set up the Green Climate Fund was drafted on my computer. This remains one of my proudest moments. We could have missed that opportunity if it wasn’t for a small group of people taking matters in their own hands and getting it done.
A year later in Durban, South Africa at COP17, the outcome of the work of that committee was adopted by COP17 and the Green Climate Fund came to life. It’s now the biggest multilateral climate fund in existence, and is far from perfect, but it has changed the game. I’m proud to have made a tiny contribution to it.
Q: How do you reconcile your carbon footprint to get to and from so many COPs?
A: I don’t think I can. I hope my actions at COPs and the results of them on the ground will offset my footprint. Outside of work travels I try to stay local. I’ve never owned a car.
Q: What have you learned from experiencing it from so many different perspectives?
A: In the early 2000s with Greenpeace we were fighting the climate deniers — who were saying fossil fuels and human activities were not responsible for climate change and it was a hoax — and pushing for get the science of climate change to guide international negotiations.
Then around 2010, my focus shifted to supporting the adoption of a global treaty on climate change, work that became the Paris Agreement in 2015. My particular focus was on finance for small island states and poorest countries.
Finally, since 2015, and since I joined RMI in 2021, I’m fully dedicated to implementing on-the-ground solutions to climate change in the Global South.
Q: What was your favorite COP?
A: My favorite was of course Paris, COP21 in 2015. It was in my country, in my city, and it is where the whole international community came together to agree on a common goal, which had seemed unimaginable for so many years. It is truly a remarkable moment in human history.
Q: What was your least favorite COP?
A: COP15 in Copenhagen, in 2009. We failed to agree on a global treaty on climate change. We were too divided. There was no trust between countries. It was ugly.
We had to pick up the pieces in the following years and work hard to get to the Paris Agreement. But we lost five years. When you think that now we are in the decisive decade, we could have used those five years! It was a huge missed opportunity that was truly heartbreaking to watch.
Q: What are your pro tips for those attending COP?
A: Number one is comfy shoes – especially for you ladies, drop the heels! COP sites have become massive with non-state actors joining en masse like in Sharm el Sheikh.
Number two is hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
Number three: Preparation is key. Once you get to COP you have to switch to real time mode, no time for research and prep.
Number four is to mingle. COPs bring the global climate community together. You’ll make the most amazing connections, so engage.
Number five is learn and listen. We all come to COPs with our own program but make sure to take the time to join side events and learn. COP events offer very innovative and challenging views that will nourish you and feed your own reflections.
And lastly, explore outside COP. I regret not making enough time to explore host countries.
Q: How many more COPs do you think you will go to?
A: I’ve always said that I’d like to get to a nice round number so maybe 20? Hopefully not 30. I’m here to serve the cause. As long as I feel that I’m being useful and relevant I will attend and contribute the best I can.
The focus of COPs has shifted from pure negotiations to implementation. This is where organizations like RMI have a tremendous role to play.