Following two weeks that have seen 40,000 delegates descend on the Paris suburb of Le Bourget, hundreds of side events, thousands of recyclable cups, and the occasional dancehall star, COP21 is coming to a close.

We caught up researchers from the Transformations to Sustainability network to hear about what brought them to the COP:

Ethemcan Turhan: “My interest in coming to COPs started before my research career. Before my masters and PhD I worked as a project assistant on climate change at UNDP Turkey, and so I used to follow negotiations. When I started my research, I realized how relevant these international negotiations were to my research on climate change adaptation. I researched local grassroots work on climate change adaptation, but the decisions that really have an impact in the field are taken at the global level, at COPs. I did some action research at COP15 doing research and activism together. Today I’m here with two hats on – as a researcher and as a civil society activist.”

Cosmas Ochieng: “It’s a really good platform that brings together leading academics in critical research areas on climate change and sustainability and gives them an opportunity to exchange ideas. That’s rare. It’s a good platform for bringing people together, and because of the complex nature of climate discussions it tends to cross disciplines. Everybody is here: scientists, economists, lawyers, engineers. So for a development researcher like me it’s the perfect opportunity to engage with colleagues on new questions and also to review others’ work: most of the presentations done here are based on working papers.”

Adrian Ely: “As a researcher, I get to hear about new findings that are emerging before they actually make it through the long process to publication. I also hear about new ideas and ways of understanding climate change issues from other researchers. Beyond being here as a researcher, I’m also here as an engaged practitioner trying to bring about change. International meetings like the COP are an opportunity to meet with others from the media, from activist groups, from NGOs, in a way that it’s very difficult to do without attending these kinds of events. Lastly, I’m also here as a citizen who wants to see particular changes happen. So I’m here both to bear witness to what’s taking place inside and outside the negotiations, but also to be counted as somebody who’s here in Paris sending a clear message to policy-makers at this particular time.”

Daniela Del Bene: “As an activist researcher, my main interest was in following-up with important processes ongoing among social groups and communities, like the International Rights of Nature Tribunal and the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power. There are so many amazing discussions among social movements, communities and global coalitions but sometimes they are unheard by scientists. They should not only be objects of study, but also actors to research together with.”

As researchers working on processes of social transformation to sustainability, have you seen any examples of transformations in action here at COP21?

Adrian Ely: “There are different transformations going on around the world – there have been in the run-up to the COP, and there will be during and afterwards. But perhaps the least likely place you’re going to see real social transformations – especially the kind that we need – is in the blue zone where the negotiations are happening, and where difficult-to-shift vested interests are very much dominant.”

Cosmas Ochieng: “Transformation takes time, and the easiest way to answer this is in relation to other COPs. The nature of the negotiations for this COP has changed; they’ve become bottom-up, with individual countries determining what they can contribute. Much of the discussion has happened beforehand and submissions have been made. Almost everybody knows where each country stands and what the parameters are. So people can articulate their response in a systemic way. It’s more organized, less cantankerous; it’s easier to have constructive dialogue on critical issues, including those issues on which countries disagree. I’ve seen is a transformation at work in the COP discussions.”

“Whether this new process is a good thing or not is another question. I’ve also been part of the WTO trade negotiations, and they’re always like this. You can see it as being organized or you can see it as being scripted. Just because the process has changed does not mean that it’s a much better way. The outcome might tell us whether this is a much better way of harnessing discussion than the one before.”

Ethemcan Turhan: “There are many instances where you can see a push towards transformation here. Nonetheless, it’s not really mainstream yet. I find it important that we’re hearing the concept of transformations more and more in these global climate change debates. Most of the time it’s very dry language of global diplomacy – transformation brings something new and novel into this, but it’s not really mainstream yet. It’s probably up-and-coming.”

“On the other hand, transformative approaches to climate change don’t only reside within the walls of the COP blue zone. There are many people in the green (public) zone who are representatives of global civil society and many more in the rest of the city and the rest of the world following what’s going on in here. For me their actions are much more transformative than those of the politicians and diplomats in here. Those are the people who take grassroots action, moving beyond demanding something to taking action themselves.”

“In the run-up to COP15 in Copenhagen people were more demanding: they were saying we want this, we want that, we want renewables and so on. Now people are saying ‘you couldn’t do what we want, so we are taking our fate into our own hands’. And I think that’s precisely what transformation is.”

Daniela Del Bene: “The official event is not the only place that matters when we talk about climate change and environmental challenges. I do think that the global climate movement, in its many articulations and approaches (some more radical, others more leaning to negotiations), is getting closer and closer to the many unheard voices from grassroot communities, to coalitions calling for stopping corporate abuses and lobbying, and, most importantly, for systemic change. They are finally building a common narrative. See for example the amazing coming together of many groups calling for “leave oils, gas and carbon in the soil”, with the proposal Annex 0, promoted by Oilwatch, which is very much in line with scientific take on the matter to avoid serious climate catastrophes.”

About the researchers:

Daniela Del Bene is currently a PhD candidate in Environmental Sciences at ICTA-UAB. Her main research topics are conflicts related to water resources and river basin management, dams and hydropower, social movements. She currently works on the EJOLT project and on the global map of environmental conflicts and resistance.
Biography at the ICTA website

Adrian Ely is Deputy Director and Head of Impact at the STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability), an interdisciplinary global research and policy engagement centre uniting development studies with science and technology studies. Adrian’s areas of interest include environmental impacts of GM crops, frameworks for biotechnology regulation, risk and uncertainty in policy-making around new technologies and innovation for sustainable development.
Biography at the STEPS Centre website

Cosmas Ochieng is the Executive Director of ACTS - the African Centre for Technology Studies, a development research think tank on harnessing applications of science, technology and innovation policies for sustainable development in Africa. Dr. Ochieng has conducted research, policy analysis and teaching in the areas of agriculture and food security; sustainable land, water and energy ecosystems management;  biodiversity and natural resource governance;  national systems of innovation;  international trade and development; green economy and climate change; ICTs and development in Africa;  and political economy of African agrarian development.
Biography at the ACTS website

Ethemcan Turhan is environmental social scientist with a background in environmental engineering and political ecology. He is currently based at the Istanbul Policy Centre, Sabanci University.
Biography at the IPC website