Simon Molesworth blogs from COP18: Doha

Adjunct Professor Simon Molesworth

La Trobe Institutefor Social and Environmental Sustainability

Blog No.1 – Day 1, COP18. Doha, Qatar. Monday, 26 November (PM)

By Adjunct Professor Simon Molesworth 

Professor Molesworth is one of Australia's leading environmental lawyers. He is chairman of the International National Trusts Organisation, the collective voice for some six million people globally involved with cultural and natural heritage.  In June 2012, Professor Molesworth was awarded an Order of Australia in the Queens Birthday Honours list for 'Distinguished service to conservation and the environment, to heritage preservation at national and international levels, to professions and natural resources sectors and community health organisations.'

For those attending COP18, it is only on the first morning that the intrepid (more correctly described as the foolhardy) head off to reach Qatar International Convention Centre on foot. After the first morning, the attempt is never repeated! Although nodal points are identified on the COP maps for collection by shuttle buses, I was not the only one to miss one of the few COP blue direction signs and so thereby bypass one of the rare collection points. Realising that the maps gave a misrepresentation of the true distances and that walking anywhere was futile, especially as almost invariably pedestrian-friendly footpaths became non-existent, I decided I had to resort to one of the bright green/blue Qatari taxis, if only to escape heat and exhaustion! All these taxis were emblazoned with COP18 signage, including motivational slogans encouraging greater action to tackle climate change, yet once one was inside salving the relief from the external environment it subsequently became apparent that as an alternative to the shuttle buses, the selection of a taxi was unwise.  

The Qatar International Convention Centre is the largest such meeting place I have seen in the world (and I have most probably seen more of such centres around the world than most people). It is stunning architecture on a scale where the human is ant-like in comparison. With a capacity for tens of thousands of visitors, a central auditorium that seats 4,000, nine giant halls for exhibitions and 54 other meeting rooms (each essentially a hall in itself) with capacity to host a banquet of up to 10,000. The first and continuing impression of the QICC is stunning due to the stylistic design of a pair of two giant tree trunks which rise to the full height of the building façade with arching branches that appear to hold the roof aloft. The trees symbolize the meeting place of ancient times when the nomadic Qataris would meet under the spreading canopy of a magnificent tree to discuss the administration of their tribes, resolve disputes and dispense justice.

Despite COP18 being attended by some 17,000 people from 194 nations, the internal spaces between rooms are so vast that the QICC oddly gives the impression of being rather empty, certainly massively below its capacity. Accentuating the ant-like scale of we mere mortals, in one vast linking space there is a bronze sculpture of a spider under which one walks, which must be at least 15 metres high. With polished marble and natural stone everywhere, public art in landscaped outdoor spaces, and ceiling heights rarely less than 20 metres, this building makes a statement to the international community. The Qataris leave no doubt that they have the capacity to host any event of whatever scale.  

For whatever reason, be it security concerns (which forever characterize these COP meetings), or the road works that seemed to surround every new building including the QICC, all taxis, including mine, despite being emblazoned with a COP18 livery (which, one could be encouraged to think, meant they are to provide an alternative mode of reaching the conference), we were waived on and past every access lane to the Centre, being diverted kilometres away from the destination. In short, taxis were forbidden to approach the QICC. Eventually my taxi driver hailed a COP18 shuttle bus, miles away from a collection point, which meant I was finally deposited at an official drop off point (90 minutes after commencement). My journey then continued on foot through the bowels of the Centre , some hundreds of metres of more walking, many escallators and stairs later, until I finally arrived at the registration desks.

How odd it was, I thought, to find a choice of 38 registration counters and literally only 3 other people registering at the same moment. The comparison with COP15 in Copenhagen was extraordinary – with literally thousands of people chaotically overloading the system. As I wondered through the vast foyers and public spaces before eventually reaching the meeting rooms, I again began to reflect on public participatory processes. Are these sort of venues conducive to inclusiveness to encourage participation, or is it becoming all too hard? The journey to the Centre had its problems, but it was clear there were efforts by the Qatari COP administration to provide means to transport people in volume, but nevertheless are there simpler ways of going about these exercises? The venues of these COPs are always impressive, but none have been as impressive as Doha, but are these type of places more fitting for world expos or giant commercial trade shows than the sort of exercises that the COPs have become or should be? I am undecided.

Perhaps we are moving to an era where participatory processes are less welcome and that the “show” of international UN debates is less important and the interchange between delegations and interest groups is less important or relevant. Worldwide we are witnessing a trend in planning and environmental decision-making processes, such as in many Australian jurisdictions, where participatory processes are being curtailed, so perhaps the infrastructure of these giant international gatherings is becoming so vast – such a “turn off” - that the individual and their representative organisations must develop a different role. I will reflect on these and other related issues again as my observations of COP18 mature over the next two weeks.      

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