UN Conference Director Wanted to ‘Make the Impossible Happen’

Laura Lopez is capping off her decades-long United Nations career as director of conference affairs for the UN Framework, which organizes climate change meetings including the annual COP conference.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

COP25 Laura Lopez

Laura Lopez, director of conference affairs for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, speaks to reporters during COP25 in 2019. UNFCCC guides the climate change treaty and oversees the annual climate change conference. (IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth)

Editor’s note: Renowned anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall has said of the climate crisis, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” With that in mind, we are dedicating the November/December edition of Convene fully — our first single-topic issue — to the climate crisis, and what the business events industry is doing to address this global challenge. Find stories from the Climate Issue here.

Laura Lopez began her career as a journalist, working for two decades as bureau chief for Latin and South America for Time magazine. She then moved to the United Nations (UN), where she has worked for more than 22 years, in positions across Asia, Latin America, and Europe, including as chief of staff for sustainable and economic development programs.

Those positions had “many different goals,” Lopez said, but she chose to cap off her career in her current role, as director of conference affairs for the United Nations Framework, which organizes the annual meetings where countries negotiate agreements around climate change. In addition to the annual COP conference, Lopez’s team also organizes a 5,000-person mid-year meeting each year.

The position appealed to her, she said, because “I wanted to kind of be the person who would make the impossible happen,” she said. In 2019, for COP25, Lopez and her team had to move the climate change conference from Santiago, Chile to Madrid, Spain less than a month before it was scheduled to begin because of protests in the Chilean capital. Lopez “and my little team of about 13 people — with temporary staff — moved it in three weeks, which usually takes 18 months,” she said.


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Logistics aside, experience has taught her that the ways in which meeting environments are designed and presented can either support or limit the progress that takes place at UN meetings, she said. “Conferences can be kind of stale,” Lopez said. “How you prepare participants can change their attitude about what they’re willing to discuss and how they’re engaging with others.”

Creating the kinds of environments where meeting participants can engage meaningfully and productively with one another, she said, is one of the most compelling parts of her job. “What I’m doing now is helping the people find a way to come together and setting the scene,” she said, “so that what they’re doing actually can have some resonance.”


“What I’m doing now is helping the people find a way to come together and setting the scene, so that what they’re doing actually can have some resonance.”

Laura Lopez, director of conference affairs for the United Nations Framework Convention

‘A Transformative Experience’

There may not be another event organizer on the planet more intimately acquainted with challenges of achieving sustainable events in a pandemic than the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Laura Lopez. When asked where she would advise other meeting professionals to put their energy to make the most impact, technology — a topic Lopez frequently addresses — might have been in first place. But instead, her answer centered on human emotion.

What she has always longed to do, Lopez said, is to create an immersive experience for conference participants — a physical space where projected images, lighting, and sound make participants feel as if they have stepped into another world. As they traveled through the installation, every person could see what’s being done to combat climate change, not in a way that induces shame or blame, Lopez said, but in a way that would make participants feel like they could be part of the solution.

“I would like it to be a transformative experience‚ so powerful that nobody would walk out of that conference — if they’re there for a day, an hour, a week, or a month — without knowing that they are part of something,” she said. “I want this to be where everybody going to a COP understands that there are things that we have to do — and it is going to save the climate.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.