The COP26 Climate Summit starts in Glasgow on November 1st.  It will be a major milestone in global efforts to get on top of climate change, and hopefully a turning point.  The summit will be a focal point for all kinds of lobbying, campaigning, and manoeuvring, and for the weeks around it will put climate centre stage in public and political debate. For SECA member groups, and for councils across the South East, it presents a golden opportunity to take advantage of the spotlight it will place on climate issues to promote our goals and campaigns. In this first in a series of blog articles which we’ll run over the course of the year, Geoff Barnard sets the scene by explaining what COP is all about and what will be happening in Glasgow.

What is COP?

COP stands for the ‘Conference of the Parties’, and is the 26th such event since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.  COP summits have happened every year since 1994, with the exception of last year when the Glasgow Summit was postponed because of the COVID crisis.  They move around the world between different venues, and provide an annual focal point for reporting on progress and making decisions among the government that signed the treaty.

Some COPs are more important than others.  COP3 was the birthplace of the Kyoto Protocol, for example.  COP 15 in Copenhagen was widely seen as a disaster, with hopes of agreeing tougher binding targets dashed by political wrangling between the major powers.

Celebrating the Paris Agreement

This set in train a whole new approach in the negotiations, led by a new UNFCCC Secretary General, Christiana Figueres.  In what was seen as a masterclass in diplomacy, she cajoled countries around the world to sign up to a new framework of voluntary pledges – called Nationally Determined Contributions (or NDCs).  This framework formed the heart of the Paris Agreement, which was agreed after nail-biting last minute negotiations at COP21, in Paris.

In between these landmark summits where heads of states show up to strut their stuff, the annual COP events are lower key events led by ministers, civil servants and bureaucrats. The most recent, COP25, was in Madrid – having been moved at late notice because of political unrest in Chile.

COP26 in Glasgow is going to be one of the biggies.  It is the first in a five-year cycle where governments will be asked to report on progress with their initial pledges, and ‘ratchet’ them up with new and more demanding NDC commitments.  The UK and Italy both bid to host the summit, and have ended up collaborating on the 2021 event, which has been pushed back by a year because of Covid 19.

How will politics play out at COP26?

Six years is a long time in climate politics.  Since Paris it has been a frustrating period for international climate negotiations.  But with Joe Biden now in the White House, having rejoined the Paris Agreement as one of his first decisions in office, the stage is set for a new phase of global climate cooperation.  There is a lot to play for, not least in building common agendas with major emitters like Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – the so-called BRICS countries.

With the UK now out of Europe, it is no longer bound by the European Union’s joint NDC targets.  In December the Government set out a new NDC target for the UK which pledges a 68% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change.  Campaigners are keen to push further, pointing out that it omits aviation and shipping.

With the UK hosting the summit, this will be a unique moment for the Johnson government to re-establish the UK’s leadership role in climate diplomacy, and international affairs more generally.  Former Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, has been appointed the crucial role of COP President.  He has recently switched to this position full time, and will be backed by a team of advisors and negotiators including former Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney.  Meanwhile, more locally, Arundel and South Downs MP, Andrew Griffith, has been appointed as the UK’s Net Zero Business Champion “to support the country’s business community to make credible plans to net zero by 2050 or earlier.”

So the stakes are high.  Over the next 9 months a huge amount of work will be needed to prepare the ground for COP26 and set the stage for a successful summit.  A dedicated website has been set up by the UK Presidency with a range of spin-off initiatives getting underway in the build-up.  These include Together for our Planet, a move to rally support ahead of the summit and get businesses to sign up to the UNFCCCs Race to Zero pledging platform, and individuals to do the same via the Count Us In pledging platform.

The Venue

The Scottish Event Campus (SEC), on the banks of the Clyde, has been chosen as the venue for COP26.  It combines three neighbouring facilities:

  • The SEC Centre – a big exhibition space
  • The SEC Armadillo – a 3000 seater auditorium
  • The SEC Hydro – a 14,300 concert and sporting arena

The Summit will be divided into two zones. The Blue Zone, centred at the SEC, is where the main negotiations take place. The Green Zone is where the civic society and businesses have their voices heard through events, exhibitions and workshops

Security is always tight at COPs.  But this year Covid 19 will create big additional headaches for the organisers.  At this stage it is impossible to say how much of the summit will be happening live and in person, and how much will be conducted online.  Suffice to say it will be a mammoth organising job!


What happens at COP summits?

At the heart of a COP summit are the official negotiation sessions.  These are conducted in a series of parallel tracks and working groups covering different climate themes.  Negotiations carry on between COP summits, and can rumble on for years at a time, sometimes at a snail’s pace.

Each COP provides a focal point where efforts are made to agree the wording of new statements and commitments, and push the process forward.  With representatives from 197 countries in the room, and everyone being given a voice, this can be an interminable process.  Texts are shown on screen, and negotiators discuss it line by line using track changes to show suggested amendments.

Some negotiators are old hands and have been on the COP circuit for years.  Others are newbies and need to learn fast how the seemingly labyrinthine UNFCCC processes work.

Smaller countries magnify their influence by working together in blocs. AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States, for example, has been highly effective in drawing attention to the special challenges of low-lying island communities.  The Least Developed Country (LDC) Group, which represents 46 countries, has negotiated successfully over the years to argue for concessionary funding to help poor countries tackle climate change and deal with its effects.  Because each country has an equal vote, no one country can call the shots.  So alliances and partnerships are the name of the game.

Progress tends to happen in fits and starts, often at the eleventh hour when ministers and heads of state get involved and political deals are struck. The final agreement in Paris was in the balance until a day after the summit was due to end, and many of the delegates had gone home.


The travelling circus

Alongside the official negotiations there is a whole array of side events going on.  This creates something of the feel of a travelling circus, moving from country to country each year.  Representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), international agencies, research institutes, business groups, youth and faith representatives, and all kinds of other interest groups from around the world, apply for official passes to be admitted as observers.  These are in short supply and allow them into the Green Zone, where official ‘side events’ take place and many countries and organisations have display stands, or mini ‘pavilions’ where they can hold receptions and workshops.

With space in the Green Zone restricted, the summit spills out into a host of other nearby hotels and conference venues where more side-events and conferences take place.  Thousands attend and everybody in the international climate world is there.  There were nearly 30,000 registered delegates to the Paris Summit, and probably the same again when you count the campaigners, lobby groups and camp followers that came along.

Adding to the carnival atmosphere are the daily protests, marches and publicity stunts. Mostly these happen outside the venue, but some mild-mannered demonstrations are allowed inside the Green Zone with permission from the organisers.  One tradition is the ‘Fossil of the Day’ award, presented to the country that has been seen to be most obstructive that day in blocking negotiations.

What unites everyone attending is that they are all hoping to get their voices heard.  The trouble is that with dozens of side events, press briefings, and working breakfasts happening in parallel, and thousands of pages or reports and briefing papers being handed out, everyone is talking over each other.  So it is a cacophony of voices.  But in amongst it are many valuable networking opportunities and chance meetings with like-minded colleagues from the other side of the world.

COP26 is bound to be different from previous events because of the continuing Covid risks, so the size of the travelling circus is likely to be curtailed.

Seizing the COP26 opportunity

Many organisations across the UK and internationally will be gearing up to make the most of the added attention COP26 will be placing on climate issues this year.  This begs the question of how SECA and its member groups take advantage of COP26 in creative ways to increase awareness of climate challenges and spur action.

This blog is the first of a series drawing attention to COP.  Future articles will highlight specific initiatives such as the campaign by UN Association’s Climate and Ocean (see box).

The same applies to councils across the South East, who could use COP26 as both a springboard for their communication work and a spur to ‘ratchet up’ their climate targets so they at least match the new UK wide target of a 68% cut in emissions by 2030.

It’s going to be an interesting year.  Let’s make the most of it!

Geoff Barnard is a member of the SECA Steering Group, and edits the website and newsletter.  In a previous capacity he worked for the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), and attended several COP events in the run up to Paris.

If you have ideas brewing on how to make the most of COP26, please get in touch so we can share them with other SECA members.

*** Some examples of the initiatives launched in the run up to COP26 ***

Climate Commitment Platform – launched by the UK Green Building Council to encourage businesses to share their carbon reduction pledges.

Climate Fringe Online – a platform for civil society, from activists to NGOs to Trade Unions to share events and connect around Climate Change and COP26. It has been built by Stop Climate Chaos Scotland.


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