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Copenhagen 2009 Final Plenary

Climate Change

The COP Experience: The Climate’s Biggest Circus

Originally published on The Beam.

By Alessandro Vitelli

It’s hard to convey just how big a UNFCCC Conference of the Parties meeting is; how many different streams of events and themes each summit encompasses, how vast the organization of it is and just how important for the climate these meetings are.

But let’s start with a few numbers. There have been 26 COPs since 1995, held in 19 different countries around the world. The job of hosting the COP rotates among the main regions of the world, although due in part to the costs involved, Europe has hosted the lion’s share of 13 events; there has never been a meeting in the United States.

Official attendance at COPs has grown steadily from 4,000 at the first one in 1995, to 33,000 in 2009. This includes official negotiators and national delegations, NGO observers and media. Handling these sorts of numbers is expensive: the French government spent an estimated €170 million to put on COP21 in 2015.

Accommodating an event of this size is no small task. Host countries generally resort to hiring national conference or exhibition centers, often with immense tented villages attached, which can give the event a circus feel. COP has also taken place inside Poland’s national sports stadium (2013) and at the UNFCCC’s own headquarters in Bonn (2001 and 2017).

COPs need all this space because the agenda is huge. Each event has to host a week of technical talks on hundreds of specific issues, before political decisions can then be taken to implement the conclusions. The hosts must provide enough meeting rooms for the myriad of countries and country groups – ranging from the EU to the Alliance of Small Island States – to hold briefings and strategy discussions, for NGOs to host side-events, and for the press to report on the goings-on. And all these thousands of people need desk space, electricity, food and water.

Not only is a COP a huge logistical challenge, but it’s a security nightmare. Since the event attracts ministers and often heads of state, particularly in the second week of talks, the venue has to be sealed off from the outside world. The United Nations provides all the security inside the event — from the x-ray scanners at the front entrance to the patrols that keep watch during overnight negotiations — while local police are in charge outside the perimeter.

Once you’re inside though, the UN “circus” brings its own splash of color in the form of brightly lit exhibition stands — commonly called “pavilions” — some of which are huge, as well as the never-ending throng of human traffic along the passageways.

The pavilions are one of the focal points of activity at COP: larger countries and NGOs like Greenpeace present a non-stop schedule of events, talks, multimedia presentations, announcements and seminars throughout the two weeks. National governments use these pavilions to highlight their climate action, to hold informal talks, and to host prominent speakers.

Beyond the more public areas of a COP, beyond the pavilions, workspaces, and media rooms, are where climate diplomacy takes place: the UN secretariat and host nation offices, the official meeting rooms, and the plenary halls.

It’s here where the work — and the drama — happens. The first week of negotiations is mostly held in small meeting rooms, where subject experts delve into the most technical or legal aspects of the text of the agreements and where clauses, sentences, or even individual words are “bracketed,” signifying conflicting views that will need further discussion.

Around the edge of these meetings, experts from NGOs closely observe the proceedings and sometimes hold informal discussions with negotiators to try to press for greater ambition. Occasionally, when the talks are particularly sensitive, these lobbyists are asked to leave to allow for more confidential exchanges among delegations.

As each COP moves into its second week the event shifts into “high-level” mode, when ministers fly in to clear up any remaining issues and to make political decisions.

The ultimate goal of most COPs is to reach agreement on a specific issue or issues that the host country can present as its contribution to the fight against climate change. Hence various COPs have created the “Marrakech Accords,” the “Nairobi Work Programme,” or the “Warsaw Mechanism.” While few of these represent a new treaty like the Paris Agreement, each does play a specific role in the process.

As the pressure of time increases towards the end of week two, the president of the COP sets up “contact groups” to try to resolve any outstanding disputes. Chairs of these groups periodically report back to short, hastily-called plenary sessions before the work resumes. If the issues are particularly sticky, then ministers are asked to take over and try to bridge the gaps.

It’s at this point that the schedule usually starts to slip. During the second week, sessions often last long into the night in an effort to complete the agenda. COPs are meant to last two weeks from Monday to the second Friday, but not one summit has ended on time since 2001. Most COPs have in fact closed on the second Saturday, and the last two have even stretched into Sunday.

For most participants, the last few days are a waiting game. Technical experts have done their work and passed their files up to heads of delegations and ministers. Journalists are waiting for signs of progress, and NGOs are still busy campaigning through the halls, trying to pile yet more pressure on negotiators.

Eventually, the COP president has to decide whether there is the basis for an agreement, and if so whether negotiators are close enough to a deal for it to be worth continuing. If there are heads of state present, as they were in Copenhagen and Paris, they too will get involved.

When things go well, the final plenary session has a celebratory feel, even if in the final stretch there are still moments of extreme tension. In 2015, for example, due to a mistake in drafting the proposed text of the Paris Agreement the word “shall” had been inserted into a crucial clause, instead of “should.” In legal terms “shall” has much more force than “should,” and the United States could not agree to that.

A group of senior delegates, representing the largest countries and country groups, immediately huddled beneath the platform to discuss the problem, while from above French president Francois Hollande and UNFCCC head Cristiana Figueres looked on. After intense conversations the error was corrected, the chairman brought the gavel down, and the hall jumped to its feet to applaud for many minutes.

But when things go badly, as they did in Madrid last year, it’s a different story. Since Paris, nations have been trying to set down guidelines for international cooperation through emissions trading, and in Madrid, as at two previous COPs, they had reached a stalemate on five key technical issues.

The chair of the COP, Chile’s environment minister Carolina Schmidt, presented re-drafted proposals, but a small group of countries — including Brazil, Australia, and Saudi Arabia — still would not give way.

This impasse highlighted the UNFCCC’s particular problem: countries have never agreed a binding set of rules of procedure, including a system of voting, so every decision must be agreed by consensus. Proposed voting rules are tabled every year in an effort to speed up the pace of climate action, and every year they are postponed to the next meeting.

The hours passed with no breakthrough, Friday became Saturday and then Sunday before Minister Schmidt admitted defeat and brought the meeting to a close. By this time, of course, the majority of the 26,000 attendees had already left, not wanting to miss their flights home, and the plenary hall was barely two-thirds full.

Some COPs end like this, with a feeling of hollowness, of an opportunity missed. High points like Paris are very much the exception, but the last 18 months have seen unprecedented levels of commitment and ambition by national governments and the private sector. While the international process seems to be bogged down in trying to set the course, there is still so much to be optimistic about. Perhaps soon COP will catch up and resume its role of leading from the front.

Author bio: Alessandro Vitelli is an energy and climate reporter with more than 15 years’ experience covering the UNFCCC process. In addition he reports on energy policy and markets, with particular emphasis on the energy transition, carbon pricing mechanisms and EU policy. Alessandro has also been a Visiting Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.


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