What was it like to be an observer at COP26?

When I speak to Emily Perry, she’s just landed at home in the US after a week in Glasgow, where she was an observer at COP26.

She told me that of all the issues discussed at the conference, environmental justice and ethics arose time and again, and she was struck by the voices of climate protest both inside and – mostly – outside the conference.

“The voices of the youth and Indigenous people around the world are so crucial in this conversation but are all too often excluded,” she says. “This COP was one of the most exclusive ever. All of these people that are actually impacted by climate change are not in the conversation.

“I spoke to a few representatives from small island states that didn’t see the point in coming back to COP26, because there have been so many promises not delivered on. There were people talking about having to leave their children and their homeland behind to come to a place that they didn’t want to be, to talk about all of this, again, to people that weren’t listening. It’s erasure on the world stage.”

Young woman stands in front of cop26 sign
Emily Perry at COP26. Credit: Emily Perry

Perry attended the conference as part of a UNFCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) practicum course at the Sanford Policy School, as part of her dual Master’s program in Environmental Management and Business Administration at Duke University.

“You spend a semester learning about the history of the UNFCC, COP negotiations, upcoming issues that you should keep an eye out for, and any negotiations you can attend,” she explains.

That preparation earned 12 Duke students a ticket to the Blue Zone – the hallowed space where the COP negotiations take place, managed by the UN. The area is populated with panels, exhibits, cultural events and pavilions run by governments, businesses and other organisations.

For an observer passionate about climate – Perry has a background in biology and environmental ethics – there’s a lot to soak in.

“When I first got to the conference centre, there was a real sort of electric buzz,” she says. “I felt an urgency in the air. It was interesting to be around 20,000 or 30,000 people all with similar goals. It was this atmosphere of hope and innovation the majority of the time.

“For me, what was most important was to attend the pavilion events and get a sense of the diversity of ways in which the world is taking ownership of climate change. From the US to UAE, to Brazil, Korea, Pakistan, and more, they all have a pavilion, and they all have events happening simultaneously.”

Man walking past sign that says "hurry up please it's time"
Credit: Emily Perry

But what does a COP26 observer actually do day-to-day?

“As an observer, I had access to most but not all pavilion events, so I was attending a lot of talks,” Perry explains. “We also were able to volunteer to go to different negotiations through RINGO (the Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations constituency of the UNFCC).

“We came in early one day to COP, and you can attend this meeting [with] RINGO representatives on stage going through this list of negotiations and asking for volunteers to represent RINGO. So there was one on gender and climate, there’s one on climate and tech. RINGO asks you to go take notes, and then upload a bit of a report on the proceedings for RINGO members to review. That’s really a direct way to attend a negotiation and sit among other countries to represent this entire cohort of research institutions.”

High-up view of conference centre full of people and exhibits
A view of COP26 from above. Credit: Emily Perry

Students from the Duke cohort were also encouraged to assist specific clients attending COP26. Perry worked with the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a US-based sustainability not-for-profit organisation, and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. Other student observers assisted national governments or international organisations such as the World Bank. As an observer, she helped run the clients’ events, take notes, provide quotes, take photographs and document events on social media.

“On the ground, [organisations] need a lot of support and help, and that just gave me access to meetings that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise,” she says.

According to Perry, the major overall goal of COP26 is to effectively implement the Paris Agreement. Article 6 of this agreement has been a key sticking point.

“It’s focused on international carbon markets, plain and simple,” she says. “As countries look to achieve their emission reduction targets, it’s all about preparing, communicating and maintaining these long-term goals to reduce emissions and address climate change.

“Any progress in the rules regarding carbon markets is really key. And we’ll have to see what happens by the end of this week.”

At COP15, back in 2009, a group of developed countries (known as Annex I countries) committed to dedicating US$100 billion per year by 2020 to fund climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries. This commitment has not yet been reached and may now be pushed back to 2023, raising another major issue that Perry hopes COP26 agreements will be able to address.

“Climate finance is key – [developing countries] can’t really do without it,” she says. “They’re not the ones that have contributed to global warming on the scale that developed countries have.”

Working with the RMI Climate Finance Action Network (CFAN) underscored the importance of both climate finance and the inequitable distribution of climate change impacts. CFAN aims to support developing countries with climate finance advising and build out capacity for these countries to more quickly access finance that helps meet their climate objectives.

“CFAN is really trying to make sure that we’re not having consultants come into a country, ‘fix the problem’ and then leave with all the knowledge,” says Perry. “It’s about transferring that knowledge.”

Many people sitting on chairs in a room
RMI CFAN event. Credit: Emily Perry

Another less-reported aspect of COP, she says, is the art.

Art can help attendees process the intense emotions and experiences that are part and parcel of the event. Perry recalls an exhibition featuring poetry by scientists and health professionals entitled ‘One chance left’, which she attended on her last day at the conference.

Painting of crying young girl up to neck in sea water
Loss and damage artwork outside the gates of COP26, by artist Jonathan Gladding. Credit: Emily Perry

“I was quite honestly moved to tears during that event, both from reflecting on how beautiful the world is right now in this moment, but also being forced to confront how much of life we’ve decided to own and abuse,” she says. “It was hopeful, but also heartbreaking. The atmosphere changed with every event I went to, every day.”

But it was the people, she says, that made the greatest impact on her.

“I think the spaces in which I felt most hopeful was when young people would speak. Hearing [them] talk about their initiatives, the businesses they’ve created, it was incredible.”

With the conclusion of COP26 only days away, Perry says her biggest hope is for developed countries to meet their $100 billion commitment to developing nations.

“We need large, transformational change, and it needs to come from developed countries, the words are not enough,” she says. “You can only do so much at the conference – action doesn’t take place until after COP26. And so I think eyes are on every country in the developed world to actually follow through here.

“I mean, the $100 billion commitment may not be met until 2023, but it was supposed to be 2020, right? We can’t just keep pushing this off, because climate change is happening right now and countries are dealing with the effects right now.”

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