As the world prepares for COP27 in Egypt, we ask three veterans of the summit what really goes on behind the scenes.
Each year the world’s climate negotiators, environmental non-government organisations, scientists, activists and journalists gather in one place for the United Nations Climate Change “Conference of Parties”, more commonly known as COP.
In its 27th iteration and about to be held in Egypt, COP is where deals get struck regarding emissions reductions, and, essentially, the future of the planet.
But while the media shows us activities in the main conference hall and the speeches from world leaders, there is much more that goes on behind the scenes.
In 1992, countries joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to limit average global temperature increases and to cope with impacts which by then were inevitable.
Watch our wrap on the last COP: In the aftermath of COP26, what have we learnt?
The first conference of the parties was held in Berlin in 1995.
Cosmos Weekly spoke to three people about what really goes on at COP.
A changing conference
Climate scientist Bill Hare from Climate Analytics, has been to every COP since Berlin, and says the conference, which last year took in some 30,000 attendees, has changed a lot over time from its smaller roots.
“They have become very big, they have gone far beyond the climate negotiating space, they have become an annual political event and it’s become a gathering place for everyone in industry and climate change interests to come together,” he says.
“The negotiating space remains the core of the activity that is done diplomatically and politically, but now you have tens of thousands participating in networking and other activities. It brings together actors from all over the world, not just diplomats and scientists.”
“It brings together actors from all over the world, not just diplomats and scientists.”Bill Hare
He says while COP used to be just about government negotiators thrashing it out, after the Paris 2015 COP, a lot of private industry set net zero targets and became involved in the process and the conferences that followed.
He says overall he considers it a “positive thing” that so many companies have now become involved in the COP process, but adds that they need to be there to “walk the talk” not as a “greenwashing” public relations exercise. There is little oversight of corporate commitments.
“One of the main issues right now is the question of greenwashing. A lot of companies are doing nothing, but claiming to go green and using their attendance at COP as part of their marketing. We are working on ways of bringing that wild west of corporate commitments under some sort of rigorous oversite like governments are,” he says.
Arthur Wyns has attended four COP summits, mostly in his role leading a delegation of journalists from underrepresented countries who report on the summit. He says for journalists from developing countries who are interested in building a career around reporting on climate change, going to the COP in-person can be “life-changing”.
“The conference is the place where the separation, the barrier between government, NGOs and journalists becomes the smallest.”Arthur Wyns
“The conference is the place where the separation, the barrier between government, NGOs and journalists becomes the smallest. The barrier still exists, but it’s smallest during the conference. You have the chance to ask the big questions to government or heads of state that you might not normally get,” he says.
“There are two parallel worlds — the formal negotiations and then almost a second conference where academics, NGOs and industry people have their own events, debates and conference.”
Wyns says there are many barriers for journalists from emerging economies attending the conference, the first and foremost being the cost, and price gouging.
“This year the biggest barrier is the cost. There is price gouging going on – if you don’t have a spare $10,000, you can’t go. It’s being held in a resort city in Egypt and the government has told them to ramp up their prices. Prices have gone up triple and people have lost their bookings,” he says.
Richie Merzian was a former negotiator that attended COP summits to represent Australia in the government-to-government negotiations, that he calls the “pressure cooker” of the summit.
“It was a great experience. I was always interested in how nations worked, and this was the forefront. I got to speak on behalf of 25 million people on climate change,” he says.
“Usually at any one time, there are a number of negotiations on parallel issues and then at the end of the two weeks they come together in a package deal. It’s kind of like a poker game to see who can last to the end.”
“It’s kind of like a poker game to see who can last to the end.”Richie Merzian
While he worked negotiating climate adaption, he says, they would often work late into the evening and there was a lot of tension between nations.
“Those most responsible for historical emissions were not stepping up and doing the heavy lifting. Then if you’re a small island in the Pacific you’ve got very little by way of emissions, you’ve got very little by way of national wealth, you’re very vulnerable, and then you’re there to tell the US and China they need to do more. There is a constant tension.”
There was down time though, including for socialising with people from other delegations. Merzian says during his time at COP he went out of his way to mix with delegates from other countries and get outside his bubble.
“There is a really good party in between the two weeks of the COP that the NGOs put on. You spend so much time in the trenches that it pays off to build those relationships outside of your group,” he adds.
“Australia became a lightning rod for international criticism.”Richie Merzian
As the conference goes on, Merzian says the rooms for negotiators get smaller and smaller. Australia, which chairs the umbrella working group for developed countries, minus the EU, often has a key seat towards the end of the conference.
But he says the pace of change can be infuriating, especially as you are bound by what your government is willing to do. He ended up quitting as a negotiator after Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister and says he was sent to the conference to essentially play an obstructionist role.
“Australia became a lightning rod for international criticism. It wasn’t very pleasant to be on the receiving end of those attacks,” he says.
Always in person?
Questions have been asked of the value of continuing to hold the summits in person, especially given the carbon footprint of flying tens of thousands of delegates from around the world to attend.
But Hare is adamant they need to remain in person and says they simply couldn’t get it done in an online form.
“You can’t do these negotiations without meeting face to face.”
“You can’t do these negotiations without meeting face to face, it has not worked and it will not work,” he says.
Merzian agrees. “There are negotiations that take place all the time, but you need everyone in the same room to create the kind of momentum that’s needed to actually get an outcome,” he says.
Originally published by Cosmos as What really goes on behind the scenes at the “pressure cooker” that is the COP summit?
Jarni Blakkarly is a journalist based in Melbourne. He is the winner of a Young Walkley Award and he tweets @jarniblakkarly.