COP25 mistakes must not be repeated in Glasgow

The COP25, held in Madrid in 2019, was a long but eventually fruitless effort to come to an agreement on key climate change issues. PHOTO: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The 25th annual Conference of Parties (COP25) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in November 2019 in Madrid, Spain under the presidency of Chile, since the political conditions in Santiago, Chile were not conducive to holding the conference there. Unfortunately, COP25 went into overtime by two days and nights and even then, it was not possible to reach an agreement on some key topics. It was universally deemed to be a failure.

Hence, the pressure on COP26, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2020, to learn from the lessons and not repeat the mistakes made at the debacle that was COP25. The first point to focus on is the role of the host government who has the presidency of the COP, which is by far the most important factor in making the conference successful. In the case of COP26, we have three governments playing a role. The first is Italy, who will hold the official pre-COP26 meeting a month or so before COP26 in November. The pre-COP26 in Italy will focus on Africa and on the youth. After this, COP26 will be hosted by the British government but in Glasgow, where the Scottish government can also play a role.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially appointed former State Minister Clare Perry, who attended COP25 in Madrid, as the incoming COP26 President. However, a few days ago, she was unceremoniously sacked from that position (quite acrimoniously) on the grounds that she was not a political heavyweight. On the other hand, the efforts to appoint former Prime Minister David Cameron did not work out and till now, there has been no decision on a new COP26 President. Every day that the position is unfilled is a day lost, so it is crucial for the UK to act immediately.

On the positive side, the UK has a very strong diplomatic and environmental bureaucracy who have excellent capacities to handle the technical aspects of the COP. However, the make or break factor is not technical but political, and will require the Prime Minister to be personally engaged if he wants the COP to succeed.

Another aspect of the success of the COP is to do with keeping to the schedule. Since it takes place over two full weeks, there is plenty of time to reach an agreement, but nevertheless, it often runs into overtime to reach a result. COP25 was by far the longest COP ever, which went overtime by two days and nights of continuous negotiations and even then did not produce a result. Such extensions of time are particularly unfair to the most vulnerable developing countries like Bangladesh, whose delegates have to return home after the official time is over, only to find out that the issue they had been fighting for was dropped in their absence. This indeed happened in Madrid and should not be allowed to happen again.

My sincere advice to the UK as COP26 President is to declare, in advance, that the COP will end on time and if anything is still unresolved then, it will be discussed at COP27. Also, if all night sessions are deemed to be necessary, then they should be held before the deadline and not after it.

Another important aspect of the COPs in general is that they include many different events occurring at the same time, with up to 30,000 people from all over the world converging at the COP venue over two weeks. Only around 5,000 of them are actual government negotiators who meet at the technical level for the first week and are then joined by ministers (and sometimes, heads of government) for the second week when the final political negotiations take place.

The rest of the many thousands of people come from different backgrounds including youth, indigenous people, NGOs, parliamentarians, the private sector and many others, who attend many different events that take place in the city hosting the COP during the two weeks. These events are marvellous opportunities for networking with like-minded groups from all over the world. Some of these side events happen at the COP venue itself, which is usually divided into a blue zone for the negotiators and a green zone for others, as well as in other places around the host city.

After the achievement of the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015, I had argued that henceforth, we should have an “inside out COP” where the official negotiators are given the side event rooms to carry on with their negotiations all night, while the actual implementers of the Paris Agreement be given centre stage. This would include governments, cities, the private sector, NGOs and many others, who could showcase their actions to implement the Paris Agreement.

The COP26 in Glasgow in November may represent the perfect opportunity to put this idea into practice by having the official “Negotiators COP” at the COP venue hosted by the British government, while another parallel “Action COP” could be held elsewhere in Glasgow (or even in Edinburgh), hosted by the Scottish government. The “Action COP” would emphasise on bringing together coalitions of the willing to showcase their actions and network with others. It could also be what the global media focuses on, running stories for the rest of the world to know what is happening at the COP and what definitive actions have been taken.

What we definitely do not want is a repeat of the experience of COP25 in Madrid, which ended two days late and still failed to agree on key negotiating issues. The official COP process of requiring a consensus to reach an agreement on everything, however trivial, is no longer fit for purpose, as some key leaders such as Trump in the US, Scott Morrison in Australia and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil continue to block such a consensus on key issues. They did so in Madrid and cannot be allowed to do so again in Glasgow.

Originally this article was published on February 12, 2020 at Daily Star. The author Dr. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).