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Blog: Good COP, Bad COP ... Thoughts on Glasgow

Dan Delurey's picture
President, Wedgemere Group

Dan is the President of Wedgemere Group. Established in 2002, "" Wedgemere is a DC-based consulting group with a focus on demand response and distributed energy and a...

  • Member since 2016
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  • Oct 29, 2021

I have been to a lot of COPs.


If you wonder why the upcoming United Nations event in Glasgow, Scotland is called COP26, it is because it will be the 26th year of COPs. COPs have been held annually (with the exception of 2020) for over 26 years.


Think about that number for a moment if you want a marker for the glacial progress at the UN for addressing climate.


I have been to enough of them over time to realize that there are really two COPs each year, held under the same roof – the Good COP and the "Other" COP.


The COP is an essential vehicle for countries, under the auspices and procedures of the UN, to cooperatively develop and sign international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold worldwide average temperature to certain targets. Related components included in the agreements are things like aid to developing nations on climate mitigation and adaptation.


At a COP, all of the nations of the world send official representatives to the same place for two weeks. These people negotiate the rules, regulations and other structures that will move forward how the world addresses climate change – especially via emissions reductions. They get together in windowless rooms for many hours a day doing that. At the end of two weeks, progress has been made on international policy and agreements, and in the best case the latter have been formally agreed to.


The most important COP so far was COP21 in Paris in 2015. It resulted in the Paris Agreement that had almost every country in the world pledging a specific amount (of their choosing) in emissions reductions that it would undertake. (in UN-speak, this is the Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC). There was great celebration when this happened by those who had worked for years to get to this point, even though the LDCs committed to were not enough to meet the temperature targets that the Agreement also set (1.5 degrees C at a minimum and 2.0 degrees as an inspirational goal)


To ensure that the targets would be met it was agreed that over the next 5 years countries would further develop their plans and offer new commitments which brought them to or close to the necessary amount to meet targets.


As COP26 begins this weekend, the effect of COPs on emissions and climate change has not been great over the past 26 years. In fact, emissions have both accelerated and increased, with 50% of the total emissions since the dawn of the industrial revolution coming in the past 30 years, just before the events began.


As COPs came and went, commitments and pledges were made and not kept. No better example of the latter is the fact that no Country is living up to its emission reduction pledges made at COP21 in Paris in 2015. None of their pledges of aid to Developing Countries are being fully met. Early word is that the new pledges being rolled out for Glasgow will still not be enough to meet the temperature targets.


All that I described above is the Good COP. It is the real and necessary COP.


There is another COP alongside that one.


COP is also the biggest conference and trade show in the world devoted to climate change. It draws 10-20,000 delegates from the private sector, non-federal governments, NGOs, academia and other areas. These people are not there to negotiate. They are “Observers” (The actual negotiating delegates are known as “Parties”, hence the Conference of the Parties, i.e. COP).


The Observers are in the official COP Venue to network and give presentations to one another. Occasionally they might interact with the official delegation of their country. (There have been times when I was asked by the U.S. Delegation for my thoughts on a particular issue or proposal). But mainly people are attending a giant trade show and conference. Most will never talk to an official national delegate during the entire two weeks.


And then are also the many, many events that happen outside of the COP Grounds in the hotels and museums, art galleries and other interesting venues in the area.


I have found this part of the COP to be interesting. The chance to grab a sandwich at one of the cafeterias and then randomly sit down at a table with three delegates from three different African countries is one that is hard to replicate elsewhere. The opportunity to be a speaker in the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion and present on microgrids was exactly the kind of thing that I look to do – share information.


But the question is, does this other part of the COP need to happen, and is it necessary for the negotiations , i.e. – the real COP. Is it even a drag on the latter?


The “other” COP has ballooned in importance along the lines of “if you are a climate person, then you HAVE to go the COP”.


The “other” COP, along with the many events held around town outside of the official COP Venue, has become a branding event for corporations and other entities. Attending a COP, speaking at a COP, sponsoring and putting on an event has become a badge that shows one’s seriousness about climate change, regardless of how serious one actually is.


The “other” COP can become a logistical nightmare for the people trying to plan and run the event. At COP15 in Copenhagen, the Venue selected for the COP could only hold 15,000 people. The number that showed up was 25,000 and the result was hundreds of people standing in the damp cold outside waiting to get in. Some Observers travelled from a distant part of the world and never got inside the building.


Covid is throwing a new wrench into the gears of the Glasgow COP. Observers and Parties from almost every country in the world want to attend, including some where vaccinations have not been readily available. To cope with that, this COP will have new procedures in place involving proof of vaccination, quarantines, daily tests, etc. And they are limiting the number of Observers who can enter the COP venue each day, meaning that even if you are an official Observer delegate it does not guarantee that you can get into the venue on any given day.


The COP should be for the negotiators. And it should not convene for only two weeks a year.


I say this while also recognizing two things: 1) there are subsidiary bodies of the UN that meet on climate at different times in between COPs to try to make progress on certain things, and 2) having one big meeting that has a lot of publicity is good for putting pressure on countries to ante up with respectful if not totally adequate pledges.


The problem is that one-year intervals does not comport with the timeline of climate change, which is relentless. Then there is also the problem of when a COP cannot be held. When Covid completely cancelled the 2020 COP, the reaction of everyone was to immediately talk of “doing things at the next COP”. All of the expected action at that COP got rolled over to the Glasgow COP. Thus, it has actually been two years since the last COP.


One year on the climate calendar is a big deal. Two years is a really big deal at this point.


My take?


The COP should be a more formal standing body that meets regularly all year round. It could be treated by the media like a Parliament or Congress, with regular focus and reporting. It should be a body that acts within a specific definition of consensus that is short of unanimity. It should be a decision-making body with the power to subpoena witnesses when necessary and have real and meaningful enforcement powers, including things like fees and penalties in areas like trade and commerce.


I realize I am talking about something that has never existed before among nations. But the climate emergency is also like nothing that has ever existed before.


At the moment, for better or for worse, the COP is all we seem to have as an instrument for pulling nations together to address an emergency that confronts all nations.


Put another way, the COP is what our descendants will talk about in the future. I can hear them saying “You met regularly for 30 years and still couldn’t get your act together to reduce emissions and stay below those temperature targets????”


I hope the Glasgow COP is a good one, despite the signs that it will not be. I hope to somehow be pleasantly surprised. We desperately need a Good COP.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 29, 2021

The COP should be a more formal standing body that meets regularly all year round. It could be treated by the media like a Parliament or Congress, with regular focus and reporting. 

I love this, Dan-- but I wonder: how do you get the authority for a body like this? With real accountability and consequences? It seems even the best example we have, UN, ends up pretty toothless when it comes to climate commitments if the big players (U.S., China, etc.) just choose not to play the game

Dan Delurey's picture
Thank Dan for the Post!
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