The big speeches and announcements are over—but now the real work begins. As global leaders leave COP26 in Glasgow, delegates can finally get down to the main business of the conference: negotiations. At a more technical level than the big pledges leaders announced early in the week, this process delivers the rules, compromises, and commitments that spell out how countries will actually deliver climate action. If we’re going to save the planet from climate disaster, this is where it’s going to happen.
This COP has had an especially rocky start. Huge queues to get through security and enter the venue mean that many have been left waiting in line for hours just to reach the negotiations. Civil society groups have also criticized the lack of access they have to the talks this year, despite the continued reassurances from COP26 president Alok Sharma that this would be “the most inclusive COP ever.”
For negotiators, the experience at COP is akin to being at an airport. You stay up all night, lose track of time, and miss meals. In this sleep-deprived, exhausted state, you then have to balance your own countries’ priorities against those of the country delegate sitting opposite you. It’s a tiring process, and tensions tend to run thin by the end of the two-week process.
“It is a lot of work,” says Agripina Jenkins Rojas, a Costa Rican negotiator who is representing the group of Latin American and Caribbean countries together known as AILAC in talks on transparency at COP26. “It gets to the point that you’re very tired, you’re almost exhausted, and you almost do not have time to eat or do anything else that is not related to the negotiations.”
When talks pause, negotiators have to review draft texts to make sure their position is reflected correctly, attend informal gatherings with other countries for discussions, or feed information back to their own country delegation. “You completely lose what day it is. There is going to be a time where I don’t know if we’re Thursday, Friday; I only know which is the next meeting that we have.” Discussions can also get tense under all this pressure, she says. “Many times, parties think they’re not being respected because their position is not well reflected on the documents. So they will get heated. I have seen it happen.”
There are several different negotiating streams at this COP, which are basically spin-out discussions from the main plenary session where technical experts try to hash out agreements that all countries are willing to sign on to. In the transparency stream, delegates are tasked with finding consensus on how countries will report their climate progress, one of the many crucial issues being discussed at COP26. “Transparency is the backbone of the Paris Agreement,” says Jenkins Rojas. “If transparency is not properly done, then we will not exactly know how countries are advancing their commitments for the Paris Agreement.”
Negotiating rooms can contain some 60 or 70 people who produce a text that is then fed back to the main plenary. But Lia Nicholson, lead negotiator of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) group of countries, says she is concerned about accessibility at the conference due to daily long lines to access the venue. “This has a very real impact on the coordinating of our positions across different issues,” she says.
So far this year, there has also been a decided absence of civil society presence in these negotiating rooms. “We can’t participate; we don’t have tickets to participate,” says Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network (CAN) International, a major umbrella group of nonprofits that works to secure a progressive outcome at the talks. “We can’t have access to the place.”
Unlike journalists, who are not allowed in the negotiating rooms, CAN delegates usually have access to the talks by default. Here they can observe negotiations and are occasionally invited to speak. But this year, in the name of Covid-19 safety, nonprofits arrived to find COP organizers had introduced a ticketing system, with only two tickets given to the whole of CAN International. This means only two people from CAN, an organization that represents hundreds of smaller ones, were able to enter and observe six sessions running in parallel. In short, CAN International is “not able to follow the negotiations,” says Essop.
Harjeet Singh, senior adviser at CAN International and a veteran of the climate talks, says civil society presence in the negotiating rooms is imperative to increasing pressure on countries to progress in the talks. “If there are some parties who are not behaving correctly, or doing any kind of arm twisting, then we get that information and relay that out. That then exposes what’s going on on the inside; it puts pressure and things fall in line.”
At COP26, observers have not had access to any meaningful area of COP for the first two days, just as all of the negotiations are starting, says Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). This is typically the period when observers have the most access, he says, because civil society observers are often asked to leave the room later in the process when negotiations heat up.
“COP26 is starting out extremely badly,” he says. “From my past experience with the last 12 COPs, this is unprecedented. For a lot of developing countries, delegates who came from very difficult situations, because of Covid, the risks of bringing the virus back, the need to quarantine and all of this, it is ridiculous that now they have to stay in their overpriced hotels.”
Delegates were given some access to negotiating rooms via a virtual platform, but technical issues have prevented many from accessing even this. On Tuesday, the UN Climate Change secretariat sent an email to delegates apologizing for “the inconveniences associated with accessing the venue of COP26, both physically and virtually.” The emailed statement added that the first few days of COP26 had been a “learning process, with participants and staff getting used to the pandemic-related logistical measures and circumstances.”
But many civil society attendees say the problems have not just come from essential Covid-19 measures. “I’m just sad about this,” says Essop. “Getting all of us here, especially those who are coming from the Global South, and treating everybody with this kind of disrespect where you discover you actually don’t have access, just means that they think people are dispensable and irrelevant.”