Reflections on a new format for UN Climate Change conferences

Today, Monday November 9th  2020, should have been my first day at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference – COP 26. I have been attending COPs as an observer since 2014, each time for the full two weeks, which rightly makes me a ‘COP aficionado’ – and probably a ‘COP survivor’ considering how intense these conferences are. COPs typically represent the highlight of my working year. The incredible programme of side events by researchers, civil society representatives, governments and international organizations, has been a major source of learning and inspiration for me in the past 7 years. Moreover, I have always found UNFCCC negotiations, and the opportunity to be immersed in the process, extremely fascinating – probably due to the legacy of my studies in diplomacy. It will be strange to end 2020 without this annual appointment.

As a partial substitute for COP 26, the UNFCCC is launching the ‘Climate Dialogues’ from November 23rd to December 4th. Based on the experience of the ‘June momentum for Climate Change’ earlier this year, this series of virtual events aims at displaying progress made in 2020 and exchange views and ideas across the subsidiary bodies and COP agendas mandated for 2020. This initiative is not too far from what Jaroslav Mysiak, Lisa Vanhala and I proposed back in the spring with respect to hold a ‘Digital Climate Summit to maintain Paris Agreement ambition’. In our Correspondence to Nature Climate Change, we outlined the cornerstones of a new format for future COPs that blends in person negotiations with on-line initiatives to ensure participation from business, research and civil society. Compared to the Climate Dialogue, we made a step further in imagining how the digital transformation induced by the pandemic might force us to re-think the way climate diplomacy works, rather than simply providing a temporary fix before going back to business-as-usual. We claim that the digital transformation we are living can provide an unprecedented opportunity to open up the UNFCCC process and make it transparent and accessible to everyone.

While I (egoistically) see COPs as great opportunities to engage with a diverse set of stakeholders, learn from them, and possibly contribute with my research to the common fight against climate change, I have increasingly realised how these events exclude a wide range of people that should be part of the process. It excludes those that are not able to get an accreditation to the event; those that do not have resources to fly to the Conference venue and sustain the (high) costs for a two-week accommodation; all the young people that are currently shaking our conscience on the climate crisis and are not allowed to access UN spaces because they are under age. Acting against climate change should be everybody’s affair. Digitalising climate summits can represent a first step towards a more inclusive and accessible model of cooperation on climate change.