The future of COPs after Madrid

The widespread disappointment with the outcomes of last month’s COP 25 in Madrid underscores the overwhelming expectations for success that these annual gatherings increasingly face.

After this record-setting, 36-hour “overtime” COP, I reflected on two recent publications (see here and here) that ask whether changing the way COPs are organized could improve outcomes and climate ambition. The question is timely: the UN Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) is now transitioning from nearly 25 years of negotiating new agreements to more of an implementation mode. What are some of the key elements that that will influence what the COPs of the future should look like?

It’s easy to foresee that COPs could evolve in two ways. First, the focus of COPs may shift to better serve the new five-year cycle established under the Paris Agreement. Two important political moments in that cycle include the periodic global stocktake of collective progress (the first will take place in 2023) and the subsequent communication of parties’ next nationally determined contributions (two years later).

Second, COPs may more formally accommodate the “action agenda,” which encompasses the UNFCCC’s platforms for engaging and encouraging action by non-state actors (NSAs.) At COP 25, parties already agreed to continue the relatively new practice of appointing High Level Climate Champions. Increasing the transparency and accountability of NSA activities could both complement and galvanize government efforts.

Even when you have been to a COP yourself, it’s hard to convey the enormity of this two-week event that some have called a “diplomatic circus.” While COP in a stricter sense refers to the formal gathering of governments that decides issues under the UNFCCC and its agreements, COPs have evolved over time into mega-events that include a wealth of other activities: high-level ministerial statements and events, country pavilions, side events, exhibit booths, a platform for High-Level Climate Champions to highlight innovative initiatives by mostly NSAs, and a “Green Zone” for civil society without formal access to the COP. These multi-level institutions help focus public and political attention, facilitate information exchange and engagement among parties and stakeholders, and galvanize stronger action.

COP participants have grown from fewer than 4,000 at COP 1 to an average of almost 25,000 for the last four COPs. A record-breaking 28,187 people attended COP 21, which adopted the Paris Agreement. Increasingly, massive youth protests and demonstrations for climate action feature within and outside COPs.

Countries hosting these meetings face not only increasing logistical, diplomatic, and security challenges, but growing pressure for COP to effectively be all things to all people. The anticipation of headline accomplishments frequently raises unrealistic expectations among the media and public, while distracting political attention from progress on more technical work. Moreover, supporting these events is expensive. The climate secretariat’s budget has not grown at the same pace as the regime’s activities and parties are starting to feel the pinch.

For civil society in particular, including the business community, COPs have become an important forum to advance climate objectives, serving, for instance, as a rallying point for NSAs whose governments have backtracked on climate ambition. This reflects an important shift in dynamics between governments and sub-national actors: Where states once pressed banks, businesses, and institutions to recognize the urgency of climate change, now many cities, sectors, and ordinary citizens are pushing governments to do more.

The United Kingdom, which will host COP 26 in November, already has these dynamics and risks in mind as it prepares for a difficult year ahead. The government has been both buoyed and challenged by its strong domestic climate movement, embracing youth energy and support while also trying to manage the disruption caused by radical demonstrations. In order for COP 26 to be considered a success, the UK must help guide negotiators to complete the Paris Agreement rulebook and construct a platform to demonstrate rising climate ambition.

COP 25 was, in many respects, business as usual. Going forward, a new mode of COP must serve to effectively tell the climate change story every year — its victories and its failures, in the process and in the real world — all the while still building momentum for action.