Transforming COP: Is it time for the UN climate talks to downsize and change format?

The size of the world’s largest climate summit is set to shrink as the UN navigates new logistical challenges. But beyond this, Eco-Business looks at what else must change for COP to ensure outcomes which will lead to real climate action.

CP28 World leaders
World leaders walk down the Al Wasl Stadium during COP28 at Expo City Dubai on 1 December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates. Im,age: Anthony Fleyhan/ Flickr

When Azerbaijan was chosen to host this year’s United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) talks, the decision was met with fierce criticism. The world’s biggest climate negotiations were going to be held in an oil producing country yet again, for the third year running.

Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic bounded by the Caspian Sea and Caucasus Mountains, gets two-thirds of its revenue from oil and gas, one of the highest percentages in the world. It is reliant on oil money more than the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which presided over the previous summit, while Egypt, which chaired the COP conference two years before, is the largest oil producer in Africa. 

Azerbaijan has been facing the same pressure that its predecessors had gone through – to ensure fossil fuel interests have as little influence as possible on negotiations. 

Moreover, in recent weeks, human rights advocates and civil society groups have voiced their concerns over what they view as a crackdown on media and activism by the state before the critical climate talks later this year. 

Human Rights Watch said it has found at least 25 instances of the arrest or sentencing of journalists and activists in the past year, almost all of whom remain in custody.

Baku, Azerbaijan

Locals go about their day in the city centre of Baku. Azerbaijan, an authoritarian state where media and civic freedoms are curtailed, is regarded as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Image: Nomad Revelations

But beyond the opacity surrounding how COP host country agreements are negotiated, one thing seems almost certain: the size of future COPs will shrink. In April this year, UN climate chief Simon Stiell made it clear that the organisation is in active discussions to reduce the participant list for COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan and COP30 in Belem, Brazil, partly due to logistical challenges. 

The attendance to the blockbuster event has been getting larger over the years, with participant numbers tripling since the Paris Agreement to a record-high 97,000 at COP28 in Dubai last year. Its sheer size and the accompanying carbon footprint due to travel emissions have invited criticism.

How else can COP change its format, and will that lead to better outcomes? In this explainer, Eco-Business speaks to experts familiar with the COP process to discuss how petrostates might be influencing climate negotiations, and if safeguards can be built in. Will the UN successfully shrink COP, and if so, might that open the opportunity of hosting COP to countries with fewer resources?  

1. Petrostates as COP hosts – why is it a concern?

The presence of a large delegation of fossil fuel lobbyists at the Dubai climate talks last year resulted in a “suboptimal” final decision text for COP, said Ian Fry, former UN special rapporteur. 

The environmental law and policy expert, who has represented Pacific Island country Tuvalu at various international climate change conferences, including the COP talks, over more than two decades, believes that oil interests can end up dominating the COP process when petrostates become hosts.

For example, lobbyists vying to push the interests of oil and gas companies have gotten closer access to the talks. More than 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists were in attendance at Dubai’s COP28 – the size of the contingent exceeding that of full country delegations. 

COP28 ended with a landmark deal where countries agreed to a much-debated text that called on signatories to “transition away from fossil fuels to reach net-zero”. But some COP watchers like Fry wanted to see a clearer reference to a phase-out of fossil fuels. 

On a broader scale, fossil fuel exporters should not host COPs too, argued Fry. “There will be the same concern, say if Australia hosts COP. Its interests in exporting coal will remain and any expression of concern for climate change could be tokenistic,” he said. The country has put in a bid to host COP31 in 2026.

Gerry Arances, executive director of research institute Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED) and convenor of Withdraw from Coal, said that with another petrostate at the helm for COP29, a pushback against ambitious progress on clean energy is expected.

Arances said COP28 saw civil society and communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change come together to exert collective pressure on the summit presidency, which resulted in a decision text that was still meaningful. The same must happen for Azerbaijan’s COP29, he urged. 

2. How are COP hosts chosen? How can the process improve?

Those familiar with COP say making a bid to host the summit has always been straightforward. Tony La Viña, environmental lawyer and lead climate change negotiator and advisor to the Philippines delegation since 1997, said the process is generally “not political in nature”. 

“It’s as simple as [looking at whether] the country has enough resources like the number of hotel rooms available and whether there is a large enough venue,” said La Viña. “There are usually not many bidders, just one or two, and generally no one would contest a country applying to be a host.”

For example, the UAE, last year’s COP host, received backing from the Asia Pacific group of nations. The right to host COP usually rotates among five regional groups, including Asia Pacific, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Carribean countries, as well as a group consisting of other countries.

In the past year, however, geopolitical uncertainties and political considerations have creeped in while a decision is made on who to become COP host. The Eastern European group took a while before it settled on choosing Baku, Azerbaijan, to host this year’s talks – a decision announced at the last minute – largely due to tensions arising from the Russia-Ukraine war. 

Russia, a key participant in the climate talks due to its rich resources in both fossil fuels and biodiversity, was in a tussle with the European Union and had repeatedly sought to block any candidate from the EU due to the group’s imposed trade sanctions in response to the situation in Ukraine, which impacted the bids by Bulgaria and Poland. 

Non-EU states Azerbaijan and Armenia surfaced as possible hosts but the two warring neighbours would not back each other. Armenia finally gave way to Azerbaijan, in exchange for membership of the eastern European group’s COP bureau.

Baku Olympic Stadium

Azerbaijan will host COP29 in Baku Olympic Stadium, which has a capacity of up to 68,700 people. Image: Football Italia

At COP28, climate advocate and former United States vice president Al Gore turned his focus on calling for a reform of COP rules to ensure petrostates wield less influence over COP decisions, regardless of who is host. He said the UN needs a better way to run the COP process, otherwise under current rules, the world community “has to beg for permission from the petrostates” to protect the future of humanity. 

Currently, COP meetings are run by consensus, meaning any one country can block an agreement. COP observers note that COP rule reviews are included as an agenda item in pre-COP talks but so far no action has been taken prior to COP29. 

Last week, international non-governmental organisation Amnesty International also urged UN organisers to be more transparent with its host country agreement (HCA) with the Azerbaijan authorities, highlighting how it has only recently obtained the HCA for last year’s COP hosted by UAE, and found “significant shortcomings and ambiguities in rights protections afforded to participants”. 

It said the latest agreement must include human rights safeguards and be made publicly accessible immediately after it is signed. 

The HCA establishes the legal infrastructure and sets out the specific details of what is required for organising and holding the conference in the host country. 

Brazil has been chosen by the Latin America and Caribbean Group to be next year’s COP host. India is poised to preside over the climate talks in 2028 as it represents the Asian bloc.

3. Will future COPs shrink?

The climate talks started growing steadily in size since COP21, where the historic Paris Agreement was inked. In the past decade, the average number of observers – or participants not part of member-country delegations – has grown to about 30,000, compared to only 5,000 across the first 10 COPs. 

Observer numbers started increasing in COP23, when a series of Global Climate Action (GCA) events were introduced, which saw chief executive officers, mayors, governors and other representatives from civil society participating at the annual meeting. 

Including delegates from member countries, COP26 in Glasgow saw about 40,000 participants in total. The year after, COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt attracted 50,000 attendees. COP28 had a record-high 97,000 people attending. 

Dr Katharina Richter, lecturer on climate change at the University of Bristol, highlighted that the explosion in numbers of COP delegates is largely driven by party “overflow badges” increasing. Fossil fuels lobbyists, as well as representatives from the meat, dairy and technology sector, usually are on these badges. The sheer expansion of the participant list makes one wonder who else is attending COP and what they are doing there, said Richter. 

There should also be questions on whether the growth in scale of COPs is affecting the negotiations and if it has an impact on who gets heard, she said. 

At COP28, due to the crowds and lack of space, meetings have been delayed, while others were closed to observers, shared Richter. 

“Sometimes even party delegates were asked to leave, which raises serious issues around the validity of the negotiations, if not all parties can have a seat at the table,” she said. 

The huge numbers of participants create issues around accountability and transparency, she added. “Representatives from civil society, Indigenous groups, youth groups and other marginalised groups have an even harder time at the negotiations and struggle to be heard,” she said. 

While discussing reducing the size of future COPs, UN climate chief Stiell said even as the Dubai talks, which saw a record number of participants, delivered a “strong outcome”, “size does not necessary translate to results”. 

Stiell said due to logistical challenges, the UN is currently in discussions with Brazil to see how to reduce the size of COP for the Belem meet next year, and the focus will be on the “quality of negotiated outcomes”.

He said: “Taking a very pragmatic view, we need the right people around the table in order for the COP process to work, and there will be a cost to that. How you ensure those who are present are the ones necessary to contribute positively to the process is important. We will relook at the process.” 

4. Can developing countries become hosts?

South Pacific island Fiji presided over COP23 in 2017, despite not having the capacity, in terms of financial resources and logistics, to host an event of such scale and which is attended by thousands of delegates from all over the world.    

The archipelagic state consisting of more than 330 islands in the south Pacific Ocean, had made its case by highlighting how it will bear the brunt of the consequences of global warming in natural disasters, rising water levels and warmer seas.

It was backed by the Asia Pacific grouping to become host, but an arrangement was made for the summit to be held in Bonn, Germany, where the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat was located. 

The costs of sending Fiji’s formal delegation to COP23 then were paid for through a UNFCCC trust fund which the EU and countries like Italy and Switzerland contribute to. 

COP20 FijiFiji opened COP23 in 2017 with a song titled, “I am an Island”. A whale tooth, an important cultural icon in the islands, was presented to the presidency. Image: Renee Karunungan Edwards

The Fiji example demonstrates that developing Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines which increasingly has placed emphasis on COP participation in its national climate agenda, could put in a bid to host COP, even if resources is a concern, said COP watchers.

Vice Yu, coordinator for Group of 77 (G77) and China, the biggest negotiating bloc of low-income countries at COP, said that a host city would need hotel rooms and a conference venue that can accommodate up to 40,000 people, with requisite security arrangements and a conference transport system in place to bypass local traffic jams. 

The Philippines’ Southeast Asian neighbour Indonesia hosted COP13 on the resort island of Bali in 2007. The meeting drew more than 10,000 participants, including representatives from over 180 countries and observers from intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, as well as the media.

The financial obligations of a host country are steep, as it includes expenses for the conference-servicing staff members like their travel, daily subsistence allowance, and communications expenses, among others, according to a UNFCCC handbook. Yu said the bill would have to be shared with other countries, if a developing country is selected and confirmed as COP host. 

The price tag for COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, which more than 27,000 people attended, came to US$250 million, while France spent more than US$180 million when it hosted the COP21 for 40,000 delegates in 2015, according to a media report.

Fry noted that petrostates have been the ones hosting the climate talks because they are the ones who can afford to do so.

“It is critically important that COPs are downsized so that we can hold COPs in locations where climate change is a real concern, and where the world can witness the impacts of climate change.”  

5. What should we expect of a COP29 outcome?

The selection of a COP host should be finalised at least two years before the summit to allow the presidency enough time to work with its predecessors to scope future negotiations said Philippines lead climate change negotiator La Viña. 

La Viña is setting expectations lower for a strong COP29 outcome as he believes the presidency has had limited time to prepare for the November summit, and given how it was not present at meetings with COP27 host Glasgow and COP28 host UAE, which are usually held to ensure continuation. 

He observed that a less-than-robust vision has been mapped for Azerbaijan, and COP29 would likely put its focus on climate finance, building on and consolidating efforts from the previous summit. 

Ana Mulio Alvarez, a loss and damage researcher from London-based think tank E3G, however, believes that an ambitious outcome from COP29 is still possible, despite the last-minute selection of host Azerbaijan. 

Citing how UAE-led COP28 successfully made countries agree to a new fund for helping vulnerable nations cope with climate risks, she said: “I believe in the power of compromise and political will.”

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