Boots on the Ground

28th May 2021

Joe Nisbet considers whether a virtual COP26 would be better or worse for the environment

Given how adept we have become at working virtually, the irony of delegates flying around the world to discuss climate change is not lost on many. A 2020 mock COP26 youth summit highlighted that their virtual event emitted only 39 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e), compared to the 51,000 tCO2e emitted by those attending COP25 in Madrid.

These are persuasive arguments for hosting virtual summits, given that avoid emissions from thousands of flights. However, with so much riding on COP26, it’s not that simple.

Given the amount of media attention the summit has received, most people will appreciate how important COP26 is for galvanising countries to take a more ambitious, unified approach to the crisis. The event has been described as “pivotal” by UN secretary general António Guterres, and COP26 president Alok Sharma describes climate change as “the biggest challenge of our time”.

It’s worth bearing in mind that, while a non-virtual summit will have a carbon impact, the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) requires all COP events to be carbon neutral – achieved through the purchase of UNFCCC-accredited carbon credits. However, carbon offsetting is controversial. Another way to contextualise the event emissions is in relation to Scotland’s legally binding annual carbon targets. If we take COP25 emissions as a proxy, they represented about 0.1% of Scotland’s annual carbon budget for 2021. Of course, COP26 may have a larger impact, but it seems fair to conclude that the event won’t compromise the UK or Scotland’s ability to meet targets.

Putting a figure on it

There is also an intangible aspect to event negotiations that can’t be put in numerical terms. The words spoken, the mood of the room, the body language of negotiators and the ‘buzz’ generated will play a huge role. There is evidence that negotiating virtually can cause participants to feel less trust towards one another, with poorer outcomes than face-to-face negotiations. Additionally, relationships formed will be hugely significant in helping build trust among negotiators and nations.

“There is an intangible aspect to event negotiations that can’t be put in numerical terms”

It is also worth noting that COP26 represents the apex of months of virtual bilateral discussions. For example, governments will hold a three-week virtual meeting to begin negotiations and get ahead on key areas before the event. At the point when imperative decisions will be finalised, COP26 seems too important to risk hosting virtually.

It’s difficult to quantify the future potential emissions savings of successful in-person talks, though it seems reasonable to suggest that they could far outweigh the impacts of the event itself. However, the final form of the event is of course entirely dependent on COVID-19, and public health and safety should always take priority.

COP26 is also a huge opportunity for the UK and Glasgow to showcase their commitment to sustainability in the broadest sense, not just when it comes to reducing emissions. My hope is that Glasgow can live up to its name of ‘Dear Green Place’ by hosting successful in-person negotiations while managing event emissions, minimising waste, ensuring inclusivity and accessibility, prioritising sustainable supply chains, promoting sustainable behaviour and fostering a long-term legacy.

Joe Nisbet, GradIEMA is a graduate consultant at Arup and a member of IEMA Futures.

Image credit: Shutterstock


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