Inside the Negotiations to Decide the Fate of Our Planet

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.