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Why COP26 participants value being in the room where it happened despite the carbon footprint

As COP26 takes place in Glasgow, there has been a lot of talk about the carbon emissions and environmental impact of the event itself. Delegates and world leaders flew in from far and wide, private jet traffic to Prestwick Airport doubled and some of the delegations were enormous. US President Biden's motor parade came in for special mention!

The UN claims COP26 will be a carbon neutral event, but its website is rather woolly about this and a lot of carbon offsetting is promised. In the run-up to the conference, The Scotsman newspaper highlighted the enormous carbon footprint of the venues and noted that they had no renewable energy sources. So clearly, there are issues to face.

One my mates tweeted: "It’s like holding a meeting to tackle alcohol addiction and giving a free bottle of whiskey to every delegate".

Why, the critics cried, not just meet online? I hope this blog answers that question.

In my view, there is something precious about people meeting together to debate and agree action they will take for the greater good of the world. Agreements that are less likely to have the same effect if taken virtually.

  • Would David Attenborough’s speech or that from the ex-President of the Maldives have had as much impact if they had been speaking to a laptop and been seen on delegates’ laptops?

  • Would we have got an agreement to cut methane emissions by 30% if the various negotiating teams had been in their own isolated groupthink bubbles in their own country?

  • Would 450 financial institutions holding assets of some $130 trillion have signed up to Mark Carney’s Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), if there wasn’t a grand stage on which to make the announcement?

I think it’s pertinent that green groups supported Alok Sharma’s flights before COP26 because they know how important face to face contact is.

Some groups called for postponement of the meeting not because of its carbon impact but because not enough leaders from disadvantaged nations could access the conference because of Covid and isolation and cost. And there has been understandable criticism that, because of capacity constraints resulting from Covid, some delegates could not access the venues even when they had travelled.

But no environmental groups seemed to be saying ‘Don’t meet at all’.

Why is it important to meet face to face?

In 2013, a paper by researchers at Imperial College London concluded that face-to-face negotiations favoured people with more power and remote negotiations removed some of those power dynamics.

However, the Harvard Business Review reported that “Negotiating virtually tends to leave parties with poorer objective results and feeling less warmth and trust toward one another”.

Most importantly, the participants value the connections such meetings create and nurture.

Despite the difficulties and costs, some of the smaller delegations, from countries facing the greatest threat from climate change were in favour. Speaking to the BBC, the president of Sierra Leone said: "I have travelled extensively because I have to be there - we're talking about challenges and the environment in Sierra Leone. If I don't come here, how will they know?"

If I don’t come here, how will they know? It’s hard to argue with that.

We pay attention when people are able to put their case, look us in the face and say, “This is what I’m facing, what are you going to do about it?”

Sir Howard Davies, chair of NatWest Group, told the Evening Standard, “You can jeer if you want because clearly there’s a circus element to it, but actually you learn quite a lot.” Business gets done.

And that business matters. Not just the announcements I’ve referred to above but India’s net zero target by 2070, hundreds of nations signing up to end deforestation and many more.

There’s another point. COP26 was not simply an event for official delegates. Its physical location also gave a focus for fringe gatherings and protests. From the climate march to Greta Thunberg and the COP26 pilgrimage, voices converged on Glasgow and were heard.

Online conferences exclude anyone who is not invited. They are intrinsically less inclusive, more controlled (unless, of course, you are on the Handforth Parish Council).

We can debate whether Biden needed such a big motorcade, but I think COP26 shows the benefit of meeting in person. Getting heads of government together in a room, with all the fringe meetings and the pressure groups meeting and protesting around them is the best way to concentrate minds and get a solution.

Now we can only hope and pray that nations, businesses and NGOs follow through on the commitments made to decarbonise society. If so, I’m sure more uplifting songs will be written about the SECC as ‘the room where it happened’ than the Zoom where it happened.


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