Balancing the COP-benefit equation

Critics highlight the perceived wastefulness and hypocrisy of UN Climate Change Conferences, commonly known as COPs.

This criticism often centres around the number of flights taken by world leaders, national delegates, NGOs, the research sector, the finance sector, the business sector, the media and others.

Do as we say

In the four days leading up to COP27 in Egypt, 268 aircraft landed at Sharm el-Sheikh airport, carrying between 30,000 and 40,000 delegates.

These flights led to greenhouse gas emissions, which we elaborate on a little later.

Greenhouse gas emissions were also generated by delegates’ energy and transport use on the ground in Sharm El-Sheikh.

In addition to the environmental costs, countries committed public funds to ensure they were represented across the fortnight.

To assess the costs of these COPs, it is important to compare them with the other side of the equation—the benefits.

blah blah blah?

Something often lost in the conversation is why these conferences are held, and the benefits they bring.

So let’s step through each…

Global agreement

In 1992, countries identified a need to address the global problem of climate change.

They came together and adopted the UNFCCC, which set out the basic legal framework and principles for climate change cooperation between countries.

For more on the international climate governance framework, see an earlier post.

Countries have since used COPs to agree collectively on decisions that drive national policies and send a signal to markets on how all 194 countries are aligned on the issue of climate change.

Countries have also used these conferences to agree on technical frameworks related to monitoring, reporting and trading carbon emissions; as well as assessing the different types of risk associated with climate change.

Many delegates landed in Sharm El-Sheikh to negotiate decision text while representing their countries, which may be parties to the three international climate treaties—the Paris Agreement, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Kyoto Protocol.

How does it work?

A member from each country will sit in a room like this:

Source: IISD

On the screens in front of them, they will see text like this:

And one by one, speakers from each country will request edits until all parties are satisfied. If there is a disagreement, the issue is elevated to a senior level until it is resolved.

The result can be something like this—at COP24 in Poland, countries agreed on the technical rules for a transparency framework, which are presented below.

Why does this matter?

Because transparency enables countries to measure their emissions in a way that is accurate and comparable with other countries.

It shows to everyone whether emissions in a certain part of a country’s economy are decreasing or increasing.

Can you imagine a world without transparency?

Perhaps more importantly, accurate and comparable emissions reporting builds mutual trust and confidence among countries.

And with trust, there can be more global agreement.

And continued agreement across global climate governance’s main areas of contention will increase the likelihood that the world will respond to the climate crisis effectively.

Media attention

Over time COPs have grown in prominence, with the amount of delegates attending steadily increasing since the first COP took place in 1995.

Source: Carbon Brief

For two weeks of the year, this one event attracts world leaders and considerable media attention.

This attention builds political momentum, which leaders leverage to seek outcomes that they can present to domestic audiences.

For example, COP26 saw the launch of the Global Methane Pledge, which commits to reducing global methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The media attention and political momentum generated at COP26 has led to 130 countries since joining the pledge.

As COPs have grown more prominent, more countries have also pitched to host them in the future including Bulgaria in 2024, Brazil in 2025, and Australia in 2026.

Source: IISD


Climate encompasses all sectors of the economy and it will increasingly affect all of us over time.

It will particularly affect those that lack the capacity to safeguard their livelihoods against its threat.

Women, youth, low-income communities, handicapped, indigenous groups, small nations and others affected by inequality and marginalization can sometimes be cast aside during global decision making processes.

To varying degrees, COPs place an emphasis on ensuring all these communities are included under one roof, creating the space for dialogue, understanding and opportunity—something that would otherwise be unlikely to exist.

Latin American indigenous communities gather at COP27

Knowledge sharing

COPs have also broadened in scope to become a source of knowledge.

From once being a forum for multilateral governance and collective decision making, COPs now increasingly feature a range of technical experts and major players.

These people use the opportunity to present new technologies, exciting breakthroughs, and possible solutions to those who have come along to learn about them.

It is also an opportunity to outline some of the barriers that are preventing these potential solutions becoming results.

Connecting the dots

This takes knowledge sharing a step further.

Amidst greenwashing and empty promises, it can be easy to become cynical about whether governments and businesses are actually willing to do anything about climate change.

But as the costs of low emissions pathways decrease and public pressure for political outcomes increases, governments, NGOs, the research sector, the finance sector, the business sector, and others come together to genuinely explore solutions.

COPs are arguably the world’s biggest climate-related networking event.

And while some of these interactions are deliberate, some occur by accident.

By waiting in line for a coffee at Australia’s pavilion, people would often turn to one another and ask ‘so what brings you to COP27?‘.

These micro-interactions and exchanges of business cards led to conversations and potential opportunities.

On a conference-wide scale, these interactions can be extremely powerful.

Source: Twitter @ShesEPIC

A boost to the local economy

40,000 people spent two weeks in Sharm El-Sheikh. They stayed at local hotels, dined at local restaurants and injected millions into the local economy.

Rotating the COPs between the different regional groupings (see below) ensures these local benefits continue to be shared around.

Ratcheting it up

So far we have acknowledged the costs generated by COPs (including some environmental costs) and touched on some of the benefits.

So how can we tip that balance even more, so that the costs are minimized, and the benefits are even greater?

First, it’s worth highlighting that the greenhouse gas emissions generated by 268 flights are comparatively quite small.

If you were to assume:

  • the number of delegates was 35,000
  • the average one-way journey to Sharm el-Sheikh was 6 hours and
  • everyone flies home again…

This would equate to somewhere around 40 Kt of CO2 emitted, or the average daily emissions of a country like El Salvador, Kyrgyzstan or Estonia.

When put alongside the daily emissions of major emitters, the impact of flights to COP27 are microscopic.

But microscopic is still not zero, so how could we reduce these costs even more?

Getting everyone together under one roof achieves a number of benefits relating to interaction, exchange, understanding and agreement. But could some of these be conducted by videoconference?

For example, the Facilitative Sharing of Views is a regular mandated event where countries present on their plans to reduce emissions, and other countries ask them questions. This is just one example of a mandated event that could be entirely virtual with few consequences.

Indian delegates present during an FSV session at COP26

Could emissions associated with a COP be offset?

Taking the flights in isolation, a USD 50 carbon price would equate to just under USD 2 million in carbon offsets—a fraction of the many millions it costs to run a COP.

This money could be invested in real projects that lead to genuine emission reductions.

For more on emissions offsetting, see an earlier post.

What about the benefits? Could they be supercharged?

The layout of COP27 was a mess, with no flow to design of the conference centre and delegates spending considerable time finding the correct rooms.

What if instead, the layout was designed around problem statements, or ‘themes‘.

The casual interactions that occurred in places like Australia’s COP27 pavilion (see above) could be leveraged and applied more deliberately and tactically.

Perhaps a section of the event space could be set up so that businesses, researchers and governments could focus on a key issue, like how to make renewable energy reliable and affordable.

Another change could see the different innovative ideas generated outside the formal negotiations fed back into them.

Often, there is a split across the itinerary and the conference venue between the formal negotiations at COPs, and everything else.

Country negotiators file into rooms and haggle over sentences and words, often late into the evening.

Across other parts of the venue, people can be seen hearing people’s stories and ideas, as well as exploring some of the new solutions that are on show.

Source: Twitter @AndreaAthanas1

Being able to merge the two and feed new ideas into the negotiations could open doors for countries to find common ground and explore new solutions.

Aside from those, the single most important way to get the most out of a COP is this:

Citizens need to put pressure on countries to find agreement on strong, ambitious language that guides national policies and businesses towards net zero emissions as soon as possible.

After all, what is the point in committing so much money and emitting so many greenhouse gases, if the result is lukewarm?

It’s worth it

Quite often the costs of something are evident, while the benefits can be harder to capture. For example, when we pay taxes, insurance premiums, or even when we pay for education, the costs are upfront but the benefits are either not guaranteed, opaque, or delivered some time in the future.

We are right to scrutinise the costs of these events and the benefits they bring, but a fair assessment means weighing the costs and benefits alongside one another.

Transparency is not sexy. It doesn’t make headlines or attract eyeballs, but it is vitally important if countries are going to trust one another to reduce emissions.

The transparency framework only existed after years to discussions, trust-building, compromise and agreement.

A meme like this, does attract eyeballs.

These are not genuine counterarguments—they are snapshots that make people question the truth and ultimately, delay or blocks responses to climate change. These snapshots work because they are novel and tap into our values.

For more on derailing debate, see an earlier post.

In reality, the emissions from flights to COP27 were a fraction (of a fraction) of global emissions. The agreements, breakthroughs and media attention that can emerge from COPs overwhelmingly justify it.

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