The Public Affairs guide to COP 26

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Whether you work in public relations, public affairs or somewhere in between, we have all sat in meetings with clients and our colleagues over the last 12 months in which “COP26” was mentioned.

Whilst we all nodded sagely, for many, COP26 remained something of a mystery. Now the event has started and dominates the news, there is nowhere to hide. Here is a quick PR bluffer’s guide.

Originally scheduled for November 2020, 25 years after the first United Nations Climate Change Conference took place in Berlin, former Business Secretary Alok Sharma is overseeing the Conference of Parties (that’s where the COP bit comes from), which kicked off in Glasgow last weekend.

Frequently dubbed ‘the world’s best last chance’ to tackle the climate crisis head on, 120 world leaders are specifically meeting to agree non-binding targets to ensure global temperatures remain well-below the 2 degrees Celsius target agreed by the UN signatories to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The event, held at Glasgow’s SEC centre until Friday November 12, will see thousands of negotiators, government advisors and environmental activists tussle for position and attempt to influence a strategy to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.

The objectives agreed in 2015 were far-reaching and broad. Whether it be securing net zero carbon emissions by 2025 or ensuring that a global temperature increase does not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius, the targets were ambitious. The increasing prevalence of wildfires, flooding and storms has only brought the goals into even more sharp focus - ensuring that COP is deeply important to many communities across the world.

It has become increasingly accepted that human activities are contributing to increasing global temperatures. A report from the UN Intergovernmental panel on climate change earlier this year made an explicit and urgent appeal to policymakers. It called for concerted and comprehensive action due to climate change becoming widespread and intensifying.

Whilst the order of play for COP26 is subject to change, it is expected that the first days of the conference will be dominated by speeches and political commitments from the 120 heads of state there. They will all attempt to demonstrate their respective nation’s desire to take swift and decisive action to avert a global crisis.

Following commitments from global leaders ranging from Joe Biden and Nicola Sturgeon to Boris Johnson and David Attenborough, ministerial officials are sitting down for days of negotiations, discussions and panels to outline, debate and agree initiatives to solve the climate crisis. The majority of these discussions have been months in the making, with proposals and policy papers prepared in advance by the United Nations and officials from across the globe.

Following the outcome of these forums, events and negotiations, a unilateral document will be produced, with all participating members of the conference of parties expected to agree. Climate change advocates and organisations expect this document to have ambitious and bold aims. They will not just want to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement, but ensure that countries go ‘over and above’ in reducing climate emissions. However, sceptics would view this as unlikely.

Under the Paris Agreement, each nation is expected to outline and update their own climate action plans, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Critics of the global political response to the climate crisis have highlighted the lenience of these NDCs, which allow countries to set their own parameters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

With this criticism in mind, it wouldn’t be too far-reaching to expect more robust objectives outlined at COP26 which will firmly target net zero carbon emissions and increase climate finance to help the global south - as well as policies to reduce global temperatures.

Due to the sheer scale and scope of the summit and the subsequent climate action agreements, COP 26 will become a key public affairs talking point for months and years to come. During the event itself and in the short and long term afterwards, there will be plenty of opportunities for PR professionals to ensure their clients appear as industry experts on key related topics. With the sustainability sector only set to grow, establishing yourself or your clients as key commentators will be crucial to capitalising on the green potential of our future economy.

Written by Hamish Campbell-Shore, public affairs lead and senior account executive at The PHA Group