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Episode 201: The Importance of COP with Chief of Staff for the UK COP26 Presidency, Virginia Sentance
Today's guest is Virginia Sentance, Chief of Staff for the UK COP26 Presidency. The outcome of COP26 – the Glasgow Climate Pact – is the fruit of intense negotiations among almost 200 countries over the two weeks, strenuous formal and informal work over many months, and constant engagement both in-person and virtually for nearly two years. In partnership with Italy, the UK holds the Presidency until COP27, which Egypt will host later this year.
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Can you talk a bit about what COP is and your role at COP?
To put it very simply, COP is the UN's annual climate change meeting. So every year, 197 parties as we refer to them, but effectively countries come together to talk about climate change. It's two weeks of really intensive meetings, negotiations, as well as a whole series of discussions in the run up year. So I'm sure many of your listeners will have heard of the Paris Agreement. At COP21, Paris held the COP that year, and for the first time ever, countries agree to work together to limit global warming to well below two degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees Celsius. That said there's a whole series of different elements that make up the Paris Agreement. But that was a really, really important moment.
So COPs are basically the meeting that allows us to implement these climate change commitments. That's the kind of simple way of looking at it, but in reality, I think what a COP is, is this really, really crucial mechanism that actually keeps the momentum going on climate action. So that rhythm every year means that countries come together and they talk and they make stuff happen, but it's also a way to really hold countries to account. And as the system is developing, we're including more and more non-state actions, like businesses, regions, cities. It's a key thing is about holding them accountable for these commitments.
It's also a really inclusive space, so one of the unique things about a COP and the UN system is that Fiji for example, has much of a voice as France in the room. It's inclusive and brings people into the room. And lastly, whilst is a very political system, one of the key things is that it's always embedded in the science behind climate change. So it's a really important bit. COP26 was a really key COP because it was five COPs on from the Paris Agreement. It's supposed to be five years on, but unfortunately, because of the pandemic, we had to postpone it by a year. So five years on from the Paris Agreement, countries have made the commitment that they would come forward with their emissions reductions targets.
There's a lot of painful techy language that comes with us. So they're referred to as nationally determined contributions, but in effect, they're five-year emissions reductions targets, and countries said they will come forward with those at COP26. So the scale of COPs is just unbelievable. It's something I've been to a few before, but it's something I couldn't comprehend. So my role as chief of staff is to coordinate the priorities of the COP presidency to make everything work effectively and to ensure that we have a successful COP, across a huge number of areas.
So our overarching strategy is to have the chance to host the COP and a really great responsibility. So what do we actually want to do to drive the climate action? What do we want to prioritize? What do we really think are the things that can actually make a big enough change? So then a sort of major thing is the implementation. What's our diplomatic strategy in the midst of a pandemic? How do we bring people into the room who are experiencing climate change in the midst of a pandemic? And then actually the strategy for the event itself, it's two weeks of complex and technical negotiations, but it's also a way of putting pressure on countries.
We put world leaders in the hot seats and had some really amazing voices in the room like David Attenborough, who can talk about his experiences of visiting these incredible places in the world and the impacts of nature. And also making sure that people who have actually felt the impact of climate change can be part of that discussion.
Another key element we wrangled with for a long time is how do you actually hold a COP, physically? So a COP has never been held virtually, and we really knew that if you want to make a dent on action and hear from those genuinely impacted by climate change, you have to get everybody in the room.
For our COP, it was 40,000 people and a bespoke vaccination scheme to make sure that anyone that wanted a vaccination could actually come into the country safely. We deployed about 800,000 COVID tests, I think it was, in the end, all for free to make sure it's a safe event. And now we've held COP26, it's all about what do we want that legacy to be? How do you want to actually deliver on all the commitments made at the COP? So as you can see, it's a big space, really broad, and it's been a pretty tough journey, I'd say. Definitely not laid out in a neat order as perhaps I've described, and a huge team that sits behind it. But my job was ultimately to bring all of those pieces together, and the team together to make sure COP actually happened successfully.
When you say bid to host the COP26, how does that bidding process work, and then who actually makes the selections on who gets to host? Why might a country want to host in the first place?
A different country host every year. So within the UN world, the countries are split into five constituencies. So the UK is part of what's known as WEOG, another great acronym to come out of the UN system. So that stands for Western European and Others Group, which effectively involves Western Europe, the US, Canada, and a few others. So the process really depends on different constituencies. So for the WEOG Group, the agreement was done by consensus. We (The UK) said that we'd like to bid to host, and what you do is write to the UN and you say, "I'd like to bid to host COP26."
And then the WEOG representatives, all sit down and discuss, and Italy had also wanted to bid, and so we worked together to create a partnership for the UK. I think there were a couple of reasons that we wanted to bid to host. One of them is the foundation in the UK surrounding the importance of climate change. I'm relieved to say our beliefs are actually embedded in science right across the political spectrum, and broadly across the public. There really is that sense of urgency. There is a sense that this was the most important COP, five years on from the Paris Agreement.
Therefore that really, really mattered, and a country who can, who can really use the multi electrical system, use historical links to other countries, use positive relationships as much as possible, could be the right country to host in order to actually deliver that action. Because a lot of COP is in effect about talking to countries and persuading them about why climate change matters. Then on the other side, I think it's really important just for the recognition of the fact that the UK has a place in the world that we could really reinforce through hosting COP26.
It was a positive space that the UK could use those relationships internationally and fit within our wider foreign policy agenda. So this was the reasoning behind the UK. I can’t speak to Egypt’s reasoning as they’ll be holding COP27, and UAE will be holding COP28. So, it rotates around every year and that definitely plays into what a COP actually looks like.
When it comes to setting the agenda and defining the goals for a given COP, what does that process look like, and what types of stakeholders are involved in that process?
It's quite a multifaceted approach and process. So there is a whole set of mandatory work that happens at COP negotiations, and those are all flowing out of the Paris Agreement, and all of the sessions that have come out of that. But for us, as a presidency, what we wanted to say is what really matters, and what do we want to focus on? And for that, the goal of COP26 was that we have to keep 1.5 degrees alive. We just have to. That means introducing, implementing, and announcing the right policies that will limit that rise to global temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. So that implementation, those commitments, and all of that work spread right across the different elements of COP.
If that becomes the overarching theme of COP26, what about the actual goals of COP26 that will then drive to that? What are the goals of COP26 in order to help reinforce keeping 1.5 degrees alive?
There is no set way about approaching these things, and that's one of the great things we had about the presidency, is that we sit down regularly with the UNFCCC to talk about what we can do and how we can achieve it, and what the priorities are? That's also one of the interesting things, for example, about post COP26, is that we are working really closely with Egypt and with UNFFCCC still to play a leadership role, and still push that climate action.
So there isn't necessarily a set way, but there is a set of mandated agenda items that we're required to cover. Then what we did is look at the science, and we gathered together all the experts that we can find on climate change, we put together a group that we call the “Friends of COP” full of scientists, researchers, business leaders, academics, previous leaders of COPs. We put that together and we said, "Look, we know what the science says, what do you think we need to do?" And we pulled that into one space and that was still within this framework. They were thinking about the three pillars, the Paris Agreement implementing those.
And because of the flexibility we have, one of the things that we were able to do is think about how do we structure the COP itself, and choreograph it in order to land as many outcomes as possible that can genuinely have an impact on climate change.
For the first time ever at a COP, every single day was themed across the different area that could have a really genuine impact on climate change. So we had an energy day, a nature day, a transport day, a youth and empowerment day, science and innovation day, etc. And all of these different moments, what we did is create that political momentum and that political pressure, and use all the diplomatic networks to actually say, "This is what we think." And the science says, and all the experts say, "We'll actually have an impact on 1.5 degrees, and we as presidency want you to make this happen, and we want to bring you all together on this day at COP in order to make an impact in this area."
How do you know if you were to look down each of these areas coming out of COP26, whether you achieved what you set out to in each of these areas? What's does success look like, and how is that defined?
Ultimately, there is no sort of clear definition of what success looks like because we set ourselves the exam question of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. That's what we could really try and use to measure. There's ultimately a package of different elements that made up our COP. So before the Paris Agreement, for example, the scientists were saying that there's a chance the temperatures could actually rise to six degrees, which would obviously be completely devastating.
The pledges under the Paris Agreement put the world on track to about 2.7 to 3.7 degrees. And it's independent scientists that can help to say, "Did we make the right choices? Did we prioritize the right things? Did we push the right countries to come forward?" The climate action tracker is one of those, and their conclusion out of COP is that, if the commitments made at COP are implemented, then one, we will be kept to below two degrees at about 1.8 degrees. But the really key thing here is the “if they're implemented”. So we had, of course, based on analysis, a whole series analysis about what matters? Which businesses matter? Which kind of commitments do we want to get?
We had 65 countries that agreed to phase out carbon, and that included Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland, South Korea, it's like those are some pretty big hitters, and pretty big coal users. And so the analysis says that if they phase that out, that's a really good thing, but that “if” is really important thing. And that's one of the questions that I'm focusing on now, is yes, success in the analysis says that 1.5 degrees is still in reach, but the work isn't over at all. We now need to work really, really hard to figure out how to implement these commitments. And that's where the legacy of COP26 is a really important thing because we don't want to be in, a year's time, finding there has been no progress on those commitments at all.
One of the things that people talk about at the individual behavior change level is that people will act in their self-interest at the end of the day. If they can act in their self-interest and also act in a collective good then great, but if the collective good works against their personal self-interest, then it's a losing battle. I'm imagining that the same is true with countries. And you mentioned that part of the mandate at COP is to actually pressure countries, to get them to agree to bolder commitments. How does that manifest? Who is pressuring? Is it you that's pressuring the countries? Is it other countries that are pressuring each other? What is the, the strategy there and from whom, and how does that play out in practice?
It's complicated, which I feel like I'm starting all of my sentences with, it's definitely really complicated. This is where it gets really difficult because every single country has a different domestic situation, every single country's different. It almost feels like every solution has to be bespoke, but there are a couple of elements.
What are the frameworks and mechanisms that can be used globally to drive forward progress? So there's a series of existing mechanisms that are within the UNFCCC, and we, as the co-presidency, also established a number of effectively ministerial meetings that support that delivery.So you can share best practice, you can set standards, you can advise on regulations. A lot of these are quite technocratic to energy transition council, as that council, the different ministerial sessions that can provide support and those frameworks and mechanisms for making things happen.
But the second thing is about finance flowing. So there were some really positive commitments from COP about actually getting finance flowing to the transition, but how do we actually get that flowing? It's really important that those funds get moving, and this is where you end up in a lot of technical difficulties, about who's eligible, where's it going, and how you measure the success of the finance.
Without that finance, you obviously can't deliver some of the major projects that are needed, but it also can undermine some of the credibility to demonstrate that if a developed country makes a commitment on finance, a supported developing country's commitments, then that money will actually flow to help the transition. So getting that finance flowing is a really key thing.
And then as I mentioned about the climate action tracker, for example, there are different reports and analyses that we can use that can demonstrate that progress is being made, and in the government, there's a sort of political sphere that actually has a really, really big impact. They're globally recognized, their science-based reports, and they can really almost put a country on the spot and can help to reinforce whether something's moving forward and being implemented.
A key to this is it all has to be underpinned by political momentum. The COPs themselves are political momentum. So the fact that a COP is every year that drives that change. There's also a whole series of different moments through the year that we can use, and we hope that our allies can be used to drive some of that progression and implementation too. So for example, the G7 and G20 leader level meetings, the UN General Assembly that happens every year, Biden has brought back the Major Economies Forum, for example, all of those moments that can drive political momentum pushing countries to implement these changes, and hold them to account.
You mentioned that you're starting to not just get world leaders, but other key stakeholders involved from industry and scientists, and otherwise when it relates to industry. In particular, I can see it both ways in the sense that on the one hand, if industry is not represented, they swing a big bat and play an important role, and so it would be important to have representation, but I can't help, but also worry that that representation can manifest in just like army of lobbyists pushing an agenda that advocates in their own self-interest at the expense of the collective good. Is that tension real, and how do you balance that?
That tension is very real. So within the UN system, within UNFCCC system, there is a champion, Nigel Topping was the UK champion, and their role is to bring businesses into the climate action movement. Nigel has done an incredible job on this and set up bespoke schemes or frameworks as such to drive industry action in the right direction. So the race is zero, and the race to resilience is about mitigation, about adaptation. And those are again embedded in the science. I know I keep saying this, but by embedding everything in the science, what we can do is create that consensus around climate action. So there's an organization called Science Based Targets initiative that says, "For each industry, what does a good commitment look like from you?"
Ss a presidency, we were actually quite strict. We said that we would not welcome business leaders to our panels or to anything that involved COP26 branding unless they had set a science-based target. And that was a great thing. I think it really mobilized people because when a COP happens, it really is the place people want to be at. So a number of people want to join and be part of that conversation. But in order to make that conversation have meaning, we had to drive that action from every single person that was coming through the door. So by setting really high standards, we had a huge number of commitments. I mean, 90% of the world's GDP now has a net-zero commitment.
I think some of that comes down to the fact that there are these frameworks that businesses can say, "What does good actually look like?" I don't think we're past the stage in any way about getting this completely right. So in the same way, the issue with country commitments is the implementation. It's the exact same question now about businesses and industry, the implementation of those commitments. And so that's a really big priority that the champions under Nigel Topping, his team will take forward. But we do have to set these standards, and we have to draw a line somewhere and say that we can't just be subject to lobbying and interest groups, but we have to see something on the cards, on the table from them as well.
Looking forwards, what do you think that the next COP can do to build upon the progress and momentum that has been established to date, and by the same token, what do you worry about? Or what are some of the barriers that are inhibiting the next COP from being successful, or that might prove to be challenges that they need to figure out how to overcome?
It's definitely, it's not an easy task holding a COP. I can confirm from experience, it's really difficult. So Egypt and UAE have a difficult task ahead, but the most important thing that they need to do is remember this headline goal of urgently keeping 1.5 degrees alive. So what we did in the outcome note from COP26, referred to as the Glasgow Climate Pact, is speed up that pace of climate action to reflect that urgency. We had countries come forward with their commitments every year, instead of five years. So the priority has to be putting pressure on countries to revisit is the specific language, revisit their emissions, reduction targets and strengthen them if necessary.
That must be the priority for the Egyptian presidency, but equally the focus has to be on this implementation and delivery. And that's where we get into all those difficulties about how do you make sure the finance is flowing? How do you make sure the frameworks and mechanisms are in place to share the best practice, the political momentum, and actually the measuring the progress around using all this independent analysis. So I guess that's my objective for them, but also my worries are very similar is about actually translating commitments into implementation. And, of course, we are now once again in an extremely difficult circumstance.
So when we won the bid for COP26, it was only a few months later that the pandemic started, and we had to make the decision to postpone COP. Now Egypt is starting its presidency, and thinking about COP27. A lot of the world's eyes are rightly on the terrible situation happening in Ukraine. So again, it is a really tricky situation. The key thing is that climate change does not stop. And so climate action cannot stop either.
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