Climate summits are too big and key voices are being crowded out – here’s a better solution

Conference room at COP28
Conference room at COP28

Every year, the official UN climate summits are getting bigger. In 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow there were around 40,000 participants, COP27 in 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh had 50,000.

But this year blew all previous records out of the water. More than 97,000 participants had badges to attend COP28 in Dubai in person. This raises questions about who is attending COPs and what they are doing there, who gets their voices heard and, on a more practical note, how this affects the negotiations.

For those not familiar with the COP setup, there are two “worlds” that exist side by side. One is the negotiations, which are run under the UN’s climate change body the UNFCCC, and the other is a very long list of talks and social events. These take place in pavilion exhibition spaces and are open to anyone attending, in contrast to the negotiations which are often closed to the media and sometimes closed to observers.

There is a stark difference between these worlds, with pavilion spaces featuring elaborate and inviting settings, particularly if they are well funded, while negotiations often happen in windowless rooms.

A growing sense exists among those invested in the “traditional” side of the COPs that many delegates have no intention of observing the climate talks themselves, and instead spend their time networking in the pavilions.

Indigenous people visiting COP28 from Brazilian Amazon.
Indigenous people visiting COP28 from Brazilian Amazon.

In terms of who attends, at COP28 there were around 25,000 “party” (country) delegates, 27,000 “party overflow” delegates (usually guests, sponsors, or advisors), 900 UNFCCC secretariat members (who run the COPs), 600 “UN overflow”, and 1,350 from “specialised agencies” such as the World Health Organization or World Bank and their overflows. That makes up just under 55,000 or half of the attendees.

The rest are intergovernmental organisations (2,000), UN Global Climate Action award winners (600), host country guests (5,000), temporary passes (500 – many issued to big private companies), NGOs (14,000 – including one of us, as part of a university delegation), and media (4,000). This is according to the UNFCCC, which places the number of attendees closer to 80,000.

The “party overflow” badges are particularly concerning. The number of delegates connected to the oil and gas industries has quadrupled from last year to around 2,400, many of whom were invited as part of country delegations. As another example, meat industry representatives became part of Brazil’s delegation, while dairy associations organised official COP side events. In the official programme, the Energy and Industry, Just Transition, and Indigenous Peoples Day featured more events by industrial giant Siemens than by indigenous people.

Practically speaking, huge numbers cause problems – this year for example there were delayed meetings, long queues, and several negotiation rooms were beyond capacity with observers and even party delegates asked to limit their numbers and leave.

Even with access to an observer badge, there is little one can contribute to negotiations. The negotiating positions are decided long before the COPs begin, and observers are rarely permitted to speak in negotiations. In addition, a lot of the negotiations are either conducted behind closed doors (called “informal-informals” with no access for the UN or observers) or even in the corridors, where negotiators meet informally to cement positions. The negotiations you can (silently) observe are usually a series of prepared statements, rather than a discussion.

So if COPs are too big and bloated, what is the alternative?

Smaller and more online

One alternative is being a virtual delegate, which one of us tried. This year’s COP trialled live streams and recordings of some of the negotiations, side events and press conferences on an official UNFCCC virtual platform for the first time. The option is a long overdue, but welcome addition. It reduces travel emissions and makes it more accessible, for instance for people with caring responsibilities and others who are unable to travel (or perhaps who refuse to fly).

Some technical teething problems are to be expected. Yet when we queried why the virtual platform didn’t livestream many of the sessions, the COP28 support team pointed us to the official COP28 app. Our employer, the University of Bristol, had advised us not to download the app because of security concerns, which again raises serious issues around transparency and accountability in UNFCCC spaces, as well as freedom of speech and assembly in COP host countries.

Not being there in person also has downsides. As a virtual observer, it’s harder to judge the atmosphere in a negotiation room, to stumble upon and observe spontaneous negotiations happening in corridors, or participate in or observe protests. While indigenous voices were rarely heard in the livestreamed negotiations and events, the Indigenous People’s Pavilion offered a chance to hear them – but only if you were in Dubai. The virtual alternative is a good option to observe negotiations, but it means missing out on some of the civil society lifeblood of COP.

Another option is to limit access to COPs – for example, limiting the in-person negotiations only to the most vital participants. Party tickets could be limited, with lobbyists from fossil fuel industries tightly controlled and priority given to climate victims, indigenous communities and underrepresented countries. Side events and pavilions could take place a few months before the COPs, increasing the chances of influencing negotiations, since positions are cemented early. There is no reason these only need to happen in one place once a year, there could be regional meetups in between, allowing for formal contact more often.

These issues of access, transparency and influence have serious implications on negotiation outcomes and climate action. After undergoing various draft iterations that offered options ranging from “no text” to “phasing out” or “down” fossil fuels, this year’s final agreement does not include a commitment to phasing out. This watered-down agreement reflects the inability of indigenous peoples and the most climate vulnerable countries to meaningfully participate in the negotiations – future COPs must trim down to make their voices heard.


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members, Drs Alix Dietzel, Senior Lecturer in Climate Justice, University of Bristol and Katharina Richter, Lecturer in Climate Change, Politics and Society, University of Bristol.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Katharina Richter
Dr Katharina Richter
Dr Alix Dietzel
Dr Alix Dietzel

What happens when you let PhD students and post-docs organise a meeting?

As plant science PhD students, we feel it is vital to share our research with other scientists to generate new ideas for collaborative projects. For this reason we decided to organise the ‘Innovations in Plant Science to Feed a Changing World’ workshop, which was held in the University of Bristol Biological Sciences department in February 2017. The delegates included early-career scientists from Kyoto University, Heidelberg University and of course the University of Bristol.

Figure 1. The Conference Poster

The University of Bristol has a long-standing partnership with Kyoto University and more recently, Heidelberg University, as our plant science groups share overlapping research areas. The main aim of the workshop was to encourage novel collaboration opportunities between the plant science groups, which would give rise to future projects, publications and ultimately funding.

Last year, Kyoto University hosted a highly engaging and productive workshop (see Sarah Jose’s blog post last year) for early-career scientists from the three universities in this coalition. Following from the success of this workshop, we decided to organise the second workshop, where participants could build upon the partnerships forged at the last meeting, form new links and present their results in a friendly environment. So, for the past six months, a team of PhD students and post-docs has been busy organising the meeting that took place in February.

As it turns out, organizing a three-day conference, even a relatively small one, is quite a lot of work. Getting venues, transfers, catering, accommodation and social activities booked all presented their own particular challenges. However, perhaps the most challenging task was designing the program for the workshop, which was set out into different themes to encompass the participants’ different subject areas.

All the organisation paid off when the visitors arrived, slightly (very) jet lagged from their long flights. Once the workshop had started, we were delighted with how smoothly the sessions ran and how engaging the talks were. Following the talks there were many discussions over coffee, during the poster session and break-out session. We also included a careers talk from Prof Tokitaka Oyama from Kyoto University, who shared his insights on how to succeed as a plant scientist. Another highlight was the keynote talk from Professor Keith Lindsey (University of Durham), who shared his fascinating work on modeling plant developmental biology.

In amongst all the science, we had time for an excursion to the University of Bristol Botanical Gardens where Nick Wray gave a fascinating tour, which was very enjoyable. We also visited the Wills memorial building tower and even had a go at ringing the bell!

Figure 2. Nick Wray (far right) led a fascinating tour of the University’s Botanic Garden for the visitors.

Although organising the workshop was a lot of work, it was definitely worth it. Our organisation, leadership and project management skills were trained and tested in the run-up to the workshop, but in the end, it went very well indeed. All the delegates thoroughly enjoyed their participation and a comment that was heard a few times was that delegates were impressed, not just with the quality of the science being presented, but also the quality of the scientific discussion particularly given that English was not the first language for the majority of the participants.

We hope that the links formed at the workshop will continue to develop into novel collaborative projects. – I (Donald) definitely benefited as the post-doc Massaki Okada even stayed on a few days to teach me some techniques.

We would like to thank our funders, the Bristol Centre for Agricultural Innovation and the New Phytologist Trust for their support. We’d also like to thank the other members of the organising committee whose hard work made this workshop so successful: Fiona Belbin, Deirdre McLachlan, Tsuyoshi Aoyama and Antony Dodd.

Figure 3. Group Photo

Blog post by Donald Fraser & Katie Tomlinson

Geology for Global Development: 4th Annual Conference

Sustainable mining, solar energy, seismic risk; the 4th Geology for Global Development Conference held at the Geological Society in London had it all.  Geology for Global Development is a charity set up to with the aim of relieving poverty through the power of geology. The charity is chasing the UN’s sustainable developing goals by inspiring a generation of young geologists to use their training as a tool for positive global change.

Figure 1. The UN’s sustainable Development goals (source:
The charity is closely linked to several universities meaning the one-day event was awash with bright ideas from young geologists from every corner of the UK. Add to the mix experts in policy and communication including BBC presenter and academic Professor Iain Stewart and you have the recipe for a fascinating day.
Figure 2: GFGD founder Dr Joel Gill gives the opening address on Geology and the sustainable development goals
The programme was impressively diverse, jumping effortlessly from panel discussions on mining and sustainability to group discussions on exploring best practice. There were so many important messages I couldn’t regurgitate everything into a short blog, so I’ve made a super-summary of my favourite points:

Trade not Aid

This topic surfaced several times, and it’s something that I felt reflected the changing attitudes of many NGOs discussed on the day. It was mentioned by The Geological Society’s Nic Bilham in his opening remarks and raised in the groups discussions on best practice. In these discussions, ‘Scene’ Co-director Vijay Bhopal, related his experiences of delivering solar power supply to off-grid Indian villages. He emphasised the necessity to sell the solar technologies to those who need it, even if it is heavily subsidised, as opposed to gifting it. The only way to ensure longevity of solar powered systems was to build a market from the bottom up, he said, training technicians and providing a platform to sell and replace broken parts.  I this capacity, I felt geology has much to offer, developing industry in areas where help is needed is a more effective and sustainable way to provide aid- whether it be by sustainable mining, maintaining boreholes or lighting villages.

The opportunities are out there

The day wasn’t just about discussion, it was about getting involved. Representatives came from all over the country to encourage young geologists to sign up to schemes and events. Here’s a summary of just a few of the opportunities mentioned, along with the people in charge (more information can be found on the GfGd website):

Hazard communication and Geologists: a help or hindrance?

This topic was addressed by Professor Stewart in his keynote on the ethics of seismic risk communication. His core theme addressed the role geologist should play in saving lives in the event of a natural hazard. He used the example of his work in Istanbul, where a large and devastating earthquake is geologically likely in the future. He explored the role of the psyche in resident’s attitudes to the seismic risk they face. In many areas of high-risk, the picture is a complex one and the situation is often politically charged. In the case of Istanbul, the demolition of ‘dangerous’ buildings in high-risk areas was negated by the construction of reportedly unaffordable, earthquake-proof housing. Many residents believed that seismic risk was being used as a political tool to remove them from their neighbourhoods.

So where, asked Stewart, should the geologist slot into the picture? Are they only responsible for reporting the scientific information and exempt from decision-making and education? Or should they shoulder a sense of responsibility to ensure their results reach the people at risk? Should they help by educating about risk or is this really just a hindrance to those involved? In Stewart’s eyes, the geologist has an important part to play, but she must be appropriately trained in the method and timing of communication in order to be most successful. Hopefully, this is something GFGD may address in its capacity to inspire and influence a new generation of geologists.

Here my far-from-exhaustive summary ends. To finish would like to thoroughly encourage any geologists (or geologists-in-training) to get involved with GFGD. It was a really insightful day organised by a very deserving charity.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.