What happens in between COPs?

by Vincent Diringer

While the world’s attention is focused on the yearly Conference of Parties (COP) and the resolutions they generate over the course of the two-week summit, there are another fifty weeks in the year that see action. The decisions taken at COP are the result of lengthy negotiations and analysis that start well before the sound-proof conversation rooms of the Blue Zone, and continue long after the convention halls are emptied [1, 2, 3]. 

Year-Round Talks

First and foremost, the period in between COPs represents the time for nations to work towards the goals they’ve set for themselves. These can be medium to long-term goals like those set out by COP21, where global governments all agreed to drastically reduce carbon emissions and reach certain benchmarks by key dates [2, 3]. They can also be more short-term, like a decision made at COP25 to make progress towards finding a solution for carbon markets prior to the start of COP26 [4]. Some agreements or goals can be more tangible than others, but these targets dictate the direction in which global development is moving. 

While countries seek to find ways to reach their own targets and work with each other to meet larger goals, there are opportunities for collaboration in between COPs through a range of international conferences and meetings. These include dialogues and events hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or its subsidiaries, the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) [2, 5].

Held jointly twice a year, the SBI conference assesses and reviews how COP targets have been implemented, while the SBSTA provides support for a range of intergovernmental agreements, including COP, the Kyoto Protocol (CMP) and the Paris Agreement (CMA) [2, 5]. Meanwhile, the UNFCCC also holds events such as the Climate Change Dialogues in advance of COP which feature informal discussions between various stakeholders in a more relaxed setting prior to looming official negotiations [5, 6].

Flexible Planning

Discussions on targets and goals aren’t limited to COP or UN events. Bilateral and multilateral meetings between governments and other stakeholders take place throughout the year, but while these are not always related to what has been agreed to at COP, they provide another opportunity to cooperate on projects or policy [3]. However, as UN Secretary General, António Guterres, pointed out in a February address, “the stakes are too high” to limit negotiations and discussions to physical meetings – especially in the midst of a global pandemic that limits travel and face-to-face interactions [4]. 

Virtual meetings in advance of COP26 are being suggested as a way to ensure the continuity of talks and ability for nations to further work towards global targets in advance of the conference in Glasgow [4]. The international summit itself is also something that is planned meticulously in between each COP. While governments implement policies, regulatory bodies monitor progress, and stakeholders research sustainable solutions, the host nation for the upcoming COP is also organizing every aspect of the conference. 

There is usually only one year of preparation available to a host country following the announcement of its successful nomination. This time is spent organizing every detail of accomodation, security, transportation, exhibitions and a range of other facets of the event itself [7]. Necessitating cooperation between different government departments, the UNFCCC and various suppliers, as well as effective communication with international delegations regarding planning and administration, it is deemed to be a Herculean challenge [7]. With the notable exception of COP26’s delay as a result of COVID-19, every COP has successfully been held on time.


[1] UNFCCC, Bodies: Conference of the Parties. Available at https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop, (accessed 12/02/21) 
[2] UNFCCC, Processes & Meetings. Available at https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings#:606038e4-000c-47ee-8c49-4f590df37224, (accessed 12/02/21)
[3] Fiona Harvey (2019), Climate Crisis: What is COP and can it save the world?, The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/dec/02/climate-crisis-what-is-cop-and-can-it-save-the-world, (accessed 12/02/21) 
[4] Fiona Harvey (2021), UN chief urges leaders to start COP26 climate negotiations online, The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/08/un-chief-urges-leaders-start-cop26-climate-negotiations-online-covid, (accessed 12/02/21) 
[5] IISD, UNFCCC Climate Change Dialogues, November/December 2020 (Climate Dialogues). Available at https://sdg.iisd.org/events/unfccc-climate-change-dialogues-novemberdecember-2020-climate-dialogues/, (accessed 12/02/21) 
[6] UNFCCC, UN Climate Change Dialogues 2020 (Climate Dialogues). Available at https://unfccc.int/event/un-climate-change-dialogues-2020-climate-dialogues,  (accessed 12/02/21) 
[7] UNFCCC, How to COP: A Handbook for Hosting United Nations Climate Conferences. Available at https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/publications/how_to_cop_unfccc.pdf, (accessed 12/02/21)
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