As I geared up to leave for Glasgow and the 2021 U.N. Climate Conference, known as the COP ("Conference of the Parties"), a veteran of past meetings schooled me on basic COP math: 20,000 individuals throughout the world had been granted delegate credentials, but only 8,000 would be given access to the Scottish Event Center on any given day.
20,000? 8,000? The numbers told me the first thing I needed to know about this much-anticipated meeting, the first five-year check-in after Paris: even in the face of a resurgent pandemic, I would be in the company of lots and lots of other people. After a year's delay following the cancellation of the 2020 COP, also because of the pandemic, few would feel comfortable staying away.
So it didn't matter how jet-lagged I was. On the Monday of my week at the conference, I would be well advised to rise at 5 a.m., self-administer a COVID test at the kitchen table of my Airbnb flat, and make my way down the dark barricaded street, past the jersey barriers, past the singing demonstrators, past the ranks of quite relaxed police, to claim an early spot in the queue of delegates awaiting their credentials.
Once inside, the sheer scale of the event overwhelmed the senses. The COP at its core is a political negotiation over emissions, but it is also an anguished protest, a heated policy debate, a technology exhibition, a summit on climate finance, and a place where one-on-one business deals get done. It is organized, but only to a point. In Glasgow the posted schedule was incomplete, the signage was bad, the building was a labyrinth, and the clamor was unremitting. It was hard to talk and hard to hear.
I had chosen to attend not the first week, marked by ceremonial events and the appearances of top dignitaries, but the second week, often seen as the get-down-to-work week.
For delegates like me, there was a good deal of work to get down to. Big breakthroughs on the nation-to-nation level weren't going to be easy, so government officials at other levels had to meet and move forward on their own. At a panel discussion I attended in Glasgow, a veteran of earlier meetings exulted, "This is the first COP where business, cities, states and regions have all come together."
Much of the coming together focused on reducing emissions in transportation and buildings, both Massachusetts priorities. On the day at the COP devoted to "Transport," 40 subnational governments -- cities, states and regions -- joined 37 mostly small countries, 11 automakers, 27 large fleet owners, and 32 other organizations to commit to selling only electric and green hydrogen cars by 2035 in leading markets like the U.S. California, New York, and Washington state were among the 40 subnational signatories, but Massachusetts wasn't, despite statements by the Baker administration along similar lines and despite its having representatives at the COP. Disappointing. We should pass a law to have Massachusetts join up.
Something to add to my to-do list.
On the day at the COP given over to "Cities, Regions, and the Built Environment," I heard in-depth discussions of the under-addressed issue of "embodied carbon," defined as the emissions generated in the manufacturing and transporting of building materials and in the actual construction of buildings. Speakers called for a "whole life-cycle" approach to carbon reduction, one that addresses the heating of buildings but also the ubiquity of fossil fuels before the heat ever gets turned on.
So, something else for the to-do list.
Apart from the subnational activity that occupied me, I was deeply interested in the top-level negotiations, the realm of John Kerry and his diplomatic counterparts from other countries. But here my expectations were modest. As a working politician, I was not optimistic about the odds of 197 nations getting past the single most glaring flaw in COP procedure, under-played in the media coverage: the requirement that each decision be approved by unanimous consent.
Anyone with experience in legislating -- whether in town meeting, city council, state government, or the U.S. Congress -- will tell you that gaining unanimity is daunting almost to the point of impossibility, and more so as the subject matter gets complicated.
Imagine a negotiation game featuring 197 separate players, each of whom holds an absolute veto, a Joe Manchin card.
Maybe this is why the issues taken up by the top-level diplomats in Glasgow turned on neither the nuts and bolts of reducing emissions in specific sectors nor the complex phrasing typical of legal writing. With so many countries in the room, going deep was not an option.
Rather, the planet's high-stakes deliberations on climate change turned -- and almost cratered -- on word choices almost anyone could understand.
Take paragraph 37 of the original document that a drafting committee laid before negotiators at the start of the COP. Straightforwardly, it called upon the Parties "to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels."
Coal is the most polluting of fossil fuels and thus an asset that nations must begin to "strand" (keep in the ground) if carbon emissions are to be contained. But coal is also an electricity generating mainstay, not only of U.S. adversaries such as China but of U.S. allies such as India, Australia, and South Africa. Even though final agreements forged at the 24 previous COPs had called repeatedly for reductions in greenhouse gases, none had named either "coal" in particular or "fossil fuels" in general as root causes. So, as non-time-specific as the paragraph 37 draft was, it broke new ground.
Coal-producing countries took note. Over the course of the two weeks in Glasgow, they used the unanimity requirement to insist that the new ground assume a different look. On the morning of the Friday of the second week, originally set as the concluding day of the conference, a revised agreement emerged from closed-door negotiations.
In the revision, the decree against "coal" had been cut back to "unabated coal," an explicit concession to the possibilities of abatement technologies such as carbon capture and storage. And the dictate against "subsidies for fossil fuels" now applied only to "inefficient" subsidies for fossil fuels, weaker phrasing borrowed from other contested international meetings.
That was not the end of it. Early Saturday morning, after I and many others had departed the COP for our travels home, negotiators issued a final final agreement. It reflected the results of a last-minute showdown initiated by India and backed by other coal producers left unidentified. Now the nations of the world could no longer agree to a "phase-out" of unabated coal and inefficient subsidies. Instead, the strongest noun that unanimity could abide was the inexact and mystifying "phase-down."
So the concluding statement, in renumbered paragraph 36, called for "accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies." And with that, COP26 closed its doors.
With respect to the conference as a whole, the headline was that participating nations had not yet come to consensus in favor of getting emissions down to 1.5 º C above pre-industrial levels. Deadly serious unfinished business, to be sure. But my personal takeaway? The unanimity rule notwithstanding, the delegates to the COP know the stakes and know the clock is ticking. They've returned from Glasgow to their homes, all around the world, determined to see change happen faster, beginning in their neighborhoods, towns and cities, and scaling up from there. I'm one of them, and I hope you will join me. The job will get done because it must get done, and all of us need to take part in the doing.