Inclusive negotiations: are hybrid meetings the answer?

As the organisers of COP26 face the complex challenges of getting 10-20,000 delegates to Glasgow for in-person negotiations during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, what are the pros and cons of hybrid formats for making negotiations more inclusive?

Anna Schulz is head of global climate law policy and governance and Binyam Gebreyes is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group

Man wearing a mask is sat at a table with a microphones, and looks at notes.

COP26 president Alok Sharma (Photo: Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

COP26 president Alok Sharma has reiterated that this should be the most inclusive COP ever and that achieving this requires negotiations to take place in person. However, a ‘physical’ COP will not guarantee inclusivity; nor will it ensure an outcome that reflects the needs and priorities of the least developed countries (LDCs) or Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

Hybrid meetings – like the July Ministerial convened by the United Kingdom – are becoming increasingly common both within and without the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process. But other meetings, such as Pre-COP26 Milan in Italy at the end of September, have been for in-person delegates only.

Each type of meeting poses its own challenges to inclusiveness. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, suspending climate negotiations until all delegates can meet in person is not an option. So exploring how to maximise inclusivity is crucial, particularly for the countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Inequitable access

In this world of unequal access to vaccines, rapidly emerging variants and uneven pandemic peaks, travel is a challenge for all.

Country trajectories and case rates also vary significantly, and new variants or policy change can quickly reverse fortunes, even in countries that seemingly have cases under control. Under such circumstances, the ability to convene in person negotiations remains tenuous.

But the impacts of COVID-19 do not land equally on all delegations travelling to climate ministerials and COP. Those from developing countries – particularly the poorest and most vulnerable – tend to be disproportionately affected.

For example, delegates from countries with less access to vaccines are often subject to much stricter quarantine requirements, as with the Indian delegation to the G7 preparatory meetings in May. For some delegates, in-person negotiations also pose little personal risk; for others, participating in the COP poses a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

A logistical nightmare

While in-person meetings are undoubtedly the gold standard for participation, COVID-19 has made it an event organisers’ nightmare.

Managing social distancing in a plenary setting might seem straightforward, but corridor chats are difficult to predict. Huddles and corridor talks have been the best tool for negotiators to reach compromise and consensus.

Conversations around lunch at the July Ministerial, for example, helped shape the good outcome of that meeting. Non-verbal communications add major value to negotiations, and the ability to have face-to-face conversations without technology disrupting ideas is a distinct advantage.

Delegates at the July Ministerial who attended in person had to take and report the results of a daily COVID-19 lateral flow test, a trust-based system for detecting COVID-19 cases. But, relying as it does on accurate and honest test result reporting, this is not a foolproof system.

Are hybrid meetings the solution?

The hybrid July Ministerial allowed some negotiators to participate virtually, increasing the number of delegations bringing their voices to the table. This was particularly important for LDCs and SIDS, as many of their delegates faced insurmountable challenges in travelling to London for the meeting.

If carefully thought out, hybrid meetings can increase participation in a world that is not experiencing the impacts of the pandemic evenly. But without good planning, they can further marginalise vulnerable people.

It is vital, therefore, that organisers consider the best formats to use to avoid repeating what happened in previous negotiations, when so many people joined virtually that they maxed out the available bandwidth and caused entire sessions to crash.

Organising a hybrid meeting takes more time, not less, as organisers must make sure the virtual platforms are functional. But concerns that offering a hybrid modality will discourage delegates from attending in person mean that the tendency to date has been to convert in-person meetings to hybrid ones at the last minute when high-profile delegates are unable to attend.

Designing hybrid approaches early will help vulnerable voices participate in events they cannot physically attend.

Organisers must also consider the disadvantages of being a virtual delegate at a hybrid meeting. For example, those based in developing countries with unequal access to telecommunications technologies may struggle to participate, while the timing of meetings – which tend to convene during the host country’s business hours – means that virtual delegates often have to work unsociable hours.

Although hybrid meetings have their disadvantages, they offer a way to support participation by delegates who would otherwise be unable to attend – whether due to travel restrictions, quarantine rules or competing government duties.

But organisers must carefully consider participants’ needs, pay close attention to design, and use advanced planning to ensure virtual delegates do not feel like second-class citizens.

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