Waves of excitement and a week of fried food

Waves of excitement and a week of fried food

UM-researcher is observer at COP26


Overwhelming, that is the word that comes to her mind when Laura von Allwörden, PhD student at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, describes the COP26 that ended last week. As part of her research, she could visit the climate conference as an observer.

Von Allwörden, who works at the department of political science, is looking at how the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat responses to crises. “For instance; what did they do after the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement under then President Trump? What was happening behind the scenes?”

Organising negotiation sessions like the Conference of the Parties (COP) are a major part of the work of UNFCCC. Although Von Allwörden had heard a lot about it during her interviews with UNFCCC staff, COP negotiators and observers in 2020 and the spring of 2021, this was her first chance to visit this kind of conference herself. Some of the incidents her research explores, took place at a COP, so she jumped on the opportunity to experience it for herself. “I felt like I still had no idea what it was. I wanted to experience it, to understand it.”


She arrives in the second week of the conference in Glasgow. “It was super overwhelming. It is probably different if you go as a team, but although I was there as part of a delegation, I would visit the conference alone. The Scottish Event Campus is a huge venue. There are signs directing you to different areas, but as an outsider I didn’t always know what they meant. Then there are all the different events: meetings, plenary sessions, talks, lectures. There are three different websites with information on it, but no overview of what my observer-badge would give me access to. I would just go and try. You have to learn by doing.”

Four security checks

COP26 has been criticized for its lack of accessibility and transparency for observers, something that Von Allwörden experienced as well. “First of all, the people that come there are all part of the elite. They have to be, in order to be able to afford the plane tickets, accommodation, the testing for COVID-19, etc. Rich countries can send big delegations, poorer countries only two people.” Then there were the security checks, four in total. “It would take me two hours every day to get from Edinburgh to Glasgow and through the checks to actually be in the venue.”

Due to COVID-regulations, the amount of people per room was limited. “This meant there was sometimes no room for observers. One time I had been waiting in a room for a meeting to start. A parallel meeting went overtime, party delegates still needed to come in 45 minutes after the actual scheduled time, so I was asked to leave as the room was becoming too crowded.” The possibilities to follow events online are limited. “Often you could only watch them at the time they were happening, not afterwards.”


One thing her interviewees talked about during the interviews last year was ‘momentum’. “They need to keep this going. Within the community climate change action is the norm, but for countries to actually implement the ideas, there needs to be a constant force behind it, there needs to be momentum. Something that activates and involves people, that makes them excited to take action.”

Von Allwörden could feel it herself at the pavilions. “Countries have booths there, where they organize talks and other events. They showcase their best practices. It’s a crazy place, it goes on different floor levels, there is so much going on. On one day, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had just given a talk in the US booth and was now walking away, surrounded by security. You could just feel the wave she created. The same happened when Barack Obama arrived. People were still queuing up when he was already inside and had started his speech. These famous, powerful people create and strengthen the momentum. It is astonishing to see the impact their presence has. Makes you think about power really.”

Lots of coffee

This side of COP26 may look very glamourous: the superstars, the important people in fancy clothes, the beautifully designed pavilions with lots of greenery around them. But Von Allwörden knows there is another side. “In some areas you could smell the grease from fried food. And you could see most of the people were consuming fries, many of them negotiators. They need the quick energy before returning to their meetings, I guess. There is lots of coffee and very little sleep. You see some people sleeping in the corridors. There is nothing shiny about that.”

Von Allwörden will add her field journal to her research, that she expects to finish in 2023.

Author: Cleo Freriks

Photo: archive Laura von Allwörden

Tags: cop26,climate change,un,unfccc,research,fasos,politicalsciences

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