The crying game (or down but not out)
The final plenary session and ‘decision time’ at COP started at 19.23 on Saturday evening. Thirteen minutes later according to Reuters “COP26 President Alok Sharma looked like he was about to cry. India's environment minister Bhupender Yadav interrupted the adoption process for the Glasgow pact before it had barely begun, proposing new language in the deal that would request governments "phase down" coal use, rather than "phase it out". Several countries expressed disappointment but said they would still support the deal to ensure the negotiations did not collapse in failure.
Now we’re not party to all of the behind the scenes political manoeuvrings as to how these events came to be – there were issues raised publicly around developing world funding – we don’t know the degree to which these were addressed through the 2 week COP period. To coin a well-known phrase, we need to address the elephant in the corner of the room, and maybe this didn’t happen.
What the general public were treated to, was the public spectacle they saw play out and most will make their minds up on this basis. To this end, late demands are a common tactic in multi-lateral negotiations. There are risks however to this approach, and these need to objectively assessed before we pursue these tactics.
Things to consider include:
How consistent is this with our earlier behaviour?
Have the other parties psychologically bought into the main construct of an agreement already?
How important is an agreement for them/us in the new format, in comparison to no deal at all?
What impact (political/social/economic) will time have on my position – in a day, a month or years into the future.
For me, one of the biggest issues to address is: what if the other side just says ‘no’? Where do I go from here? Do I stick with my position and become the ‘pariah’ of the group, labelled as being potentially untrustworthy or, possibly even worse, do I back down and are then forever labelled as having questionable integrity? This is why it’s so important to consider these issues in your planning, up front.
If you’re on the receiving end of late demands, arguably the worst thing you can do is just unilaterally concede – it just teaches the other side that this perceived ‘competitive’ behaviour works, and they’ll then do it again because they know it will get a result. Alternatively, have something to trade with, keep your options open and your flexibility intact.
If I was the host of the next COP summit, I would also be developing a playbook, analysing and profiling the behaviour, movement, and timings of certain parties from this COP, so as to devise strategies and tactics for the next one...
I don’t know for sure why Alok Sharma was crying – maybe it was the frustration of it all, or maybe he was genuinely upset at not achieving the outcome the majority wanted. There’s a school of thought which suggests that emotion should be stripped out of negotiations (not our philosophy). As a result of his show of emotions in these dealings, it's reported in some circles that his personal reputation has been enhanced and that he’s likely to land a new cabinet job.
It indicates to me that there is a time and a place to express ‘appropriate’ emotions in all of our engagements with others.
Sam Macbeth, 15th November 2021