What it’s like negotiating at COP26 as a small island state

After a tough two weeks at the Glasgow summit, climate negotiators from small island nations reflect on their experiences.

Environment 13 November 2021

A delegate from the Marshall Islands at the COP26 summit on Thursday.

A delegate from the Marshall Islands at the COP26 summit on Thursday.

Alastair Grant/AP/Shutterstock

Climate summits are long, complex and emotionally taxing. But for negotiators hailing from the island states facing the worst impacts of climate change right now, these talks are critical to the daily lives of everyone they love.

“It’s two weeks away from your family, from your friends, eating very bad food and not sleeping,” says Kristin Qui, a negotiator for Trinidad and Tobago, on the final Friday of negotiations at the COP26 climate summit.

On Thursday she started work at 8am and finished negotiations at 10pm. “That was an early finish,” she says. For the last two weeks she says she has averaged about six hours of sleep.

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Qui is negotiating on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States coalition (Aosis) at the COP26 climate summit. It is a coalition of 39 countries – largely from the Caribbean and South Pacific, including Jamaica, Cuba, Fiji and Antigua and Barbuda.

“We are a group of very small countries that don’t have a significant amount of political leverage,” says Frances Fuller, a negotiator for Antigua and Barbuda. “But we have strength in numbers and the moral high ground – though that’s sometimes not enough to move the needle.”

“Negotiations are not only physically exhausting but emotionally exhausting too,” says Qui. “But you have to compartmentalise because if you engage with that exhaustion your body is going to be like – I can’t do this anymore.”

Climate negotiations comprise both public meetings and private talks. In public meetings, countries say which parts of the proposed climate deal they do and don’t like. “It’s where the theatrics happen,” Qui says.

Meanwhile smaller, closed-door meetings revolve around specific topics such as climate finance and emission pledges and are moderated by facilitators. Qui for example has spent the summit negotiating Article 6 of the Paris Agreement which details how carbon markets will work.

“But the real discussions happen in informal meetings where there are no facilitators,” she says.

These often happen late at night, says Qui. Fuller says that on Thursday night she had to search out a South African negotiator through the conference centre so they could have one final discussion about emission-cutting measures.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric from leaders about the importance of 1.5 degrees and the importance of science,” says Fuller. “But then when you get down to some of the technical discussions… there are other parties in the room that just want to erase any references to any foundation of real science.”

It takes effort to stay calm. “Here I have a job to do and if I were to go into hysterics right now – nobody would listen to me,” she says.  Back at home however, she says, this is harder to do. “When you see that not enough is being done – you can’t compartmentalise,” she says.

Pearnel P Charles Junior is Jamaica’s environment minister and one of the co-facilitators of the negotiations. Much like Qui and Fuller, he says he has a job to do. “I don’t have time to be worried about who doesn’t get it [the severity of climate change],” he says. “I have to be concentrating and ensuring they get it before we leave.”

“If these negotiations weren’t difficult – we wouldn’t need two weeks,” he adds. “I didn’t come here with an expectation of having some kind of grand nice affair… we are pushing every second for a COP that is successful so that all our children and all of our grandchildren… will look on what we did here and see that we saved them and not that we failed them.”

Although COP26 was due to finish yesterday, the summit’s third draft agreement was released this morning and it is hoped that the final pact will be published later today.

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