The story so far: The Conference of Parties (COP) will return this year for its 29th climate summit to Baku, Azerbaijan, a city where one of the world’s first oil fields was developed. Their agenda: to negotiate a future without fossil fuels. This is the second time, following Abu Dhabi’s COP28 leadership, that a giant petrostate plays host to one of the largest climate conferences in the world.

India vies to host the 33rd edition of the event in 2028.

Since 1995, 25 nations have played host to the COP summit, a gathering attended by 195 members. The location, presidency and hosting attitudes are more than a procedural detail for these negotiations, experts suggest. “The setting and cultural backdrop profoundly shape the dynamics and outcomes of negotiations,” says Harjeet Singh, who works with the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. The question of who hosts a COP is “not merely symbolic” — “it fundamentally influences the conference’s agenda and the unfolding of processes,” he adds.

Who gets to be a host?

The United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) sets the rules for the climate club. COP is their flagship event, each gathering presided over and hosted by a country. Hosting rights rotate between five United Nations regions: the African Group, the Asia-Pacific Group, the Eastern Europe Group, the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) and the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). The host region unanimously nominates a country and a president to the UNFCCC secretariat; the latter undertakes a “fact-finding mission” to the prospective host country to determine if “logistical, technical and financial elements for hosting the sessions are available,” according to the UNFCCC.

Venues for future COPs are typically decided two years in advance. The COP29 announcement, however, came only 11 months before the summit, belaboured due to infighting between the Eastern Europe Group. Russia vetoed all European Union members supporting Ukraine’s war effort; Azerbaijan and Armenia, who went to war in 2020, vetoed each other. Armenia later withdrew its candidacy, a “sign of good gesture,” as the two nations agreed on a prisoner swap settlement. Should a host group fail to come to a decision, global climate diplomats step in to find alternative solutions, such as a country outside the region offering to host the talks. “It is often difficult to decide on a host in the Eastern European bloc,” says Monserrat Madariaga Gómez de Cuenca, a Chilean environmental lawyer. Azerbaijan and Armenia block each other; and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has furthered the animosity within the regional group. Poland has hosted it thrice as a result.

Sometimes a host country can choose to hold a COP elsewhere: COP 23 under Fiji’s presidency was held in Bonn, Germany, due to logistical limitations. Under Chile’s presidency, COP25 was held in Madrid, Spain, as social unrest took hold of the host region.

Ms. Monserrat, however, says the COP hosting system is a “bit unfair.”

“The financial burden of COP is grand, and there’s no official financial support from the UNFCCC,” she says. Host countries have a long list — big venues, food, accommodation, paying for secretariats, freebies. COPs have grown exponentially in size too over the years: Abu Dhabi’s COP28 had double the number of people compared to COP27 in Egypt the preceding year. “It’s only countries that have funds or infrastructure that come forward to be COP hosts,” she adds.

Were India to host the summit, it would be the country’s second time after New Delhi hosted the conference in 2002, under then Minister of Environment and Forests T.R. Baalu.

The host and the agenda

The host country and President influence the agenda, setting the tone for climate action. “The role of the incoming COP President — the COP President-designate — includes raising ambition to tackle climate change internationally,” the UNFCCC states on its website. In the lead-up to COP25, Chile’s presidency came to be known as the ‘Blue COP,’ as Chilean environment minister Carolina Schmidt hoisted ocean health and marine issues at the front and centre of climate negotiations. COP23 under Fiji’s leadership was dubbed the ‘Island COP.’

“Here concerns of climate migration, protection of oceans and sea level rises were very much discussed and translated in outcomes; also visible in events and side events,” Ms. Monserrat points out.

“The country’s importance in the UNFCCC negotiations is very large, not just because of the size and population of the country, but because it is very representative of the conflicts around equity and just transition,” Ms. Monserrat says. Their leadership and input in the agenda spotlight these and other urgent themes of the climate crisis, she adds.

The president in turn picks the organising committee. Azerbaijan recently received criticism for appointing an all-men committee. Gender scholars in Climate Home News called this “yet another example of a gender gap in climate leadership with alarming implications for climate justice, effective climate action, and the COP29 proceedings”.

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It is also possible that some issues injurious to the climate goals may find space. In the lead-up to COP28, the BBC reported that president-designate Sultan al Jaber planned to raise oil and gas commercial interests during the meetings. Activists critiqued his remark about there being no science behind a fossil fuel phase-out. It prompted trust issues about the presidency and what agenda might find attention, Ms. Monserrat admits. At the same time, the ‘conflict of interest’ allowed for an “honest discussion about what equity means.”

Abu Dhabi’s perspective was unique and ‘historic’; UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiel called the outcome the “beginning of the end” for the fossil fuel era. The presidency influenced the negotiations and discussions around fossil fuels, a topic that had been absent in the UN climate space for three decades, Mr. Singh says. “While the final decision did not reach a specific conclusion on fossil fuel phase-out and fell short of the level of ambition many had hoped for, it, for the first time, acknowledged the need to transition away from fossil fuels… The role of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in this context cannot be understated,” he adds.

Does a host country impact negotiations, outcomes too?

The material logistics, cultural attitudes, political climate, even the weather outside, have affected the tone and tenor of previous conferences.

At Glasgow’s COP26, delegates were made to stay in Airbnbs, and only delegates from industrialised countries could afford to stay at hotels near the main city centre, points out Ms. Monserrat. “Glasgow is also not an accessible and affordable city when it comes to infrastructure…accommodation prices were some of the highest I had seen in a COP as owners had free reign,” she says. Delegates from civil society organisations found accommodation sometimes hours away, adding to the time for travel. The lack of affordable and accessible accommodation “made it tiring for them to participate in negotiations, and made a difference in the way they engage.” In contrast, COP21 in Paris had a designated room with cubicled beds at the conference centre, in preparation for all-night sessions.

The weather may further sway attitudes. At COP15 in Copenhagen, the “cold weather definitely had an impact,” she says, and made the whole process more tiring. “When it’s cold and dark, and you’ve been doing that for two weeks, it puts you in a different mood. It’s a combination of the weather, but also how the logistics of the venue make this more or less difficult.”On the other hand, Dubai’s weather and logistics of “not having to wait in long queues” or having to reach early to the venue in difficult weather conditions translated into people being in a “better mood.”

“ Dubai was also a massive venue, they had a lot of outdoor spaces. The fact that you could go outside and enjoy coffee and go back in, it makes it very pleasant and puts negotiators in a better mood.”Monserrat Madariaga Gómez de Cuenca

Cultural attitudes also impact the way procedures unfold. At COP23, Fiji integrated the ‘Talanoa Dialogue’ into formal negotiations, a process rooted in “openness and mutual respect,” according to Mr. Singh. “This approach significantly shifted the discourse from accusatory to constructive, enabling parties to discuss contentious issues with a greater degree of empathy and understanding,” he adds.

The UAE Presidency in COP28 organised a ‘majlis,’ Arabic for ‘sitting room’. Mr. Singh says delegates appreciated the conversation “for its openness and tone in discussing contentious issues” of the dependency of developing and low-income countries on fossil fuels, a dependency “not by choice but due to a lack of finance and technology and the pressure to service their mounting debt.” In 2011, South Africa tried the ‘Indabas,’ a Zulu tradition where groups of elders convene to discuss disputes.

Also notable was Paris’s hosting at COP21, which produced an agreement hailed as “historic, durable and ambitious.” “France has brought openness and experience in diplomacy, and mutual respect to these talks,” Lord Stern, a climate economist told The Guardian in 2015. “They have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted.” Among other things, the French instituted a series of “confessionals” and “informal informals” — the former allowed delegates to “speak from the heart” while the latter encouraged participants to tackle disputed texts at a time. Lord Stern also pointed out “the great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill” at display: the French mayor’s office was directly above the UN chief’s, allowing for more direct and quicker conversations.

The Guardian described the charged atmosphere, sensitive to the immediacy of the crisis: “Within the buzzing control room, screens relayed pictures of what was happening in each of the conference rooms scattered around the compound and 24-hour news from French and international channels.”

Eight years later, two Ford Mustangs were spotted at COP28 in Abu Dhabi, “gas guzzlers” incongruous with the climate agenda, said Jacob Koshy in The Hindu. “It was akin to a disco at a dirge, a barbeque at a PETA protest, or an Armani at the beach,” he wrote.

Political context matters too, as the Paris talks took place in the aftermath of a series of terrorist attacks by the Islamist Group. François Hollande, the French president, insisted the show must go on; U.S. former President Barack Obama hailed the conference as “an act of defiance” in the face of terrorism. 

The same factors may create difficulties for Azerbaijan’s COP29 presidency. “The lack of civil rights in the country adds an extra layer of complexity to the hosting dynamics, potentially affecting the openness and inclusivity of the discussions,” Mr. Singh says.

A seat at the table

Locations also tacitly govern how much negotiating power a country has. When a country from the Global South hosts a COP, Mr. Singh notes, there is a “discernible shift towards prioritising issues that directly impact the people most affected by climate change, in contrast to COPs held in industrialised nations, where the focus may lean more towards technological and mitigation-centric discussions.”

For small island states, reeling under the worst effects of climate change, hosting a COP means indigenous traditions and trials are centred in major environmental conferences. COP17 in South Africa, for instance, took note of the “disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable communities and developing countries,” Mr. Singh mentions. Similarly, Chile’s COP25 brought new agendas to the table: adaptation, addressing loss and damage, and the crucial need for finance, which are of paramount importance to the Global South. At the time, some climate activists expressed fear that the relocation to Europe would “seriously harm the chances that Latin American voices will be heard clearly in international climate negotiations.”

Ms. Monserrat researched COP25’s national impact and found Chilean climate activists “were keen for the COP to be an opportunity to unmask the environmental conflicts” unfolding in Chile and the role of the presiding COP host in deepening those environmental crises.

Similarly, India’s prospect of hosting a future COP would showcase the unique challenges of transitioning from coal and climate financing. It would be a “significant opportunity to bring climate justice issues prevalent in the Global South to the forefront,” says Mr. Singh. “This could foster a more inclusive and equitable approach to global climate negotiations, aligning with the principles of fairness and common but differentiated responsibilities.” 

Does the COP location influence climate action nationally too?

Whenever a country hosts a COP, climate change laws are approved, the private sector comes forward, and climate change is promoted to a high level of politics and local levels. “There is a spark, and it’s good for climate governance at a national level,” Ms. Monserrat argues.Take Peru, where civil society engagement around climate developed around the time of COP20, eventually promoting the country to pass their first climate change law. In Chile, a climate change law was discussed in the legislature, and Chile developed a new process to update its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to present at the COP.

“The legacy of hosting a COP can therefore lead to lasting changes, as the momentum built around the event continues to influence public opinion and policy long after the conference has concluded.”Harjeet Singh

There is international pressure and scrutiny not only to successfully manage the COP, but also to demonstrate leadership in climate action, Mr. Singh says. The global stage serves to push the “government to introduce or reinforce measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions, enhancing sustainability, and promoting green initiatives.” At COP4, host Argentina along with Kazakhstan committed to reducing their greenhouse emissions. They were the first two non-Annex, or developing countries vulnerable to climate change impact, to do so.

Environmentalists and experts agree that ‘greenwashing’ remains a risk. Countries may play host to COPs to sway attention away from a poor human rights records or continued reliance on fossil fuels, which is the criticism presently being faced by Azerbaijan.  Does this mean that only countries that have ‘environmentally good behaviour’ or are ‘freer or more democratic’ should get to host a COP? Ms. Monserrat thinks not. “It’s not like the U.S. or the U.K., or other ‘good western democracies,’ have a better record of human rights. They are political elites responding to economic interests too…And European countries have plenty of cars, roads, extremely high patterns of consumption and no one has opposed them hosting COPs.” Even before Egypt, Abu Dhabi and Azerbaijan came under the spotlight for their fossil fuel and human rights conflict of interest, the largest delegation at COP26 in Glasgow was of the fossil fuel sector. This was also referred to as the ‘White COP’ in climate circles — held in a post-COVID setting, with restrictions on international travel, most of the delegates were Europeans.

Moreover, as a global agreement, COP “brings together all countries, and realities of countries are different. To try and impose Western ways will not be fair,” she argues. It is important for countries using fossil fuel as a main source of income to have a seat, and be involved in the dialogue “to create a political will that perhaps wasn’t there before.” The global response to climate change has to be equitable, effective, urgent, and for a more ‘diverse and inclusive COP,’ Ms. Monserrat suggests hosting mechanisms should be seen differently. “There should be a way to support countries from the Global South that want to host it and facilitate discussions, but perhaps don’t have the financial means to do it,” she says.

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