The defining agreement to limit global warming might not have happened without a drab meeting room. It was in December 1997 that officials from the U.S., European Union and Japan spent 36 hours huddled in a side room at the Kyoto International Conference Hall. When the diplomats finally emerged, they had the basis of the world’s first deal to tackle climate change. “That was a very brutal negotiating session,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at the E3G think tank who has followed the United Nations climate talks for more than 20 years.

The document produced in a Kyoto conference room paved the way for the landmark Paris Agreement nearly two decades later.
Negotiations at this year’s all-important meeting, known as COP26, are likely to be just as fraught—with the added wrinkle of potentially being held over Microsoft Teams. The event’s organizers are currently grappling with the reality that they may have to hold all or some of the sessions online if the coronavirus pandemic isn’t contained ahead of the November event in Glasgow, Scotland.

Marathon negotiations have become a hallmark of the annual climate talks. No summits in recent years have finished on time as countries dig their heels in throughout the night and try to thrash out a compromise on thorny issues such as financial contributions. In Kyoto, negotiators only finished when a lingerie show started setting up at the venue.

“I really, really hope it doesn’t have to be virtual.” said Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the U.K. minister in charge of climate adaptation issues at COP26. “The power of having people in a room together is unassailable when you’re trying to negotiate from lots of different positions.”

The global climate talks usually attract tens of thousands of people from government, business and civil society. One option this year is to have hybrid talks, where negotiators meet in person but other parts are held online.

At stake are key decisions needed to tie up the last remaining details of the Paris deal and prevent catastrophic climate change.  Outstanding issues remain on finance, capacity building, technology transfer and transparency.

Crucially, the Glasgow talks must finish the work of the 2019 Madrid summit, which ended in failure. Countries were unable to agree on creating a global carbon market mechanism that may allow them to generate credits from projects that reduce pollution.

The idea is to allow trading of credits, which in theory pushes funding toward places where the biggest gains can be made most cheaply. But they also need to ensure it avoids double-counting — a controversial loophole in the Kyoto Protocol that helped undo the previous UN carbon market, known as the Clean Development Mechanism. Ultimately, the European hosts blocked a deal because they feared it would lead to weak standards.