Organising a climate summit amid a pandemic was a massive logistical and diplomatic undertaking. Wasim Mir takes us behind the scenes of Cop26

There are many things Wasim Mir can do, but one thing he cannot do is bend time and space. Cop26’s chief operating officer certainly never expected to be explaining that at a logistical briefing at the start of the climate-change conference in November.  

Cop president Alok Sharma was, he recalls, “very keen for people to voice their concerns about logistics upfront”. The briefing was one way to make this happen, and was where “one delegation raised a concern with me when I was at the podium – there must have been 500 people there in the plenary – that the venue was very big, so was there anything I could do to create a shortcut through it? The way the venue was set up, it kind of elongated from one end to the other. So unless I created some kind of time warp, it was quite difficult to create shortcuts.”

Mir says he used his “best diplomatic skills” – honed during a career spent largely in the Foreign Office and the UN – “to explain how the venue worked, and how we’d done everything we could to make sure that people could travel quickly around it”.

Despite its strangeness, the question was one of the simpler ones Mir has had to navigate over the last few months as he has overseen operations for Cop26. The UK’s Cop presidency brought about what he thinks may just have been “the most challenging summit anybody’s ever held”. This is also the most challenging job he’s ever had, he adds – and for a longtime diplomat who has worked in Brazil, New York and at the UK Representation to the EU, that is saying something.

Even under normal circumstances, the Conference of the Parties is a massive undertaking. Mir was the “gold command” of a cross-civil service team made up of officials from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – the department most experienced at leading massive events – and the Cabinet Office.

Alok Sharma speaks into a microphone on a panel alongside Alok Sharma and others

Among the many items on the operations team’s to-do list was organising transport to get 120 world leaders safely into Glasgow; planning out how rooms would be used for each of the summit meetings; and working with Police Scotland to make sure people could protest, but in a way that didn’t disrupt proceedings.

Then there was accommodation to secure. Most of the UK civil servants working on Cop were asked to stay in Edinburgh to free up government buildings and hotel space so delegates could stay nearby – “you’ve got people coming from, you know, the Pacific islands for three days and they need to be heard, we wanted them to be in the best shape possible to help with the negotiations.”

And there is no denying that the venue was big. Because of social distancing requirements, Glasgow’s Scottish Event Campus had to be expanded using temporary structures to accommodate the more than 30,000 delegates. Cost-saving requirements meant construction on parts of the venue didn’t begin until a few weeks before the conference started, and Mir stresses that there was “a lot to do, right until the end” of the project – not helped by the fact that the boyband JLS was performing in the venue’s main arena just a week before Cop26 began.

A month out from the opening ceremony, Mir admits risk ratings for several parts of the conference operation were marked red, and “a lot of things were worrying”. But while the unexpected did happen – with the collapse of a crane bearing a Cop26 banner providing one memorable example – it did come together. “You do your planning as well as you can and you make sure you’ve got the right things in place to be able to respond. You can’t control everything,” Mir says.

The days leading up to the conference and the first few days when the World Leaders Summit took place were especially taxing as the team was on high alert for any last-minute snags, he adds. “After that, we got a little more in the groove of how we were running things.” 

“I didn’t really expect it would be part of my role to field complaints from one set of delegates that it was too cold and another set of delegates that it was too warm”

In those early days, Mir – who spent three years as deputy head of mission at the British embassy in Brazil and led a UN team in the early 2010s that brought together governments to set the global agenda for tackling HIV – found himself running around making sure thermostats were adjusted. “I didn’t really expect that would be part of my role, to field complaints from one set of delegates that it’s too cold and another set of delegates that it’s too warm,” he says with a smile.

Going with the flow

Underneath the clatter of all the preparations was the hum of fear that Cop might have to be cancelled. “The government was really, really committed to going ahead. But the one thing we’ve learned about Covid is it’s been unpredictable and we knew if there was a massive change in the circumstances in Scotland, that could have consequences,” Mir says.

“Luckily, we never got into that situation.” But an enormous amount of planning went into keeping the risk of people contracting the virus – and spreading it to the rest of the city – as low as possible.

All of the attendees had to be vaccinated before travelling, with officials using UK and UN diplomatic networks to deliver doses to several countries where vaccines were not readily available. It was agreed that all Covid vaccines would be accepted, to lower the barrier to delegates from countries where UK-approved jabs were not being offered.

After arriving, attendees had to take daily rapid tests, with some 600,000 tests handed out altogether. “That’s not all that simple, because you’re dealing with people from almost 200 different countries. Some people aren’t used to not just taking the lateral flow tests, but also uploading them,” Mir says. A testing centre was set up on site with the capacity to process 3,000 people a day for those who had trouble taking tests in their rooms.

Wasim Mir and Alok Sharma, wearing masks, walk through the conference centre

One unexpected hurdle was that delegates using VPN services based in different countries ran into trouble when trying to upload their test results. That meant calling in the team running the GOV.UK website to forge a workaround.

Mir says that, in the end, the anti-Covid measures worked “better than we thought”: the infection rate among attendees was a quarter of that seen in the population of Glasgow at the time.

But it wasn’t enough for the event organisers simply to prevent a coronavirus outbreak – and this is where Mir’s diplomatic savvy came into play. “I come from a background of doing a lot of negotiation; we were very conscious that as we did the operation, we had to make sure it didn’t just work for our Covid measures, but it worked for delivering negotiations,” he says.

"We had to make sure it didn’t just work for our Covid measures, but it worked for delivering negotiations"

For one thing, social distancing presented not just a logistical challenge, but a diplomatic one. If distancing restrictions meant a meeting room’s capacity was limited to 144, that meant not all of the 196 participating countries could have people in the room.

A digital platform was set up to enable those who couldn’t be physically present to participate in a meaningful way. Organisers were mindful of how being unable to have in-person meetings had hampered multilateral conversations on climate change in the past, and Mir says digital channels “needed to take account of how negotiation dynamics work, in terms of when people could actually access it just to watch or for two-way communication”. The system also had to allow for participants having to self-isolate – “but participate in a way that doesn’t turn it into a virtual meeting, which then limits our chances of success”.

An uphill battle

There were other times Mir found himself drawing on his negotiating skills when preparing for Cop26. He says he spent “a lot of time fighting to make sure we had the resources necessary to deliver and the right people in place”.

“I think that’s quite an important lesson for HMG, to make sure that delivering operations, you resource that as strongly as you resource policy. Because I think the risks around operational delivery are really, really hard. So I did feel I spent a lot of time kind of begging, stealing to get the people in place that we needed to deliver – which we just about did in the end, but it was an uphill battle.”

One skirmish in that battle was over the testing infrastructure that government medics determined was needed to make the conference possible. That meant drawn-out conversations with the Treasury to secure funding not just for the testing facilities, but for people who could work with NHS Test and Trace to make the operation work in the context of Cop26. 

"We had to really push very hard to get people in place. It made it harder to deliver"

Asked why he thinks getting resources out of the Treasury took so much cajoling, Mir says it was “perhaps because we were not used to doing things this complicated; we perhaps underestimated a little of what was required”.

“Maybe part of it was the way we were doing this under these circumstances, but it did mean that we had to really push very hard to get people in place,” Mir says. “It made it harder to deliver.”

Atmospheric change

There are few who would conclude that the pledges which ultimately came out of the Cop26 summit represented an unqualified success. Indeed, many felt the Glasgow Climate Pact did not go far enough, as illustrated by Alok Sharma’s tearful apology after the agreement was watered down by a last-minute amendment to the text on coal.

But Mir says global leaders did take some big steps forward at the summit – completing negotiations on the Paris rulebook that sets out steps towards a zero-carbon future, which have been rumbling on for six years.

“It’s a major achievement to be part of a team that helped do that. Feeling that my team created some of the circumstances for that by the way we set up the rooms – but also with the little things,” Mir says. With the big details hammered out, the team had put time into thinking about how to make the experience more comfortable for the delegates – presenting them with Tunnock’s Teacakes and umbrellas.

“I think all that played a little role in making people feel that the UK as a whole was there to try and help them as much as we could. That, I think, creates the atmosphere where people are willing to make compromises and put their necks on the line as well.

“We couldn’t change everything,” he says, before adding wryly: “We couldn’t change the Glasgow weather.” 

Neutral ground

Cop’s climate focus gave the organisers another goal: making the event carbon neutral and as sustainable as possible. They worked with the International Organization for Standardization – an NGO that develops international benchmarks to encourage innovation and meet global challenges – and met its latest standard to reduce the strain of large events on local infrastructure and resources.

They eschewed diesel generators, often used as a backup to mains power, instead using generators that ran on recycled vegetable oil, which emit 80% less carbon. Civil servants were instructed to travel by train rather than fly, and delegates were ferried between venues using electric London buses – which Mir notes are made just 12 miles from Glasgow – rather than diesel coaches. The team in charge of food and drink, he says, “took a lot of pride in making sure that as much as possible could be locally sourced, as close as possible to the venue”.

Among the many business partners for Cop26 was IKEA, which provided all the furniture for the event and will help facilitate a recycling programme. Through an agreement with Glasgow City Council, the furniture will be distributed to local charities, schools and other organisations over the coming months.

 

This interview originally appeared in CSW's January 2022 issue. Read the digital issue

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