How ex-UK officials have helped to run Cop28 and why Cop26 was ‘crazy’ – CSW speaks to climate conference organiser Wasim Mir

Ex-Cop26 chief and current UN director of conference affairs Wasim Mir compares Cops in UK, UAE and Egypt and shares lessons from time outside civil service
Wasim Mir (far left) at Cop28. Photo: Wasim Mir

By Tevye Markson

12 Dec 2023

The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, Cop28, taking place in Dubai, draws to close today, with nations hoping to collectively agree a course of action to dramatically reduce global emissions.

Ahead of the conference, CSW spoke to former Cop26 chief operating officer Wasim Mir, who is now UN director of conference affairs, about the challenges of running different COPs, what he’s learnt from his time outside the civil service and why the United Arab Emirates looked to UK officials to help run the conference.

Mir, who is currently on special leave from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, also discussed what made Cop26 particularly "crazy", why Cop27 needed "heavy crisis management" and how his UN role differs for each Cop. 

What have you been up to since Cop26 and what is your current role?

I was still working on Cop26 until summer 2022, because when you take on the Cop presidency you do it for a year. Then, the Canadians last minute were asked to take on the hosting of what's called the Convention on Biodiversity Cop [CBD Cop15], which was meant to be held in China in 2021. The Chinese government delayed it for one year. And then again, in 2022, because of Covid, they weren't willing to hold it. So the Canadians had to hold it at the last minute. And so Trudeau asked the UK prime minister to provide some help, and I was the help. So I helped the Canadians put on a successful Cop.

Then, I was asked by the UN Secretariat to come in at the last minute because Cop27, the big climate Cop in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, went off course. So they asked me to come in and crisis manage that and help get it back on track and get it working. And then I joined the UN Secretariat a few months ago to take over the role of organising Cops. So this is my first one within the UN properly organising Cop28 in here in Dubai. And if I don't go back to HMG, I'll be organising for future Cops in the next few years as well.

What is your current role like compared to your Cop26 role for the UK government?

What I've discovered is the role in UN varies quite a lot depending on the capacity of the country that's doing it. So when I was at HMG, my job as chief operating officer was quite well defined and I was in charge of delivery of all aspects of the Cop. Here in the UAE it's very much a supporting role because it’s got a lot of capacity and a lot of resource. Last year in Egypt, I had to hold their hands and help them deliver. It was more like the role I was playing in Glasgow because they lacked some of those skills. [The UN role] uses some of those skills from Cop26 but also you’ve got to be more flexible in terms of how you approach the issue, because you've got to work with the country depending on how they want to handle things and their skill set.

How much help did the UK get from the UN director of conference affairs for Cop26?

We relied quite heavily on them – but because the UK is again relatively well resourced and well structured, we were far more in charge, pretty similar to the way UAE is. But I think ours was particularly challenging because it was the only conference that's ever been done during a pandemic. Nobody else would be crazy enough to do that. And so that involved some really big challenges.

What has preparing for conferences been like without that pandemic-challenge? Are there other challenges?

They are very different challenges. I took lessons from Cop26 to the CBD Cop [in Canada] and they were applied consistently and that went very smoothly. And I hope the same applies here to Cop28, because, in addition to me doing this role, a lot of my team that I had for operations in Cop26 have been hired by the UAE, I think five or six of them. So they're drawing on a lot of what we learnt in Glasgow and applying that here. And so I think things are going relatively smoothly. In Egypt, although we did try and share a lot of these lessons, I don't think they were taken on board. So that involved a lot of very different challenges, a lot more crisis management challenges without crisis structures being in place. By the beginning of Cop27 in Egypt, the venue wasn't ready. Lots of stuff wasn't in place. Lots of things went wrong. And so that was a lot of quite heavy crisis management, basically.

What kind of things went wrong? And what were the lessons that you'd suggested that weren't taken on?

So the first was investing in project management. They didn't really have a clear project approach. And because hosting something on this scale is so complex, things that don't happen impact on your schedule for other things or impact on what's ready and what you can do in other areas. But because they didn't really take a structured project approach, they didn't realise the impact that delays in one area would have in another. The second is probably professionalisation, particularly in terms of the relationship you have with your subcontractors, particularly if you’re hiring a production company to help you build a venue. The third was properly resourcing operational delivery and bringing in people with delivery skills. The Egyptians had brought in diplomats with not too much experience in terms of operations and so they lacked perhaps the skillset to lead this stuff. The UAE is taking a lot of those lessons on board. So they've got a very professional setup on the operation side with people with vast operations experience including from my [old] team.

Who have they hired?

Members of my team who were who were working on events delivery; who were working on putting together what’s called 'pavilions'; who were putting on catering; civil engagement. Various members of the team have ended up joining UAE.

What sort of skills do you think attracted the UAE to hiring them?

The thing that is most important is that they've demonstrated the ability to deliver under very difficult circumstances. They’re tried and tested but also they showed the ability to operate within a structured delivery environment. Understanding their role, what they have deliver, how the hierarchy would work, how dependencies operate. How you collaborate with the UN was a key skill that was probably learned during that process. And that’s I think part of the reason they were recruited in.

What have you learned from your time out of Whitehall since Cop26 that you would bring back to the civil service?

Certainly at the UN, the lesson is working in a very diverse team. Here, I’ve basically got a team with 30 different nationalities. They bring very different skill sets. And then learning from different approaches that people take because of that. Some of the challenges are often the same – navigating bureaucracy, I think it’s as true in HMG as in the UN system. And understanding how to collaborate with a country when you’re delivering with them on their most high profile stuff. So, in Egypt, this was a massive deal. There were heads of summit here, their president, the royals. Collaborating, especially at that high level, is something you often do in diplomacy, but probably not to the same kind of depth.

From your time out, have you noticed any particular key strengths of the UK civil service?

With Cop26, we were able to bring together a good team from across Whitehall. If you bring together the best of Whitehall, particularly people who've got experience of delivery or have the skillset, then I think that's really impressive. And what you learn is that if you can get that, that's also attractive to others such as the UAE. But I'm not sure to what degree we always have those skills, because for Cop26 we brought together a very unique team and we did learn lessons from other processes, from what went right and wrong with G27 meetings. We also passed on those lessons to colleagues who were working on London Bridge [the operation triggered by the Queen's death in 2022]. And I think that's something that we did well. But again, I'm not sure how well we do that in government all the time.

What feedback have you had from those who have joined the UAE team?

The feedback I've had from colleagues is they’ve found it really great to be able to apply all their learned knowledge, to feel more confident about what they're doing. Because when we were doing it in Cop26, we were doing it for the first time. They’ve found it challenging to then operate in a very different environment. I think civil servants get quite used to how decisions are made, etc, and that's slightly different in the UAE.

What are some of your other former colleagues from Cop26 doing now?

It’s a mix. Because we brought a team together from so many different places, some have gone back to their departments. A lot of the senior managers seem to have taken a break from HMG. So I think of the top management team, of the directors, I think there's only one who's currently working in HMG. A lot of them have deployed their skills externally.

Are you looking to return to the civil service any time soon?

In the Foreign Office you can take special unpaid leave. They've agreed it for two years. So I might have to extend that. If I could find a way of bringing skills back to HMG that would be great.

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