Why Europe needs to answer calls for climate justice
26 November 2021
Chair’s International Conference 2021
9 December 2021

AOSIS in Glasgow: COP participation in a pandemic

By Carola Klöck

COP26, the 26th UN climate summit, took place in Glasgow from 31 October to 13 November 2021, under exceptional circumstances. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, COP26 was originally scheduled for November 2020, but had to be postponed. Exceptionally, there was thus a two-year gap between COP25 and COP26, rather than the usual one-year gap. COP26 was also the largest COP ever according to pre-COP registrations: almost 40,000 participants intended to come to Glasgow according to the provisional list of participants[1] – significantly more than at the record-breaking Paris COP in 2015, that brought together just over 30,000 participants.[2] While this record attendance seemed to confirm the UK presidency’s description of the summit as “the most inclusive COP ever”, many activists denounced the summit instead as “the most exclusionary” summit.[3] Not only NGOs, notably from the Global South, struggled to access the COP because of travel restrictions and quarantine rules (as well as high accommodation costs), but so did some negotiators, especially from the Pacific islands.

Already before the COP, a number of Pacific islands – which have remained largely Covid-free and whose borders continue to  be closed – announced that they could not afford to send any delegates from capitals because of strict quarantine rules and would have to rely on representatives from their embassies in New York, Brussels or Geneva.[4] While Kiribati did not even register any delegates for COP26, other island countries had registered participants, but ended up sending fewer delegates than hoped for. Indeed, not all registered participants made it to Glasgow: the final list of participants thus lists 23 351 participants,[5] compared to 39 509 participants in the provisional list of participants. In other words, just over half of the registered participants ended up going to Glasgow.

For island states, the balance is better: Members of the Alliance of Small Island States had registered 1009 delegates, of whom over three quarters (779, 77%) made it to Glasgow. Yet, actual participation varied strongly across islands, as the table below shows – with regard to both, delegation size, and the share of registered delegates that actually made it to Glasgow.  

The average delegation size of AOSIS members at COP was twenty, but while some countries were barely represented, others sent far more than twenty delegates. At one end of the spectrum, we have extremely small delegations: Cook Islands only had one delegate, Vanuatu three, Micronesia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, four each. The largest SIDS delegation was from Papua New Guinea, with 99 delegates in total – though many of those were external advisors.[6] The Dominican Republic had the second largest AOSIS delegation, with 61 delegates, followed by the Maldives (45 delegates), Fiji and Singapore (40 delegates each), and Seychelles (39 delegates).

Table 1: provisional compared to actual delegation size for AOSIS members at COP26

provisional delegation sizeactual delegation size
AIMS region298212
Cabo Verde2118
Sao Tome and Principe2823
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines34
Saint Kitts and Nevis1111
Saint Lucia1513
Trinidad and Tobago1613
Antigua and Barbuda3126
Dominican Republic6961
Cook Islands101
Solomon Islands1414
Marshall Islands3524
Papua New Guinea11099

The extent to which these delegations corresponded to the originally planned delegations also varied across islands. Niue and Saint Vincent actually sent more delegates than foreseen in the provisional list of participants (PLOP): seven Niuean delegates (up from four in PLOP) and four Saint Vincentian delegates (up from three in PLOP) were in Glasgow. At the other end of the spectrum, the ni-Vanuatu delegation in Glasgow comprised only three people, as opposed to the originally planned 32. Cook Islands were only represented by one journalist, when it had registered ten delegates (including the journalist). Comoros had a stronger delegation of 13 in Glasgow, but this was still much smaller than the 50 delegates originally registered. Cuba sent around 40% of their registered participants (seven out of 18). All other islands sent around 60% or more of their registered participants, with Mauritius, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Solomon Islands sending everyone they had registered in the PLOP.

The most high-level delegates typically also made it to Glasgow. 20 island countries had heads of state in Glasgow, only two heads of states (from Dominica and Papua New Guinea) were registered but did not travel to Glasgow. Although a number of ministers did not travel to Glasgow as planned, most island delegations (30) did have at least one minister on their delegation.[7] Eight delegations had neither a head of state or minister in Glasgow, and four islands (plus Kiribati, who was completely absent), namely Cook Islands, Micronesia, Niue and Vanuatu, did not send anyone from capital.

Many island representatives who did attend COP26, particularly those from the Pacific, did sacrifice a lot to make the trip possible. It wasn’t so much the travel to the UK that was difficult (although travel times were significant for some Pacific islanders), but the return home. Some negotiators were away from home for up to two months (!), of which most in quarantine, to participate in the two weeks of negotiations.

Presence at global (climate) summits is important, since being present is a pre-condition for influencing the negotiations and their outcomes. Accordingly, the expected absence of high-level representatives from the Pacific sparked concerns about less ambitious outcomes at COP[8] While the outcome is maybe more ambitious than some had feared, it is certainly not ambitious enough, and not as ambitious as island countries had hoped. At the closing plenary, a large number of island countries took the floor, and while they expressed their disappointment (notably with the last-minute change in language from phase-out to phase-down), they also recognised that the Glasgow Climate Pact represented a (small) step forward, and “a strong message of hope, of promise” (Tuvalu). Would a stronger island presence have made this message of hope even stronger? Hard to say. Those who made it to Glasgow agreed that it was worth the effort. Islands will continue to fight for ambition and strong climate action – for which a strong island presence at the COPs is not a sufficient, but probably a necessary condition. Hopefully, the context is more favourable next year at the African COP in Sharm-el-Sheikh, allowing not only more island delegates, but also more island activists to participate and push for strong climate action.

[1] UNFCCC. 2021. Provisional list of registered participants. Contained in document no. COP26.PLOP.

[2] UNFCCC. 2015. List of participants: Part one. Contained in document no. FCCC/CP/2015/INF.3 (Part 1).

[3] See e.g. Helena Horton. 7 July 2021. Cop26: young people to interview ministers on stage, government says. The Guardian. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/07/cop26-young-people-to-interview-ministers-on-stage-government-says

[4] See e.g. Kate Lyons. 21 October 2021. Third of Pacific islands unable to attend Cop26, sparking fears summit will be less ambitious. The Guardian. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/21/third-of-pacific-islands-unable-to-attend-cop26-sparking-fears-summit-will-be-less-ambitious

[5] UNFCCC. 2021. List of participants: Part one. Contained in document no. FCCC/CP/2021/INF.3 (Part I).

[6] Papua New Guinea also had a pavilion at COP26 with the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, and its delegation comprised a large number of staff or, or advisors to, the Coalition of Rainforest Nations (18) as well as of the consulting firm Ernst & Young (22).

[7] Delegations that included a head of state normally also included at least one minister. Fiji’s prime minister came to Glasgow, but no Fijian minister. Eight delegations had ministers, but no head of state.

[8] See e.g. Lyons 2021. op. cit.; Kosi Latu. 26 October 2021. What is your biggest flex for 1.5 degrees? Head of SPREP issues challenge. Radio New Zealand, available online: https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/454266/what-is-your-biggest-flex-for-1-point-5-degrees-head-of-sprep-issues-challenge