Putting yourself in the climate room where it happens

Climate change

  |  4 minute read

Simulating the Conference of the Parties (COP): Learning through role-play

Back in 1992, countries across the world formed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). This international treaty has underpinned international efforts to tackle global climate change since the early 1990s. In 1995, these countries met for the first Conference of the Parties (COP) in Berlin. Since then, there have been 31 COPs – held in rotation in the world – shaping international climate governance. Some of the COPs are better known than others – with COP3 in Kyoto leading to the Kyoto Protocol, the disappointment around COP15 in Copenhagen to reach an ambitious climate agreement and the Paris Agreement coming from COP21 in Paris. Today, there are 197 Parties to the Convention and they will meet later this year in Azerbaijan. 


COPs have become large international affairs – attended by world leaders, scientists, activists, youth delegations, indigenous communities and, controversially, major fossil fuel companies. These events receive wide public attention – for two weeks each year climate change is centre stage in the global news circle. Each year there is criticism about the scale of the event – with commentators asking to what extent it is essential that thousands of people must travel across the globe to discuss climate change.

Within the COP simulations that I have run, and that I will be doing at the Future Climate Innovators Summer School in August, we think about what it is like to take part in these negotiations. These role-play exercises are, by their very nature, a simplification of what the process is like. COP runs for two weeks, with tens of thousands of delegates, across vast conference spaces. Sadly – that is not possible in most classrooms. However, COP simulations can offer students an opportunity to gain some insights into what the process is like. 

Firstly, participants will be allocated a state to represent. Delegation sizes are uneven – this is trying to emulate some of the practical issues that smaller, and less wealthy, states face with navigating these large international conferences. Participants will then conduct research about their state. 

  • What are their priorities when it comes to climate governance? 
  • What are their targets? 
  • Where might they be willing to compromise and what are their red lines? 

This preparation is intended to underpin how students engage with the exercise.

During the COP simulation itself, students work within alliances. These are intended to replicate the negotiation blocs which dominate the COP process – such as the G77 (and China) and the European Union. Students begin by trying to coordinate their diplomatic approaches within their blocs.

COP27 courtesy of UNFCC

Then, following opening speeches from each group, the negotiations begin. Students are trying to reach agreements on emission reduction targets, climate finance and deforestation rates. These are updated in real-time on a projector – this then feeds into a tracker that offers a projection of what the global temperature will be in 2100. Students are aiming for the 1.5 degrees – however, this can prove elusive as geopolitics often hampers negotiations.

After 20 minutes, negotiations pause. Agreements need to be reached by consensus so at this stage the COP President will check that each bloc is happy with their commitments – if not, the tracker is reset and negotiations resume. Students from here race against the clock to reach agreements. Climate finance pledges are exchanged – often, participants push at the parameters of the simulations. Wider geopolitical disputes may feature in discussions! Finally, the simulation reaches its climax – so-called ‘late night talks’. COPs rarely finish on time, so the exercise captures this with an additional ten minutes to try and push those agreements over the line. Then, the group takes stock. 

  • Were they able to achieve their goals? 
  • What were the barriers to securing consensus? 

This exercise not only develops knowledge of the intimacies of climate diplomacy – but also allows participants to develop soft skills such as public speaking, negotiation techniques and group management.

Juliane Reinecke at COP28

For further reading Juliane Reinecke, Professor of Management and Summer School Sponsor, explains the risks of failure post COP when delegates return back home and try to deliver the deal they have reached to their domestic constituents - The Two-Table problem: A looming threat in international climate negotiations.

Liam Saddington

Dr Liam Saddington is a Teaching Associate in Human Geography and Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. Liam is a political and environmental geographer who is interested in the geopolitics of climate change in relation to small island states and rising sea levels. His work explores how the relationship between territory and statehood is being reimagined in low-lying atolls in light of rising sea levels. It examines how space and time shape understandings of climate change and the implications for critical geopolitics, adaptation, and diplomacy.

Liam did his Masters and D'Phil at the University of Oxford and since 2016, he has worked with Fiona McConnell in the School of Geography and the Environment on developing ‘Model UNPO’ teaching resources for primary and secondary schools. Liam is interested in how young people think about the future and climate change, with a particular focus on climate justice. 


Photo credits

Photos from COP28 in this piece are from the UNFCCC Flickr account courtesy of the UNFCCC.

The climate countdown clock and the civil society action photos are courtesy of UN Climate Change / Kiara Worth