International Climate Conferences Without Flying

Year after year the UN Climate Conferences, the COPs, face the same contradiction. In order to help solve the climate crisis delegates will once again fly from all over the world, emitting thousands of tons of greenhouse gases. Two steps backwards for every step forward. And this at a time when there are more and more alternative ways to meet, discuss and make discussions without the flights.

This was an issue we tried to take on at OneClimate the first time we attempted to cover the COP in a totally different way. For the Bali COP in 2007 we created a virtual space, OneClimate Island, using the new tech of the time, Second Life. Throughout the two weeks of the COP we invited speakers and audiences to meet there instead of travelling to Bali. This approach offered than regular video conferencing. As well as watching the presentations and debates it allowed the online participants to break away from the main event and talk to people they met in the corridors. And that is said to be one of the big advantages of attending an international conference: face-to-face networking especially with people you meet for the first time. And this was possible on the island too – avatar-to-avatar private chats that can build significant relationships. The OneClimate Island experience looked like this.

In spite of the huge press interest in this initiative and the satisfaction felt by many who took part, this approach has to be judged a failure. This was partly because Second Life itself suffered a decline, but particularly because it looked too game-like – even cartoon-like – to politicians and others who took themselves very seriously. They didn’t like the idea of being seen as avatars.

So for the next COP at Poznan in Poland in 2008 we switched to a traditional television news formula of short edited packages broadcast on the day – albeit using the very low cost means of the new media. So our offering this time to viewers who wished they could attend the conference was far less interactive. Instead we offered a short video package each day with the news of what was going on officially, as well as analysis of the issues and coverage of the protests. We were aiming to make it close to the kind of coverage that viewers could have expected from Channel 4 News, if they, or any of the mainstream broadcasters has been there every day. Here’s a typical report from towards the end of the Poznan COP.

When it came to Copenhagen the following year expectation was very high that there could and should be a major breakthrough in the talks. We therefore increased the OneClimate team from 3 to 10, drove over a lot of equipment and set up to provide as close to 24/7 coverage as we could manage. For this we had a pop-up studio with four of our presenters. We made that available to any civil society groups at the COP who wanted to use the space, the tech and the live audience to put on the air their issues, their interviews and the videos.

We’d planned to cover the next very interesting alternative climate conference in a similar way. This was held in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010. We were all set to go when an ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano made that impossible. So we went virtual in a different way. Linking with our reporters based in a UK sitting room converted into a studio, bringing in footage from contacts and official sources in Bolivia. This also meant, at very short notice, finding a brilliant student who knew both Spanish and the local politics for simultaneous translation of the Bolivian President. In spite of everything this approach turned out rather well. And once again there was no competition from either mass media or new media.

When it came the Paris COP in 2015 we tried an even more traditional approach. No longer providing live coverage or daily bulletins, but making a considered documentary for later showing on different platforms and for different audiences.

So the question is – where does that leave us for planning our media coverage of the Glasgow COP later this year? Is it time for a VR approach? That seems like an appealing coming technology that could provide a sense of remote presence, but we can’t yet see a way around the problems of cost, low audience uptake and the fact that participants who didn’t want to become avatars are hardly likely to agree to wear VR headsets. So is there a new mash-up possible combining some aspects of VR, virtual worlds and video conferencing?  Or is the new reality  are all NGOs are so well equipped now to produce live feeds from their smart phones, that we should look to add value in a different way, perhaps by finding some way to bring these streams together for the largest possible audience?

All ideas most welcome.