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Online Climate Negotiations: Building climate diplomacy back better

Experiences over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic have shown that many of the activities organised under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) can be held online, albeit with challenges.

The question this project focused on was whether they could be held in ways that increase the effectiveness, inclusiveness and transparency of the UNFCCC process.

UNFCCC SB2021 remote participation Hub, Egypt

UNFCCC SB21 remote participation hub in Egypt. Photo: Zaheer Fakir, South Africa/ UN Climate Change / Flickr.

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After 25 years of regular and ever-growing climate talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Covid-19 pandemic brought in-person meetings to a halt. However, even before the pandemic, there were concerns that COP sessions were no longer fit for purpose. Progress in the negotiations had slowed, particularly after the adoption of the 2015 Paris Agreement. When the climate talks came to a complete standstill in 2020, the question shifted to whether a move online was not simply the only viable alternative, but a virtuous one that could conceivably change the UNFCCC process for the better.


This project has engaged a select but diverse group of stakeholders, including negotiators, civil society, media, UN staff and digital and legal experts, many with a decade or more of relevant experience. Between February and June 2021, we gathered 195 survey responses (77 from a targeted audience and 118 from a publicly available survey), conducted 22 stakeholder interviews, did an analysis of public statements, and convened three roundtables (with civil society, digital experts and media representatives). We also regularly consulted with the project’s advisory group.

This study, commissioned from Sweden’s Ministry of the Environment, finds broad support for hosting more of the UNFCCC’s work online, not only during the pandemic, but beyond.

Two points in particular become clear:

  • A shift to working online is not merely a technical and political process; it is also a social and cognitive process. This means that the transition and its outcomes need to be co-created by and with all relevant actors.
  • The pandemic, along with all the suffering it created, has presented us with a unique opportunity to build climate diplomacy back better. To seize this opportunity, creative leadership and initiative are essential to set priorities for a transition online, address entrenched and emerging inequalities, and overcome reluctance to change.


Stakeholder-based research

The report “Building climate diplomacy back better: imagining the UNFCCC meetings” was informed by substantive stakeholder engagement, designed and subsequently delivered between February and June 2021. The aims of the stakeholder engagement process were to:

  • Collate a comprehensive inventory of concerns, opportunities and conditions that affect the possibility and outcome of moving more of the UNFCCC process online;
  • Reach an in-depth understanding of attitudes towards moving more of the UNFCCC process online, as well as the drivers and underlying dynamics of the concerns, opportunities and conditions;
  • Stimulate discussions on future scenarios to aid analysis of the scope of desired reform – from a digital transition to a more fundamental transformation of the process – and the factors that the architects of such a transition may need to account for.

A stakeholder engagement strategy was designed at the outset of the project, incorporating feedback from the co-chairs of the project’s advisory group as well as those funding the research prior to implementation. It outlined the objectives and goals of stakeholder engagement, a stakeholder engagement “arc” of activities: context and situational analysis, stakeholder identification, mapping and analysis, communication and engagement processes and methods, managing risks, and monitoring, learning and evaluation of and from our approach.

The mixed-methods approach we adopted to engage stakeholders included:

  1. A survey (both open-ended and multiple-choice questions)
  2. A series of interviews;
  3. Roundtables;
  4. An analysis of public statements.

These methods were supported by a literature review, the application of an analytical framework, and a background report produced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) that collated online experiences from 2020 from six leading multilateral processes.

Through these methods, the project engaged a select but diverse group of stakeholders, including negotiators, members of civil society, media representatives, UN staff, and digital and legal experts, many with a decade or more of relevant experience. We took care to consult underrepresented and vulnerable groups, aiming to include representatives of various geographical origins (including indigenous peoples) and areas of interest, and a balance of ages and genders.

These diverse methods and data sources allowed for the assessment and synthesis of a broad array of material and perspectives: research on the development of digital tools over recent decades; lessons from pandemic-driven changes to comparable multilateral processes and the UNFCCC; and input from Parties and participants illustrating their expectations, experiences and ambitions for future action.

Our methods and approach benefitted greatly from the expertise of an advisory group, comprising policy-makers, practitioners and researchers from a number of fields, all of whom had in-depth knowledge of and experience with climate negotiations and/or online technologies.

The project team also took great care to uphold the highest principles of ethical research, overseen by SEI’s Ethics Committee, and compliance with relevant data protection and privacy regulations. Participants in the study were given the option of anonymity for their involvement in the study.

To ensure transparency about the project’s existence, aims and findings, we published this project web page. We reached out to media on different occasions, including around COP Bureau meetings, to provide journalists writing about the UN climate process with background and insights from our research. Comments and opinion pieces were published and promoted on SEI social media channels.

The menu tab on methods provides an in-depth account of each of the four stakeholder engagement methods as well as the literature review. The tab on survey results shows a collection of graphs depicting a selection of the survey results for the reader to interact with. More about the analytical framework which the project adopted is in the menu tab “Analytical framework.”


The survey

An online survey was designed to gather a broad set of data, from a large and diverse set of stakeholders, and to enable the comparison of experiences, opinions and concerns across a wide range of respondents.

The survey included 33 questions, with a mix of pre-defined and free-text answers (quantitative and qualitative), inquiring into the respondents’ experiences with online UNFCCC activities in 2020–2021, their attitudes toward moving more of the UNFCCC online, and their views on the challenges, opportunities and conditions in moving more of the UNFCCC process online in the future.

Data were also collected on respondents’ background, including age, gender, nationality and working region, prior engagement with the UNFCCC process, and affiliation, to discern any patterns and to check for the degree to which we had been able to secure a balance of responses. The survey was reviewed by the co-chairs of the advisory group and SEI staff prior to launch.

In order to achieve – to the extent possible – a balanced range of responses, a targeted survey was sent out on 13 March to a pre-selected group of more than 200 stakeholders (again reviewed by the co-chairs of the advisory group). An open survey with identical questions (plus an additional question on respondents’ previous engagement with the UNFCCC process) was made accessible to offer all interested stakeholders an opportunity to express their views.

The survey was available on SEI’s website from 30 March to 20 April, and promoted via Twitter and external networks. We collected a total of 195 responses to the survey during the period March–June 2021. Of these, 77 responded to the targeted survey, and 118 completed the open survey. The results the project team present are an aggregated analysis of responses to the open and targeted surveys, as the two survey collectors together provided input from the widest number and range of participants.

No significant differences could be discerned between the two surveys in longevity of engagement or gender. A larger portion of respondents to the open survey were NGOs, somewhat underrepresented in the targeted survey, which complemented the overall balance of survey responses by affiliation.

The open survey also broadened the number of nationalities represented, although respondents from the global North were in a slight majority for both collectors. When the project team realised, at a key checkpoint, that youth representatives were somewhat underrepresented in the sample of responses, measures were taken that successfully filled the gap.

Qualitative responses were coded and analysed using both thematic analysis (finding emerging themes from respondents’ data) and the analytical framework, and responses were aggregated and quantified to discern patterns. Quantitative questions were disaggregated by affiliation, to discern patterns in attitudes and experiences. Initial results of the online survey were used to inform the design of the semi-structured interviews.

Explore the quantitative responses to the survey, disaggregated by affiliation where applicable, in the menu tab “Survey results.”


A total of 22 stakeholders were interviewed from March to June 2021. The purpose of the interviews was to complement the survey data with in-depth understanding of underlying dynamics and get a first-hand account of the concerns, opportunities and conditions that stakeholders attributed to moving more of the UNFCCC process online.

The interviews were semi-structured to allow a more nuanced experience and encourage open-ended responses. Guiding questions focused on the interviewees’ experience of filling out the survey (outstanding or missing elements); their outlook for COP26; challenges they associated with hosting the UNFCCC process online and ways of overcoming them; any opportunities they foresaw with a digital transition of the UNFCCC process, and their perceptions of underlying motivations or dynamics influencing the wider public discourse on this topic.

The interviews were recorded, transcribed and captured in a condensed summary, for ease of overview and comparison of materials. The interviews were coded using thematic analysis, deducing emerging themes and topics from the material, and analysed using the analytical framework. All attributed quotes used in the report were submitted to the relevant interviewee for approval prior to publication.


Three roundtables were held in May and June 2021: the first with civil society representatives (two separate convenings, to accommodate eastern and western time zones), the second with media representatives, and the third with digital experts. The participants in each roundtable were selected to ensure (to the degree possible) balanced representation in national origin, region, gender and age.

Roundtables provide a useful mechanism to enable information-gathering and “social exchange” (to gather information that is a product of stakeholder interaction), as well as gather intelligence from stakeholder groups that represent critical perspectives might otherwise be underrepresented.

The choreography of the roundtables was tailored to each stakeholder group, guided by the stakeholder engagement strategy and designed around bespoke research questions. Each roundtable was co-hosted and co-designed with a member of the advisory group based on their particular expertise, and questions to stimulate discussion were co-created in preparatory sessions.

The roundtables were held under the Chatham House rule, and all participants gave their consent to this rule prior to participation. The sessions were recorded for internal use. Content derived from the roundtables supported the analysis, and anonymised quotes were used to illustrate key points or topics.

Public statement analysis

Twitter accounts were screened for comments about the UNFCCC process and online activities, with a focus on more than 200 stakeholders selected in the initial phase of the stakeholder engagement process. Relevant posts were then “backtracked” for articles, public statements, blogs and other forms of communication using a snowballing technique (finding relevant related statements emerging from the initial Twitter posts).

The analysis yielded the potential to follow trends and current discussions during the project, and to cross-check results deriving from the stakeholder engagement. Data collection included type and origin of statement, and data were coded in accordance with the analytical framework as well as source type. Public statements were gathered during the period of November 2020 to June 2021.

Literature review

A literature review was conducted in the project’s initial phase to gather existing knowledge on the topic of online diplomacy, in the context of the UNFCCC process and relevant similar settings. The literature review was used, together with the background report produced by IISD, to inform and formulate the stakeholder engagement strategy and provide the theoretical and contextual basis for the analytical framework.

The literature review followed an iterative process, and data was collected via keyword search and snowballing technique (pursuing relevant related literature and citations emerging from the literature search), to identify relevant literature. Google Scholar was used as search engine, to incorporate peer-reviewed scientific literature and “grey” literature (reports published by think tanks, newspaper articles and open letters).

A combination of the keywords “digital”, “diplomacy”, “online”, “negotiation”, “multilateralism”, “cooperation”, “UNFCCC”, “climate”, “conference” and variations of these were used for the data collection. After the construction of the analytical framework, a second round of data collection was carried out, scanning the literature specifically for mentions of aspects pertaining to the technical, legal and procedural, as well as social and cognitive, aspects of online climate talks.

The literature was subsequently analysed using the framework, with a focus on identifying challenges in moving more of the UNFCCC process online, conditions for a more online process to function, identified actors of change and limitations to the online format.

Breaking it down: key elements of the UNFCCC process

An analytical framework was developed based on the literature review and findings from the IISD background report. The framework was used to support the design of the questionnaire and interviews and to provide a coherent lens through which results from the stakeholder engagement methods have been analysed.

Going online – a model for UN climate talks?

Illustration of the analytical framework. Graph: SEI.

The framework recognises three key principles that have been identified by stakeholders as crucial to the UNFCCC process: inclusion, transparency and effectiveness. Making the climate talks more inclusive is not only seen as a matter of fairness and equity, but also as a necessity for the unprecedented level of cooperation required to effect transformational change to grapple with climate change. Transparency, of both the process and Parties’ progress, is seen essential to empowering stakeholders and to knowing where to direct support when efforts are falling short. Effectiveness, in turn, entails not only arriving at a global agreement, but supporting implementation and continuing to ramp up ambition.

The components of the UNFCCC process, the “underlying structure”, has been divided into three categories: political and legal, technical, and social and cognitive. Political and legal structures are the formal rules and procedures that, among other things, specify the roles of participants and provide for fairness and transparency. These structures have evolved and been renegotiated over time. A shift from physical to virtual space would require decision-making processes to ensure that participants can work together at least as effectively as they did in person.

The technical structures – the physical or virtual “space” in which preparations and negotiations occur – contributes to defining the structure of the talks and, to a great extent, their effectiveness. Whether in person or online, there are significant logistical challenges. Social and cognitive structures form a third category, enabling or hindering interaction and active participation, networking and trust-building. These structures include interpersonal and diplomatic skills as well as aspects of stress and other cognitive or psychological effects of engaging in online versus in-person activities.

We recognise that many concerns, opportunities, conditions and underlying dynamics can fall under several categories at once (e.g. technical concerns with procedural impacts), and this is reflected in the analysis of the results and the report discussions.

Richard J.T. Klein
Richard J. T. Klein

Team Leader: International Climate Risk and Adaptation; Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Katy Harris
Katy Harris

Senior Policy Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Frida Lager
Frida Lager

Research Associate

SEI Headquarters

Marcus Carson
Marcus Carson

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

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