Reporting from the UN Treaty COPs and Other Climate and Environmental Conferences: Tips for Journalists, from Journalists

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Reporting from the UN Treaty COPs and Other Climate and Environmental Conferences: Tips for Journalists, from Journalists

What is a UN COP?

The Conference of the Parties, otherwise known as a COP, is the decision-making body of United Nations treaties, including those for arguably the most well-known such treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Created in 1992, along with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the UNFCCC has since been signed by 197 countries and is an international environmental agreement created to combat "dangerous human interference with the climate system.”

All states that are a signatory to the convention are represented at COP and they meet annually to review emissions inventories submitted by the parties and then assess the effects of the measures taken by the parties, and plan subsequent actions. Past COPs have resulted in the signing of agreements such as the Paris Agreement signed in 2015 at COP21 in Paris. This was a legally binding treaty designed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees. The COPs since then have involved countries submitting nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of emissions reductions which (if promises are met), aim to collectively ensure the planet does not warm more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. However, current NDCs face criticism because they are not ambitious enough to limit warming to the 2-degree target.

EJN and the COP

The Earth Journalism Network’s Climate Change Media Partnership (CCMP) — carried out in collaboration with other organizations such as the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, the International Institute for Environment and Development and Panos — has been sending journalists to COPs since COP13 in Bali in 2007. Since then, we have supported more than 400 journalists with fellowships to these summits, most recently to COP26 where we took 22 journalists to Glasgow, Scotland.

In addition, EJN has brought dozens of journalist fellows to the UNCBD COPs (since COP10 in Nagoya, Japan) and the UNCCD COPs, as well as to other major conferences such as IUCN World Conservation Congresses and the World Water Forum.

EJN believes it is critical for journalists representing diverse countries—and especially those from low- and middle-income countries — to have the opportunity to attend and report directly from these pivotal decision-making spaces, so long as they can do so safely.

EJN’s fellowships not only provide financial and crucial logistical support to journalists needing to travel to these conferences, but also provide extensive training to help journalists report on large international conferences that often require experience and expertise.

After COP26, the cohort of fellows made up of 22 journalists from 15 different countries and 4 trainers, went on to produce a total of 227 stories. In total, our fellows have produced over 3,000 stories reporting on the ground at these climate conferences! 

While we endeavor to keep international travel to a minimum, it is necessary to ensure the voices of journalists from low- and middle-income countries are heard at international conferences. Read about our Carbon Offsetting program here.

The presence of journalists from low- and middle-income countries at these negotiations is critical to ensure governments around the world are held accountable for their commitments, especially considering journalists from these regions are often excluded and underrepresented in these debates. Sim Kok Eng Amy, Senior Project Manager for EJN’s Asia-Pacific project, said delegates at these conferences “need to be able to represent the voices back home, so we bring journalists here to ask them questions, to remind them." Without opportunities like the Climate Change Media Partnership, it is very difficult for journalists to get funding to attend these conferences.

In 2022, we are also providing fellowships to conferences of the UNCCD, UNCBD and the UN Ocean Conference. Keep an eye on our current opportunities page to see upcoming EJN fellowships to such conferences. We’re also now offering scholarships to some of these and other conferences – essentially travel grants which allow journalists to travel and cover them independently (without logistical, editorial or training support). Regardless of the conference you’re interested in covering, and whether you’ll be reporting in-person or remotely, we hope the guidance in this tipsheet proves helpful to you.

How we produced this tipsheet

Following the 2021 UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow, we decided to produce a tipsheet to guide journalists planning to cover future COPs and similar summits.

We reached out to fellows from past climate COPs, asking them to fill out a survey on their experiences, including how they prepared for the summits, what worked well, what did not, and what others stand to gain from the fellowship. Below, you can read about our past fellows’ experiences and the advice they would give to anyone reporting from future COPs – either in person, or virtually. We have also included suggestions from experienced trainers who accompany fellows to these climate summits. You will receive insights from Fermin Koop, Imelda Abano, James Fahn and Joydeep Gupta, who have, among them, covered more than 45 COPs.

Climate Change Media Partnership Fellows and Trainers at COP26 in Glasgow, 2021 / Credit: Charlie Debenham.
Climate Change Media Partnership Fellows and Trainers at COP26 in Glasgow, 2021 / Credit: Charlie Debenham.

Reporting remotely

COP26 was particularly challenging due to the complications caused by Covid-19. Vaccine requirements and pandemic-related travel restrictions impacted many hopeful attendees from low and middle-income countries, which exacerbated their lack of representation at the COP. As a result, there was more reason than ever to give more support to journalists wanting to cover these events.

Since the pandemic, the need for remote reporting has increased. With increased restrictions and costs of travel, as well as vaccine requirements and PPE costs, international conferences such as the COP have become increasingly difficult to attend in person. Many journalists therefore need to report remotely to cover events in their home country. Recognizing this, EJN’s UNCCD Virtual Fellowship supported fellows from countries in sub-Saharan Africa to report virtually on the COP in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in May 2022. 

Besides Covid-19, journalists from low- and middle-income countries may have other reasons to cover conferences remotely. That's why we’ve created this tipsheet with insights both for journalists on the ground as well as those reporting from afar.

Here is some advice we collected from our fellows specifically for journalists who cannot attend conferences in person.

Purple Romero, a CCMP Fellow from the Philippines who reported at COP22 in Morocco said keeping track of online venues such as organizers’ official webinars, livestreams and social media updates is important as many side events are increasingly being held online. Yunanto Wiji Utomo, a CCMP Fellow from Indonesia who traveled to Scotland to cover COP26, added that climate and environmental NGOs also hold daily briefings online before and during these summits, which are a useful source of information. During the last COP, EJN hosted daily online briefings open to all journalists, and hosted them again during the UNCCD COP in May 2022 to help journalists report from afar. Keep an eye on our social media channels and website to find out about similar events happening throughout the year.

Guilherme Jancowski de Avila Justino, a Brazilian fellow who reported from COP24 in Poland told us: “I unfortunately couldn't be there for COP26, but following and connecting with people who I knew were heading there, to get information, insights and also interview them [while they were at] COP, really helped me do a good job reporting from home. It is harder, of course, but with planning and proper connections you can pretty much know everything you choose to cover!”

Sam Adams, from the USA, advises journalists to record any meetings or online events you attend as it can be hard to concentrate for long periods of time when you’re staring at a screen – this way you won’t miss any important updates.

Before the COP: How to prepare for reporting at the conference

The Conference of Parties usually lasts two weeks, although according to EJN trainer Fermín Koop who has reported on six climate COPs, almost every COP runs longer by a day or two. With intense negotiations, hundreds of side events and stories to cover inside and outside the COP venue, making the most of your time is key. Here are some pointers from past fellows to make sure you are fully prepared for the quick pace and multitude of activities.

Read as much as you can.

It might sound obvious but making sure you know everything you can about the COP and its themes will reduce the time you need to spend doing background research. While you are at the COP, you do not want to be worrying about the meaning of one of the many acronyms or trying to understand a certain complex climate concept. Many of our past fellows said the preparation they did beforehand really helped them to make the most of the conference.

“The EJN-recommended resources helped me to understand what actually is going on at COP ... and it helped me to make a news plan for my newspaper,” said Shamsuddin Illius, one of the 2021 fellows who reported from COP26 in Glasgow. Shamsuddin, like many other fellows, particularly appreciated the pre-COP Zoom meetings hosted by EJN which helped him to work out what needed to be done before he arrived in Glasgow for COP26. Ochi Rochimawati, another 2021 fellow, told us: “I attended many webinars from organizations with the COP theme, discussed with journalists who had covered the COPs, discussed with the government and NGOs. I read a lot of information from the UNFCCC, EJN, and other institutions.”

Here is a list of resources suggested by our fellows and trainers:

Some of these resources were created for COP26 in 2021 but they may still be useful for other conferences.

Background information and reports:

 

Internews and EJN resources:

 

COP27 resources:

 

Although these resources were provided by EJN for our COP26 fellows in 2021, you might find some of the information useful for future conferences.

 

Plan your stories before you arrive at the COP

Doing prior research can help you to start thinking about story ideas that you want to cover. Maybe you came across something that happened in your home country or at a previous COP and you want to investigate it further. For example, you might look at the commitments made by your country at the COP, and how aligned they are with ones they have made in the past. You might want to consider where your country stands on certain issues like emissions targets and Net Zero deadlines, loss and damage, the public health and climate change nexus, or gender and climate justice, all topics that were covered by EJN’s daily briefings at COP26. Therefore, reading about previous COPs will help you to prepare. If you know what themes you want to cover with your reporting, do all your background research before you get to the COP. Your approach should be considered carefully when planning your stories, says EJN’s Abano. “EJN encourages journalists to report from a solutions journalism perspective and produce climate stories that explore scalable solutions for maximum impact.”

COP26 Fellow Aida Delpuech interviewing a source in Glasgow, 2021 / Credit: Charlie Debenham.
COP26 Fellow Aïda Delpuech interviewing a source in Glasgow, 2021 / Credit: Charlie Debenham.

Start setting up interviews

Networking should begin well before the COP starts. Many journalists make useful contacts beforehand which help them find sources and other opportunities whilst they are at the conference. Whether it is just for advice on how to report at the COP, or to arrange interviews for a story you are planning, talking to relevant people is a must!

Having pre-arranged interviews before you get to the COP means you will have one less thing to think about during a very busy conference.  When we asked our fellows what they would do differently next time, 50% of them said they wished they had arranged interviews before hand. Tiwonge Ng'ona Kampondeni, a 2011 fellow from Malawi who reported from COP17 said “arranging interviews in advance is key” because you do not have to worry when you are at the busy conference about finding sources and it helps you frame your story.

Didier Makal, a fellow from COP22 in Morocco recommended that future fellows “...maximize the beginning days [of the conference] to meet more people and as well as possible, to plan some exclusive interviews.”

“Before coming to COP26, I made a list of Indonesian delegates and contacted them. I talked to the head of delegates a few times and also the vice minister of environment. It helped me to arrange interviews during the COP's tight schedule,” said Yunanto Wiji Utomo, 2021 Fellow.

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Learn about your country’s delegates

To find your country’s delegates, the foreign ministry or the environment ministry is usually a good place to start, as they will be coordinating the delegation and the agenda at COP. The UNCCD-published list of delegates often changes, and the list is not particularly user-friendly, says one of EJN’s Trainers, Joydeep Gupta. As mentioned above, knowing your country’s delegates and their agenda is important. If you can, try and create a relationship with them and set up interviews before the COP. For 1-1 meetings, you might have more luck reaching out early, before their schedules get filled up. Make sure you attend relevant briefings that are open to the press and follow up with questions you have prepared in advance. According to EJN’s Fermín Koop, many of the conversations with country delegates at the COP might be off the record but they can still be useful for your reporting.

Even if you are successful in reaching them, be prepared to receive vague statements, and push for more information wherever possible. Utomo from the 2021 fellowship said that although he was able to get interviews with delegates, “They were not open about what happened inside the room. Thus, I faced difficulties in reporting the negotiation.” As he noted, most negotiations at the COP occur behind closed doors, without members of the media present.

Attend pre-COP events

In the weeks and months leading up to the Conference of Parties, numerous events are hosted such as the Pre-COP summit held in Milan. Since the pandemic, many of these events are now online. These events can give you a stronger idea of what you can expect from the COP, help you to start thinking about the sort of reporting you want to do from the COP and can help you to find angles and potential stories. Before the COP, the UNFCCC will list side events on its website. Keep a lookout for this, choose the events you want to cover and start preparing your own hour-by-hour calendar, advises EJN’s Joydeep Gupta.

Where to find pre-COP events:

Daniel Kaburu, 2021 Fellow reporting from COP26 in Glasgow / Credit: Charlie Debenham.
Daniel Kaburu, 2021 Fellow reporting from COP26 in Glasgow / Credit: Charlie Debenham.

During the COP

Make the most of the daily briefing and support from the trainers

If you are awarded a CCMP Fellowship by EJN, make the most of the daily briefings that occur every morning during the conference, led by the trainers and the EJN team. They are an opportunity to learn what is happening that day and what to prioritize. The briefings are a chance to ask any questions you have and share ideas with your fellow journalists and hear informally about what’s happening among other countries’ delegations. So come prepared to the briefings with questions and be ready to take notes.

“Hundreds of events take place simultaneously during a COP. And you cannot be in more than one place at the same time. So, it is essential that you plan your day the first thing in the morning. Do this before you come down from your room for the briefing, which typically takes place over breakfast,” says Gupta. “Then you can discuss your plan for the day with the trainers and other fellows. This may help you to improve your plan or find out about events you were not aware of. You may find another fellow interested in the same event to which you want to go, but cannot because there is a clash in your schedule. Then you can arrange to take the notes from the other fellow instead of missing your story.”

When we asked our fellows what they found useful about the fellowship, more than half of them pointed to the daily CCMP “breakfast briefings” as being an important source of guidance during the COP. Purple Romero, the fellow from the Philippines who attended COP22 said, “The daily briefing on the developments that have occurred in the COP talks was very helpful, as mentors and fellows get to exchange notes and updates.”

EJN’s Fahn also recommends sitting in on the press briefings given by country negotiators and other key stakeholders throughout the COP. In addition to getting an idea of the public views of major delegations, you can also usually gain perspectives on the views of NGO coalitions and industry representatives. Many journalists have noted they find it far easier to network with high-ranking delegates from their own countries – including ministers, parliamentarians and even occasionally prime ministers – at the COP than when they are back home.

James Fahn, Director of the Earth Journalism Network, explaining the evolution of the COP at one of the daily briefings in Glasgow at COP26, 2021 / Ochi Rochimawati.
James Fahn, Director of the Earth Journalism Network, explaining the evolution of the COP at one of the daily briefings in Glasgow at COP26, 2021 / Ochi Rochimawati.

Interact with other journalists and build your network

Make the most of the opportunity where thousands of people are together at the same time for the same reason. Circulate and introduce yourself to experts and policymakers at side events who might give you a quote for your story and take time to chat with other journalists who might want to collaborate in the future. Networking is important both during and after the conference.

COP26 Fellows having breakfast in Glasgow before a morning briefing. / Credit: Zhai Yun (Nat) Tan.
COP26 Fellows having breakfast in Glasgow before a morning briefing. / Credit: Zhai Yun (Nat) Tan.

Avoiding distraction

During the COP there are hundreds of side events, workshops, and meetings to attend, but many overlap and it is not possible to attend them all. Although it is important to make the most of those you can attend, make sure you stay focused on the events that will help your story, and make sure you do not miss the main negotiations.

“With many events happening at the same time, I just couldn't attend all of the events I wanted,” stated 2017 fellow Assia Chaneva, who arranged interviews before the COP so she would have one less thing to do when she was there.

Make sure to prioritize. You will not be able to attend every event and cover every announcement so be prepared. Know what is on the schedule and work out what events will be the most helpful for you to achieve your COP goals.

Travel light and pack appropriate gear

It sounds obvious, but only carrying what you really need (or using a bag with wheels!) saves a lot of energy. The days at the COP are long and demanding. The last thing you want is to be stuck carrying a heavy bag full of books that you do not need. Prioritize packing the essentials like chargers and spare batteries.

Dress appropriately. Wear comfortable shoes as there can be a lot of standing and walking around, and dress for the weather! The weather during the conferences in Bonn and Glasgow took some of our fellows by surprise, especially if you come from a warmer climate. Check the weather before you travel so you are prepared to stand outside in the rain interviewing protestors, or inside a hot room filled with people listening to lengthy negotiations.

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After the COP

We asked our fellows what advice they had for journalists after the COP had concluded. Eighty percent of them said that continuing to network and stay connected with the people you met there was the most important activity you could do after the conference.

Guilherme Jancowski de Avila Justino, a 2018 Fellow at COP24 said: “What really helped me during my climate reporting over the years after the COP I attended, was to keep in touch with people I met there. Other than winning a national award for my COP24 coverage, I also got countless tips and pitches for stories from people I met during the event and maintained as a source since then, which proved extremely useful!”

Another piece of advice coming from the fellows was to continue to write about the COP and the decisions made there even after it is finished so that the public is reminded of the commitments made at the negotiations.

Keep up to date with the Earth Journalism Network’s opportunities on our opportunities page, where you can apply to fellowships to various COPs.

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