A Letter from COP – first impressions from a first timer

  • 18 May 2020
  • Written by Nick Cullen
  • Blog, General

In December 2019 Kat Jones was part of a group from Scottish civil society attending COP in Madrid. She was there to learn more about how civil society groups interact at COP to prepare for when COP comes to Glasgow.  Here are some extracts from her reports back home ….  

December in Madrid is cold. I left my hotel in the dark, went into the subway and travelled the 20 minutes out to FEMA, the city’s exhibition centre. There were banks of scanners and security when I arrived and I looked anxiously down the queue of people to check whether my choice of clothes fitted in. I’d gone with smart(ish), and was pleased to see the whole range from business suits and briefcases, to jeans and sweatshirts.

After our belongings, and our bodies, and our passes were scanned, we passed barrows of fruit (“Help yourselves!”) and were handed bars of chocolate (“Rainforest chocolate with a message for you inside”) and entered the COP proper.  It was  absolutely huge, with a vast (imagine aircraft hangar) reception space containing a few large meeting rooms/auditoriums, and also tiny stalls for groups to rent for a day or more as well as country delegation private office/meeting spaces. A second massive space housed non-country pavilions (like the WWF pavilion, the IPCC, various others) a third space had country pavilions, a fourth housed negotiating spaces – each of which is pretty huge – especially the plenary one. There were also a couple of vast halls where temporary rooms had been constructed that some groups can book for meetings, press conferences and the like. Behind the scenes there are yet more rooms for negotiators and delegations.

It is airless, has no natural light, the acoustics are debilitatingly bad (impossible to make conference calls in) and it always seemed like at least a ten minute walk to the loos. Many people spend all day, every day in here – with receptions and activities extending well into the evening. There are hundreds and hundreds of parallel events taking place all day and it is a huge challenge to find out where the best place for you to be is at any one time. Most people do it by word of mouth as the choice is truly mind-blowing, not to mention the 44 separate websites (not an exaggeration) you would need to visit to find out every event that was happening inside COP.

One of the many small stalls at COP25

After a first day of utter confusion, disorientation and downright bewilderment, I started to find my feet, with the help of my Stop Climate Chaos Scotland colleagues. And eventually  got started to get my head around what COP is and how to navigate it.  


I also discovered the full diversity of the global climate movement who come to COPs, from the NGOs, trade unions, indigenous groups,  youth groups, climate justice groups and others that comprise the official ‘constituencies’ within the official COP spaces, to the hundreds of thousands that showed up to the march through Madrid on the middle weekend and the activists attending the alternative summit at the University campus the other side of the city.  

An action from Climate Justice groups inside COP25


The Social Summit, just like COP25, had been brought together in an incredible six weeks, due to the transfer of COP from Chile to Spain, putting on a  really full and well-organised event.  We ran two events at the social summit to get the input of participants – some of whom are true COP veterans – on how we in Scotland can help create the right environment to support global civil society at COP, and to explain some of the political background, challenges and opportunities of a COP in Glasgow.  Civil society input continued with the Mass Mobilisation on the middle weekend and brought up to 500,000 people onto the streets of Madrid.  A line of two representatives of each group walked shoulder-to-shoulder ahead of the march, which was led by the indigenous groups, walking in silence with a flame ahead of them.  It was extremely moving and powerful to see.   

Social summit reception at COP25, Madrid

In week two, I started to feel a little institutionalised: talks, panel discussions, authorised civil society actions (meaning usually a small protest or theatrical intervention) and meetings, meetings, meetings during the day, followed by evening drinks receptions. And the chronic exhaustion, lack of daylight, exercise and proper food started to hit.   


There was a whisper of unauthorised action taking place, on Wednesday of week two.  Most of the constituencies had come together to decide that progress in the talks was stalled and they needed to make their voice known. We were all informed when and where to meet, and a press call went out to the world’s media.  That morning, during the opening of the proceedings, where Greta Thunberg had given an address, the young people at COP got up and occupied the stage. In the afternoon the combined forces of civil society acting together, and in one voice, gathered outside the negotiating room and started to make noise – tapping glass bottles and singing. A crowd of around 400 people gathered and it ended with around 200 people being herded outside through huge metal roller doors and having their COP passes taken away. 

March at COP25, Madrid

To me this seemed a very significant day – firstly the unprecedented occasion with the young people occupying the stage, secondly the disproportionate reaction from the UN as they, not only de-badged 200 civil society people, but also prevented any observer passes entering the building for the rest of the day. Thirdly, the united approach from all of the civil society groups in taking part in the action, in their joint statement calling for civil society voice to be restored to the COP, and in negotiating with the UN on getting the badges back for those excluded.  


At the end of the week I went back to the Social Summit to talk for a short slot at the plenary on behalf of Scottish Civil society, which they turned into an impromptu handover event. Winging it somewhat – and Informed by our desire to create a warm, welcoming and cultural experience when they travel to Glasgow – I called a few ceilidh dances, assisted by a fantastic translator who, despite never having danced ceilidh before, managed to translate the calling instructions while mid dashing white sergeant.  

With the memories of the wonderful atmosphere of the social summit, and bringing the light of the Madrid Social Summit home with me to Glasgow (it was a coffee filter balanced on a phone torch that they handed me at the end of the ceilidh …)  I am really excited about being a part of a powerful global civil society movement – and in doing what we can to support and welcome them when COP comes to Glasgow.   

Plan for organisation of the march at COP25

Civil Society groups inside COP25 protest at lack of progress

  • Nick Cullen

    Nick is a past coordinator for the Climate Fringe platform and Climate Fringe Festival, working on strategy, website development and communications. He spent two years at SCCS in the lead up to COP26 and led on developing the Homestay Network, volunteering programme, COVID-19 safety, and many other aspects of logistics and operations in collaboration with the COP26 Coalition.