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The COP Negotiation Game

This case study is published to accompany the 2023 handbook chapter on Embedding Sustainability in the Economics Curriculum.


The United Nations annual COP (Conference of the Parties) is arguably one of the most significant international conferences of our time. World leaders, activists, lobbyists, researchers and a host of other individuals congregate to reach agreements addressing the climate and ecological emergency. The most significant recent meeting for climate change policy was COP21 where the Paris Agreement was adopted. The NTU COP game – where players take part in their own simulation of COP21/26, as small teams role-playing key nations – is developed to incorporate elements of ESD (Education for Sustainable Development) into the curriculum by focusing on the cross-disciplinary issue of climate change. This is an opportunity for students to develop their knowledge and understanding of climate change policy-making as well as of the global nature of the problem.

Players outline their national concerns, priorities, and commitments in relation to the climate change negotiations. Through group discussion and negotiation, players explore themes such as climate science, deforestation, carbon management, poverty, climate justice, and geopolitics. Players gain an understanding of general negotiation principles as well as the COP process.

Climate Change Teaching Materials

The idea was to create generic teaching material on climate change that could be used across all schools and subject areas of the university. The result is a climate negotiation workshop based on the 2015 COP21 meeting in Paris that lecturers can use as part of existing modules (or during one-off events such as inductions, employability sessions etc.) to broaden the student’s perspectives and make them more aware of climate change as a sustainability issue.

We created a negotiation role-playing game aimed at students in higher education which takes around 2 hours and 30 minutes. The students play as members of a state delegation, constituency or non-governmental organisation. The delegations work together to put forward key objectives in terms of climate change and negotiate with other groups towards a legally binding agreement on climate change at an international level.

At the start of the workshop students receive an overview of the context of climate change and the United Nations processes that have attempted to tackle it. Each student group receives a briefing pack that will guide them in terms of what to prioritise in negotiations, how to act and which other actors to form alliances with or avoid. The negotiation is structured in the following way:

  1. Their first task is to prepare a brief opening statement/intervention.
  2. After insight into the different groups, the students start informal negotiations (guidance on this is provided in each group’s briefing pack)
  3. Now the formal negotiations start and the goal of the day is to reach a final agreement
  4. Another ‘break’ for informal negotiations is held.
  5. Students are asked to state their final offers.
  6. The student group see if a final agreement has been made.

The workshop ends with a debriefing session to allow students an opportunity to reflect on the negotiation and the general outcomes of the workshop, alongside their own knowledge and skills development.

The original form of this game has been run by the author and colleagues over a few years from the 2015 COP onwards. We are currently updating it to match the current climate debate.

Learning Outcomes

This type of gamification allows learners to engage behaviourally, emotionally, and cognitively which is crucial when engaging with sustainability. This enables a deeper understanding of climate issues from a technical as well as systems- and value-based perspective so that players are in the best position to integrate their learning into their personal and professional lives.

By the end of these games participants should be able to:

Knowledge and Understanding

  • recognise and critique the organisations/states involved in and frameworks used to address climate change at an international level (via the UNFCCC);
  • recognise the geopolitics associated with the frameworks and processes involved in the COP meetings;

Skills, qualities and attributes

  • work productively in a group, showing abilities at different times to listen, contribute, and lead effectively;
  • analyse and synthesise complex information;
  • make and present a reasoned and logical argument and exercise critical judgment as to the merits of competing arguments;
  • evaluate critically and make a reasoned choice between alternative solutions;
  • recognise and act upon their responsibilities as local, national and international citizens.

Student response

We have had good feedback from participants and have had students used their experience of the game in job interviews. I have found it the most successful for students who do it on a voluntary basis, as a compulsory element in classes where students have a pre-existing interest (e.g. subject-related), or in groups when students know each other less. It has been less successful in classes who have less interest in climate and who know each other well. This has only meant that in some circumstances they have been less enthusiastic and a bit more encouragement from the lecturer has been needed. They have always completed the game.

In my experience it is equally successful whether the students manage to make an agreement or not. The briefing discussions afterwards all tend to highlight the power imbalances in the negotiations, the complexity of balancing economic and sustainability goals and the role that ethics and fairness plays.

Acknowledgements: Smith, A., Smith, R., Weinstein, M., Erlandsson, L., Ranson, J. and Puntha, H.

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