By Jemma Powell | Science Editor
“The world is watching us… we know we cannot afford to fail them” – Alok Sharma
Stepping out of an all-electric shuttle bus into the warm November air, the ‘Blue Zone’ of COP26 is an impressive sight. Situated next to the river Clyde in Glasgow, the sprawling mass of marquees and glass-panelled buildings is separated from the wider world by a network of 12ft-tall steel barricades.
However, once you’re past the airport-style security, the world couldn’t feel more connected. COP26 was the best attended event on climate action ever seen, with over 40,000 delegates arriving from 197 countries – but what actually was it?
Well, I attended this event as an official delegate for Cardiff University, and now I’m back to report what it was like.
What is COP26?
The 26th Conference of Parties (COP26), provided a space where global officials could negotiate tackling climate change. COPs are common events, occurring annually since the first in Berlin (1995). Each year they’re held in a different location, ranging from Bali in COP13 (2007) to Peru in COP20 (2014).
Organised by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), COP presidency offers a chance to showcase your country’s superior climate initiatives, and gain official support from the UN. It’s sort of like hosting the Olympics, but with more suits.
Why is this COP so important?
The UK is acting as the conference’s host for the first time during COP26. Glasgow was chosen as the principal city due to its “experience in hosting world class events, commitment to sustainability and first-rate facilities”. Specifically, the facilities were the Scottish Exhibition Centre (SEC) which would form part of the official ‘Blue Zone’, and the neighbouring Glasgow Science Centre based the unofficial ‘Green Zone’.
Until now, the most famous COP was COP21, hosted by Paris in 2015. That conference established the internationally renowned Paris Agreement. This ground-breaking legally binding treaty, saw world leaders pledged to limit global warming to less than 2°C. Part of the Paris agreement stated that every 5 years the treaty needed to be reviewed.
Therefore, COP26 was already highly anticipated as it held the first reassessment of the Paris Agreement. But there’s extra importance added to this gathering. Many believe that this year’s COP is our last chance to limiting global warming to 1.5°C. For reference, a 1.5°C rise in temperatures will result in a loss of 70% of the world’s coral reefs. A 2°C warming results in 100% coral reef loss. The effects of climate change can no longer be stopped, but they can be limited.
My experience being a participant at COP26
As a first time COP participant, there are two main phrases I would use to describe the experience; inspiring and exhausting. Official events tended to start at around 9am, meaning an early get up to start the commute through Glasgow. Like during any large event, accommodation prices sky rocketed in the weeks leading up to COP26 and still sold out.
This led to officials staying in hotels or Airbnb’s in Glaswegian outskirts, or even neighbouring cities such as Edinburgh. Free public transport travel passes were provided to delegates, but already inequalities between the richer and poorer delegations were starting to show. Speaking to a group of indigenous elders I discovered that some had resorted to sleeping on scout hut floors. There was a protest on this subject happening one morning just outside the blue zone divide.
Climate protests definitely caught the imagination and attention of many during the two weeks of COP. Across the world, cardboard boxes were made into pickets, demanding leaders to do more as thousands marched. You could feel the charged atmosphere they produced throughout the city. Transferring from trains to buses, the sound of chanting reverberated off the buildings, and it was impossible to not listen.
Each morning more ribbons and prayer flags inscribed with multilingual pleas would hang from the security fencing. Stuck to the surrounding walls were posters and signs all bearing similar messages; “the world is watching- don’t fail us”.
In the official ‘Blue’ Zone
Inside, the atmosphere was just as electric. Everywhere you went, hundreds of people in suits or formal traditional attire surrounded you. People sprinting down corridors holding briefcases, people sitting on the floor furiously typing on laptops, people surrounded by their own security guards and trailed by a flock of press. There was a constant and infectious sense of urgency, of everyone working as hard as they possibly could to pull-off the impossible.
Despite the borderline frantic surroundings (I once witnessed a minister of the British government feed lunch to their colleague who was having a heated phone negotiation while lying on the canteen floor), everyone was always considerate. The mix of different authority levels in the same area led to a sort of social-status temporary upheaval. In queues, you would talk and joke with the people around you, who would turn out to be high ranking politicians or CEOs more often than not.
I ended up having a coffee with a member of the House of Lords. The founder of a UN backed international climate resilience organisation invited me to karaoke. On the bus home one day I swapped stories with a high level-minister from the Indian Government, and had many more similar interactions. It was a surprisingly compelling and eye-opening experience- to understand the people in power aren’t gods or from some higher and unreachable plane… they’re just people.
What were the reoccurring themes in the discussions?
In every meeting or debate I attended; the same three themes kept surfacing. These were: it is critical that the public and private sector join forces on climate issues, climate change exacerbates pre-existing inequalities, and that diversity breeds innovation we need.
The private sector
In terms of the private sector, many panellists were reeling in the hard-won mindset shift of major companies. To paraphrase one panellist, “Five years ago I had to fight to get companies to even think going green could be beneficial. Now it’s a given”. This is a pretty uplifting and very true statement. How many electric cars would you see five years ago vs now? How many people would roll their eyes when you suggested buying sustainable goods five years ago vs now?
The change in consumer mindset has forced prominent companies to change their business plans. If people want to buy green products, people are going to make and sell green products. This has led to an increased cooperation between the private and public sectors in terms of their climate aims, but they need to join forces like never before in order to fund the start ups and new technologies required to get us on a 1.5°C trajectory.
Climate effects people unequally. Geographical, financial, and even gender inequalities are all exacerbated by the effects of climate change. As a result, the hardest hit demographic are poor women in developing countries. The poorest countries are not the polluters of this world yet tend to suffer the consequences first and hardest. Women are less likely to have the emergency savings to protect their livelihoods, and are more often the ones left behind in a disaster event.
These were acknowledged facts supported by mountains of evidence, and there was a real push to ensure equity in mitigating climate change. More funding will be given to poorer countries, with large proportions of it going to projects guaranteeing gender equal outcomes. This was the first COP to hold a ‘gender day’, and hearing Nancy Pelosi speak on that panel was truly something to behold.
“Without a gender perspective, we risk missing out long term sustainable solutions”
Diversity and innovation
The main point of tension in both the negotiating rooms and open meetings was the fact that G20 countries seem unwilling to supply the agreed funding. Promises made in 2009 of richer countries providing $100bn to poorer countries have still not been fulfilled. This has resulted in deep distrust and anger from many representatives of parties from the global south towards members of the G20.
There was a constant reference to the fact that if we’re going to pull this off, it’s going to take everyone working together. That requires an even distribution of funding throughout the globe. However, no one was asking for charity, they were demanding investment. As so eloquently put by Oluwadabira Abiola-Awe in a presidential meeting:
“If keeping funding in the global north could solve climate change, I’m sure a lot more would have been done by now”
What outcomes were leaders able to reach at COP26?
The Full listings of official outcomes can be found here, and they’ve been seen as a success. However, I’m going to focus on the outcomes you won’t find from reading the official documents. So here are some things I’ve learnt from COP.
First, it would be impossible for these events to happen online. During the national lockdown, organisers decided to delay the 2020 COP26 instead of moving it online. If this hadn’t occurred, COP26 may have had very different outcomes. This is due to several reasons aside from the obvious of connection issues. Firstly, language barriers. In every meeting I attended people tended to speak their native languages. In person, headsets were provided allowing live translation. Online, this resource would not have been available, resulting in many people being unable to convey points. This would have furthered the divide between those with a good command of English (generally G20 countries) and those who would have preferred speaking in a native language.
Equally, the physical interactions occurring during breaks are just as important as those in meetings. The decision to reschedule saved many key but unofficial interactions between agencies. CEOs of tech start-ups who may never have met normally would exchange ideas and details over lunch. Parties held informal discussions over coffee. Completely separate fields saw their similarities walking past one another’s presentations. COP26 if held online may have resulted in very different outcomes, due to the loss of these discussions.
The second thing I’ve learnt is that in the nitty gritty negotiations of climate politics, the heads of state do very little. They give speeches and some instructions to their delegates, but they’re never really ‘in the room where it happens’. The negotiators and secretariats do the majority of work. Sadly, the general public tends to overlook their efforts.
The same applies to the news headlines such as “Putin will not attend climate summit”. Just because Putin or Xi Jinping didn’t go in person does not mean Russia or China’s delegates didn’t attend. They were there. They were working on this too.
Another unmissable point was that everyone wants to solve this. The idea that those in power don’t care about climate change is no longer true. Everyone worked tirelessly for a good set of solutions and were genuinely desperate for them.
The end of fossil fuels?
Saying this, there were definitely forces the negotiators couldn’t seem to control at play. One of these was the influence of major fossil fuel provider companies. The largest delegation present did not belong to a country, but to the fossil fuel industry. Throughout proceedings there were subtle nods to their influence.
For example, there was a major focus on green hydrogen as the main source of clean energy powering our planes and cities in the future. Yet those pushing it were reluctant to say where they were planning on sourcing this from. Usually, it comes from natural gas provided by, you guessed it, the fossil fuel industry.
Every ten years or so, green hydrogen gains popularity then gets discounted due to safety and logistical issues. The focus on this solution was unnerving. Especially when so many other, much more viable alternatives, were on display throughout the conference (and were seemingly ignored).
Was COP26 a success? What impacts will it have?
We known for a while now there’s a lot of work to do. Now, thanks to the dedicated work of thousands over countless years, we know exactly what needs to be done, and by when. There seems to be so little time to save the planet from ourselves it’s easy to feel hopeless. Levels of climate related anxiety and depression are on the rise, a factor why so many denied climate change was because they believed it to be fear mongering.
We now know the effects of climate change are not over exaggerated. They’re not a figment of mad scientists’ imaginations. Even in the UK, floods are more extreme, summers are getting hotter and winters more erratic. What many don’t realise is we (in Britain) have already been protected by potential disasters caused by climate change.
For example, on the 28th of October there was severe flooding in Cumbria due to climate change driven storms. While 40 homes were flooded, 1400 were protected by flood defences installed over the last seven years. On the same weekend, the Boston Barrier (off the Lincolnshire coast) closed for the first time, protecting over $3bn of infrastructure.
The main conclusion from the scientists at COP26 is that climate change isn’t a future idea, it’s a present situation, the effects of which we’ve been seeing for decades already. The politicians and companies at COP26 know what needs to be done, and they have the resources to do it. The main conclusion from the people at COP26 is everyone needs to work together and do more.
The next decade will be a decade of great change. We have the technologies, ability, and ambition to save this planet, and everything’s going to start changing very quickly. One take-home message from COP is that innovation is always exponential. That curve has already started; we’ve just got to keep it going.
The main barrier to climate progress
Here we come to the main barrier; Money. Everything comes down to what funding we put where, what we prioritise, who provides financial backing to which projects. There are already so many real technologies that can contribute to saving the planet, but the one shared barrier is production cost.
It feels so arbitrary when put in relation to the survival of the entire planet, yet the proper movement of money is the only way to solve this. There was a huge call for complete transparency in where invested money was going, and larger incentives to invest. In response, this was built into the official document produced.
No one can say for sure what’s going to happen in the future, but there is one undeniable definite. If we get too overwhelmed and scared, if we stop fighting and working, only the worst will come to pass. It may be up to those in charge of the big decisions to make the most impact, but that doesn’t mean we can just sit back and relax.
I left Glasgow on an unnervingly warm November day feeling that bad things are definitely coming, but COP26 has improved our prospects significantly. With a lot of work and a bit of luck, we might have just bought ourselves a better future.Jemma Powell Science and Technology