COP26: Did Glasgow find a lifeline for the world?
Shouting, rhetoric, promises and placards – COP26 came and went in Glasgow like a storm out of season, leaving behind a bewildered and non-the-wiser Scotland and a planet still on hold.
For the Glaswegians who battened down the hatches and spent the last fortnight as far away from the city centre as possible, the political hurricane has now passed, and the ‘Dear Green Place’ returned to its usual grey self.
Delegates and members of the press who toured the COP campus on the banks of the River Clyde were treated to stalls, free merchandise, and presentations from countries from all around our rapidly-warming planet.
However, nothing new was learned in the early days of the conference. We know that climate change is warming the planet. We know we need to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and we know this involves transitioning from burning fossil fuels and decarbonizing the global economy.
It’s hard to imagine any of the estimated 25,000 delegates who arrived in Glasgow did not already know this – so what more did it achieve?
The supposed targets of what felt like a massive climate change trade fair, the global leaders responsible for making things happen, were nowhere to be seen near the UN’s myriad of educational events.
During the World Leaders’ Summit – the first two days of COP26 – heads of government and celebrities may have added a sense of star power, but were largely inaccessible, even to the media.
Entourages of security and personal assistants would speed down the corridors, leaving journalists feeling like they were train-spotting – long convoys would go swooshing past, while hacks did their best to catch a glimpse of their precious cargo.
The list of celebrities like Greta Thunberg, Bill Gates, Prince William, Jeff Bezos and Leonardo DiCaprio kept the baying media entertained while President Biden and Boris Johnson slipped in through the back door and in the prime minister’s case, very quickly back out again.
Some leaders did not shy away from the limelight, though. For First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, there was no photo opportunity too small, no interview too taxing, so long as they were foreign media outlets – Scotland’s journalists were largely shunned by the First Minister.
Fresh from her glossy front cover spread in Vogue magazine, Sturgeon was interviewed by CNN and the New York Times, she posed for photos with young climate activists Vanessa Nakate and Greta Thunberg, and was spotted having brief encounters - heavily photographed, of course – with President Biden, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and even appeared to bury the hatchet with Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham.
Speaking at an event hosted by environmental charity WWF, Sturgeon said governments should be held to account for what happens at the conference, saying: “This has to be a moment that leaders – all of us, whether we’re round that negotiating table or not – are really held to account for the reality of what we promise not the rhetoric.
“What can everyone do? Make life really uncomfortable for any government, any leader that’s not doing enough.”
On her own government’s missed emissions targets, the First Minister said she would rather miss difficult targets than “leap over” easy ones.
The First Minister’s celebrity managed to upstage – and even eclipse – Boris Johnson’s hopes of projecting himself onto the international stage.
The Prime Minister’s opening speech, on day one of COP, was received with bemusement by the world’s press, as he sought to deliver his trademark charm and bumbling levity which usually works a charm in his Tory heartlands. But Glasgow is famously a tough gig.
Johnson routinely paused for laughs, but relatively few were forthcoming from the amassed representatives.
Le Point, a weekly politics magazine published in France, opined that “wide-eyed, we observe Johnson’s smirk; his face recalls that of a dad cracking one of his favourite jokes.”
Germany’s Der Spiegel likened the Prime Minister’s Bond references to the time he talked about Kermit the Frog in a climate speech, while Spain’s El País noted Johnson was formerly a climate sceptic while working as a columnist at the Daily Telegraph.
Speaking of the Telegraph, the following day the Prime Minister chartered a private jet to London, to meet with former Daily Telegraph editor and previous climate change denier Charles Moore – the Baron Moore of Etchingham, to give his full title – at a men-only private members’ club.
Journalists and commentators had a field day – with the Mirror’s front page decrying it as the ‘PM’s flying shame’.
The meeting followed a domestic scandal for Johnson, as Conservative MP for North Shropshire, Owen Paterson, was found by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to have breached paid advocacy rules relating to his work lobbying on behalf of healthcare company Randox, and food processor Lynn's Country Foods Ltd - Randox was awarded two contracts worth £480m by the UK Government.
The subsequent attempt by Tory MPs to overturn the decision in Parliament, and overhaul the entire standards procedure, left Johnson fighting headlines accusing him of corruption, rather than praising the UK Government’s attempts to reach net-zero.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon posing for a photo with Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate
The UK Government’s abilities to host an event of this magnitude were also heavily criticized.
Even before COP26 got under way, a letter to ministers, reportedly organised by Sky and signed by sponsors including NatWest and SSE, is said to have accused government planners of delayed decisions and poor communication, blaming “very inexperienced” civil servants.
Those concerns appeared to be well founded, as on the first day of COP26, and the first day of the world leaders’ summit, delegates and journalists were made to queue for hours while being exposed to Glasgow’s unseasonal temperatures and unusual police presence.
The strictness of the Covid protocols, too, appeared lacklustre. Delegates often complained that despite being told admittance would not be granted without a negative PCR test on the day, these were not being checked by the UN security which manned the entrance.
The potential for COP26 to spread coronavirus in Scotland was debated before the event, with Sturgeon saying “it is inevitably the case” that Scotland hosting COP26 “poses a risk of increased Covid transmission” – and Health Secretary Humza Yousaf telling the BBC there will “of course” be an increase in coronavirus cases as a result of delegates attending the climate change summit.
Following the first week of COP26, the optimism and backslapping gave way to anger.
On Friday 5 November, an estimated 25,000 school strikers brought Glasgow to a halt.
Timed to coincide with the UN conference's Youth and Public Empowerment Day, the protestors gathered in George Square, where Greta Thunberg called the summit “a global greenwash festival” and a “two-week-long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah.”
The Friday protests, held on Bonfire Night, lit the fuse of the much-larger protests which took place the following day.
Although taking place in a deluge of Scottish rain, the march was no damp squib, with more than 100,000 people descending on Scotland’s second city.
The anger of the protestors was palpable, but the protest march and subsequent rally on Glasgow Green took place without violence.
Even protestors who chained themselves together and blocked Glasgow’s King George V Bridge were very polite with attending police, and the group, called ‘Scientist Rebellion’ laughed and joked with coppers as they used bolt cutters to remove their shackles, before allowing themselves to be carried rather gracefully to awaiting police vans.
On a temporary stage on Glasgow Green, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Marshall Islands Climate Envoy to the United Nations, told activists: “We need the biggest emitters to be held responsible. We need financing to implement the solutions we are currently developing ourselves through our national adaptation plan.”
The second week of COP26 continued where the first week left off – with celebrities and international politicians hogging the limelight and taking the headlines.
Former President Barack Obama appeared on Monday, and in a geographic faux pas, referred to Scotland as the ‘Emerald Isles’, while socialist US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared at a talk on gender, joining a 3.5m-tall puppet and – of course – Nicola Sturgeon.
So, where has COP26 taken us? Nearly six years ago, on a cold Parisian night in December, 2015, a Mexican wave of standing ovations greeted the news that the Paris Climate Agreement had been signed.
Delegates from 196 countries cheered and slapped each other on the back as last-minute objections were overcome, and the world greeted the “historic, durable and ambitious” agreement to limit emissions to relatively safe levels, and keep global warming to just two degrees Celsius - with an aspiration of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
This was a marked contrast with the last attempt to combat climate change, in Copenhagen in 2009, where talks collapsed amidst chaos and infighting.
How will Glasgow compare to these two extremes? Like Paris, there may well be ovations and back-slapping, but the success of Glasgow, and even Paris, will be measured in the coming decades and centuries – not the immediate headlines and soundbites that will emerge over the following days.
Already, 40 world leaders have backed and signed up to the Glasgow Breakthrough Agreement, including the US, India, the EU and China.
The UK Government says that the first “five goals” of the agreement are: “Power is the most affordable and reliable option for all countries to meet their power needs efficiently by 2030; zero emission vehicles are the new normal and accessible, affordable, and sustainable in all regions by 2030; near-zero emission steel is the preferred choice in global markets, with efficient use and near-zero emission steel production established and growing in every region by 2030; affordable renewable and low carbon hydrogen is globally available by 2030; and climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture is the most attractive and widely adopted option for farmers everywhere by 2030.”
There have also been major announcements relating to deforestation and methane emissions.
The US and China too, appear to have made inroads. During the last week of COP26 the two superpowers surprised the world by appearing to put aside their differences and announce a new agreement.
The agreement calls for “concrete and pragmatic” regulations in decarbonisation, reducing methane emissions and fighting deforestation, and the two countries will meet regularly to discuss climate change actions.
However, climate change groups remain unhappy with the pace of change.
According to projections published by Climate Action Tracker - an independent scientific analysis that tracks government climate action and measures it against the Paris Agreement – the world is heading toward at least 2.4˚C of warming.
Alok Sharma, President of the Cop26 climate summit, speaks during an informal stock-taking plenary session, during an 'overun' day of the Cop26 summit in Glasgow
In response, Lang Banks, Director of WWF Scotland said: “To put it bluntly, what has been pledged so far in Glasgow is not yet enough to prevent the world from warming more than 1.5C – putting people and nature in peril.
“Climate pledges are not the same as climate action and it’s clear the biggest gap lies in real action to cut emissions this decade.
“Every fraction of a degree of warming matters to limit the catastrophic dangers of climate change. There’s no more time to waste, we need to see all those net zero commitments for far off in the future backed up by real and rapid cuts to emissions by 2030.”
And on the final day of COP26, fears that international diplomacy and bureaucracy would fail the planet appeared to be well placed.
In the closing stages of the summit, past the deadline for a deal, China and India objected to the proposed wording of a deal that would “phase out” coal.
With both nations heavily dependent on coal power, the two delegations managed to secure a watered-down wording that coal would be “phased down”.
The president of the climate summit, Conservative MP Alok Sharma, fought back tears as he offered an emotional apology to the world, saying he was “deeply sorry” for how the negotiations ended.
The impressive presentations in the Blue Zone, the scientific demonstrations in the Green Zone, and the raucous protests on the cold streets of Glasgow, told the world what we already know - that the planet is warming at a dramatic rate as a direct cause of mankind’s emissions.
What needed to come from Glasgow was a promise to deliver. And now. Instead world leaders were politely told to try harder.