Not just hot air: Inside COP26
Peter Knowles reports from the UN climate summit
I’ve joined a vast crowd, filling a quayside road in Glasgow from end to end and pavement to pavement. We huddle together against the wind off the Clyde and edge forward, enviously looking at the more important people being whisked through a side entrance. Already past the outer security and the Covid test check, we’re on our way to the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP26 for short.
Ahead of us: a vast tent where the snaking queue becomes more orderly and there are more pass checks and banks of security scanners. The site has become UN territory for two weeks, policed by oversized, armed, UN cops dressed like New York police.
With around 30,000 official attendees (national delegations, observers, media) the event is on an incredible scale. Add in the workforce to sustain the conference and the large offsite Green Zone for campaigners and activists, and huge numbers of protesters and church and multi-faith events, and you have one of the world’s great gatherings. Seen from above, you might compare it to the gatherings of walrus on the beaches of the Arctic Circle. It takes a quarter of an hour to cross the site. At your destination, a screen listing all the meetings and their rooms spins and scrolls. Parallel meetings spring up for the negotiations proper, as well as the dozens of side events.
The first week is highly technical as the details of masses of agreements are ground out; the second week, political, as government ministers thrash out difficult issues. The tone is set at an initial two-day gathering of world leaders. An opportunity, for those who turn up, to show off their green credentials.
Blah blah blah? That’s a good T-shirt slogan, but it’s too easy to dismiss this without thinking through what it might mean to re-engineer every economy in the world, all at the same time, and with no World Government to enforce the project. Each element of the technical agreements is aimed at reducing, often by just a fraction of one per cent, the impact humans make on the atmosphere.
The sight of the US presidential motorcade thundering over the M8 viaduct might make you think this is all about presidents and prime ministers coming up with a big plan. Not so. The work on decarbonisation, on climate finance, on mitigation and adaptation involves grindingly hard committee business where the world’s great polluters (China and the west) meet with the global south.
My first glimpse of that technical work came at a side event in one of the largest halls, with a platform party of 11, titled Second Meeting of the Structured Expert Dialogue of the Second Periodic Review PR2-SED2 (Part One). It had not been marketed to attract a crowd, but a crowd came anyway. We filled the Armadillo (called that because the building looks like one) as an infinite complexity of language, graphs and numbers washed over us. I didn’t make it to Part Two, but I know that inch by inch, the effort to save the planet from rising sea levels and soaring temperatures goes on.
The conference is a strange world and sees the best and the worst uses of the English language. ‘Why is it important for your country to take the necessary steps towards the operationalisation of the ETF?’ asked one agenda item. Contrast that with Sir David Attenborough’s plea: ‘We should be motivated by hope, not fear.’
Did it matter who was ‘in the room’ at the World Leaders’ Summit? Well, the conspicuous absence of the leaders of China, Russia and Brazil told us before it all started that the world was not going to get sorted this fortnight. But the presence of the US President – the last one having dissented from the climate change ‘hoax’ – and the Prime Minister of India, also told you that things were changing. Changing much too slowly, but changing in the right direction.
India’s commitment to Net Zero in 2070 was a disappointment, coming ten years behind China’s. If COP continues to be held yearly, then that goal will be achieved by COP75, should a large enough patch of dry land be found to hold it on. But at least there was a commitment, for the first time, and everything has to start somewhere.
The promise to stop cutting down the forests in 2030 was jointly signed by Brazil and Russia. Again, a start, though it is possible to cut down and burn plenty of trees in the next eight years and a month. The plea by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, ‘Stop using nature as a toilet’, seems to have been heard.
The problem that Glasgow’s conference was trying to solve was that, although the Paris Agreement of 2015 had committed to stop overheating by more than 1.5C, it did not bind states to say how they were going to do it. Let alone to actually do it.
So Glasgow 2021 was meant to do that ‘heavy lifting’. But you knew it was in trouble when politicians began to say ‘Don’t forget, this is an iterative process,’ and point to continued work at COP27. The ‘once in a lifetime’ moment was lost in the sea of the never never.
There is now a common view of the urgency and importance of this work. I doubt if there is much to separate the north from the south, the diplomat from the activist, on its importance. There are huge differences over the ‘how’, but no longer over the ‘why’. And although journalists should not be activists, telling the truth about our precarious hold on the planet has the same goal. This is what connects the inside of the conference halls to the protesters outside. There is now a shared understanding of the problem, and the sceptics have gone very quiet.
On the last but one day of the conference I switched to the Green Zone to watch ‘Our Place in the Cosmos’ at the Planetarium. Our sun is one of billions of stars among billions of galaxies yet we only have this one, fragile, created world to share between us. In the planetarium the heavens reeled above our heads and at that moment I wanted the conference to succeed more than I could ever put into words.
Usually British politicians are unwilling to use the language of faith, so it was surprising to hear the chair of a powerful select committee tell a meeting that he ‘hoped and prayed’ for success in November.
Was the summit a success? Among many positives were commitments to support less developed countries, progress on reductions in greenhouse gases and – incredibly – the first ever final communique to name fossil fuels as the problem. The conference came up with a set of mechanisms to make good (operationalise, I might one day learn to say) the Paris Agreement.
But what of resolutions which only made promises to make more promises, with no enforcement? What of the last-minute strong-arming of the Conference from India and China not to phase out coal, but ‘phase it down’?
There are profound questions over burden sharing between rich and poor, and an abiding fear that it is all much too little and much too late. But scientists and theologians alike could see in Alok Sharma’s tears at the final agonising negotiating session the danger we all face. After another year of UK presidency, negotiators will try again at COP27, in Egypt. ‘Glasgow’ will then be shorthand for the promises and commitments against which we can hold our national governments to account.
The Glasgow Climate Pact is nowhere near enough, on its own, to prevent catastrophic climate change. But without it there would be no mechanisms in place even to try. There would be no place left in the councils of the 193 members of the UN for the aspiration to be good stewards of the earth to survive.
Peter Knowles is a United Reformed Church lay preacher, and attended the UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow as a journalist
This article was published in the December 2021/January 2022 edition of Reform