COP26 didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts. Despite having two years to prepare, the thirty odd thousand Blue Zone attendants (all of whom were formally issued tickets through a rigorous process) seemed too much for the conference administrators, with huge queues and a general sense of confusion reported. This did not feel like the start of a new beginning.
Not to be outdone, the world leaders summit started half an hour late as delegates waited for Joe Biden’s monstrous cavalcade to navigate the M8 from Edinburgh. He was not the only American to have a difficult morning with Scotland’s geography; esteemed CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer managing to pitch up in entirely the wrong city.
Yesterday was all about motivational speeches. They won’t tell us our fate, but they give a good indication of the window in which we are operating. In answer to my own questions on Sunday, Boris Johnson gave what most regarded as a pretty decent address. Environmental speeches, particularly his, are especially vulnerable to capture by flowery rhetoric, but this ticked all the right boxes. He focused on the responsibility of the developed world and leaders’ collective duty to future generations, particularly noting the UK's special role in starting the process of industrialisation and therefore environmental degradation. In other words, he set himself up for failure which is always a good sign. On the other hand, a very interesting twitter thread from journalist Richard Black outlined the British government’s smoke and mirrors approach to these talks, and why people like me need to stop talking about Boris.
“Yes friends, we brought you to the very place that the Doomsday machine began to tick.” - Boris Johnson
It was notable from the UN that three of the first speakers were an indigenous activist, a representative of small island nations, and the prime minister of Barbados, a country particularly vulnerable to what is to come. The UN is doing all the right things. Next came Sir David Attenborough. I would encourage everyone to seek out his address. It is quite something to watch such a powerful figure pouring his life’s work into one speech in borderline desperation, knowing that those in front of him have the power to make it all worthless. The lectern shook as he gripped it. “You must compromise”. “The least responsible will also be the hardest hit and we will ultimately all feel the impacts”. He was determined, however, to strike the hopeful tone so important in motivating action. “We are the greatest problem solvers to have ever existed on earth”. He added that we will all share in the benefits of a “new industrial revolution powered by millions of sustainable innovations”.
“We should be motivated by hope not fear” - Sir David Attenborough
All of the above pleaded with the congregation to make something of this week, and watching some of the addresses was pretty spine tingling. As the camera pans over the delegates, however, we could be looking at a class of teens on a Friday afternoon. Except these are overwhelmingly middle aged men with substantial wastelines who look like they’d do anything to reach Friday afternoon. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General was a star of the morning. He verbally grabbed these recalcitrant teens by the scruff of their necks and gave them a good shaking: we must meet not meet every five years, he chastised, but “every year until keeping to 1.5C is assured. Until subsidies to fossil fuels end, until there is a price on carbon, and until coal is phased out.”
“Either we stop it or it stops us” - Antonio Guterres
The mood around the city is strange. It feels like something is brewing, but nothing much has happened yet. We saw minor protests around the centre, many of them political movements hopping on the gravy train, rather than environmentally specific groups. There were bigger protests further away, but the majority of the city seemed, in the words of one local, “on edge”, waiting for things to kick off. The most notable protest was that by the Build Back Fossil Free Coalition (BBFFC), a collection of indigenous and POC groups from across the Americas. Addressing the small gathering of journalists and onlookers, various leaders spoke to the contradiction in US narratives of climate leadership. Official statistics suggest that in the first six months of the Biden administration, around 2,500 new oil and gas permits were authorised – a figure Trump’s administration took a year to reach.
These protestors knew this only too well. Many had suffered first hand from extractive practices such as fracking and fossil fuel exploration, through displacement and pollution. Their message was striking – “Net Zero” is a dangerous distraction from helping frontline communities”. Carbon markets, the creation of offsets and other typical neoliberal instruments of environmental protection do not shield the vulnerable communities at the coalface of our unsustainable economy. Particularly striking was their use of the term ‘sacrifice zones’. Coined by Naomi Klein, it describes areas which we consciously or otherwise have accepted will suffer in order for the rest of us to thrive.
"Net Zero will create sacrifice zones" - Representative of the BBFFC
It is interesting to consider the frames through which we observe the climate crisis. For the moments I stood entranced by Tom Goldtooth, a leading indigenous rights journalist, filmmaker and activist, I couldn’t agree more that Net Zero was nothing more than a face-saving distraction from real zero that allows wiggle room for polluters to keep polluting. Chatting to a sceptical journalist snapped me out of this, as did the look on the face of the rangers fan who lived in the flat above the protest. Now, the very fact that leaders were discussing the issue of climate seemed a blessing and a miracle.
It constantly amazes me how much I am able to switch within these frames of normality, considering the crisis at one minute a terrible symbol of humanity’s greed, and at another, a fringe issue that innovation will quickly sort out. I go to work and get encapsulated by the former, then I go to the pub and slide into the latter.
There are only two conclusions I can think to draw here. Firstly, listening to other voices is essential. If we hide in our echo chambers we will never be able to offer anything truly useful to the wider world. Secondly, only one frame really matters this week. That of 414 ppm, the concentration of atmospheric co2 below which humanity can continue to live in a recognisable way. This was the main point of Sir David’s address and should be a poignant one for those in the audience. You could see, however, that many of the delegates were operating in a different frame. Concerns of trade or domestic policy weigh many down – the Australian-French Aukus pact dispute and the Anglo-French fishing row being two such examples. The question is whether early speakers like Yrsa Daley-Ward and Txai Surui can snap them out of this frame and give them a birds eye view of the suffering which they preside over. Time will tell.
The afternoon saw a procession of similar speeches from Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel. All spoke of the need for action, but offered little. Joe Biden actually apologised for the actions of Donald Trump in setting the world 'behind the eight ball'. Xi Jinping offered a written statement in his absence and, predictably, it told us nothing new. Perhaps the most perplexing moment of the day came with Brazilian demagogue Jair Bolsinaro's declaration that his country, which is systematically working its way through swathes of the Amazon’s virgin rainforest, has always been “part of the solution, not the problem”.
A number of headline announcements did, however, emerge. First, what was certainly intended to be the day’s headline announcement: ‘More than 100 global leaders … pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by the end of the decade, underpinned by $19 billion in public and private funds to invest in protecting and restoring forests’. This is a very welcome sight, but some commentators were furious that it allowed continued deforestation until 2030, with the Amazon and its counterparts are already on their knees. Once we lose them, they will never return. Plantations may offer similar carbon sequestration capabilities, but they can support only a fraction of the biodiversity that is integral to humanity’s survival.
The second major announcement was India’s pledge to reach Net Zero by 2070. At first sight, this seems unambitious, but leading climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern argued that this was ‘real leadership’ from a country whose per capita emissions are ‘about a third of the global average’. Additionally, the accompanying 2030 commitments, including increasing its renewable capacity to 500GW and getting half its energy from renewables, will make a material difference. It seems that the jury is still out on both of these headline pledges, and deeper work will be needed to determine their real significance.
Yesterday was a fascinating start to the week. Undercurrents, subplots and villain narratives are starting to emerge, all amidst a city which seems unable to decide what to make of it all. Today is the second day of the world leaders summit before the days each take on a theme and we get into the nitty gritty. Let’s hope for some real leadership.
All photos are my own.