The COP26 Blog

Making Sense of COP

The COP26 Blog from GSA’s Sustainability Coordinator

I said I’d blog about COP26 so here I am. For those not in the Climate Crisis bubble, COP stands for Conference of the Parties, this being the 26th since 1995 (so long ago one Angela Merkel was Germany’s environment minister there and was first COP President).
COP26 ran from 31 October to 12 November 2021.

39,000 delegates, politicians and observers attended within a Blue Zone which took up all of the Scottish Event Campus (SEC). And south of the river, at the Glasgow Science Centre, a public Green Zone showcased research and corporates.
COPs seek to reach consensus on where the climate crisis is, and agree action to mitigate the effects.

I was lucky to be in the Blue Zone as an Observer as part of the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC), an amazing organisation that supports environmental and social justice policy and action in the Further and Higher Education Sector.

So, all views my own. More on COP26 soon, but my journey to it starts six years ago.

Wibbly Wobbly Time Thingy Effect.

A major COP happens every five years. Officially COP26 happened in 2020, but due to a certain pandemic 2020 happened in 2021.
COP21, held in Paris in 2015, was a biggie. Back then, I’d heard of a group cycling from London to Paris to demonstrate at COP called Time to Cycle, and five of us decided it would be interesting to cycle to Paris from our homes in Edinburgh. In November. A fair share of snow and near-hypothermia in the Lake District later, we met the main group of 150 cyclists in London and Brighton, took a ferry to France, and had a gorgeous ride through the green routes to Paris. 13 days, 600 miles, visiting communities along the way, and a chance to see Paris not only in the midst of the greatest environmental conference of the time, but in emergency lock-down due to terrorist attacks. We cycled around, closing down the Arc de Triomphe; we got briefly kettled on the Avenue de la Grande Armee, and chatted to activists whilst lit up by Notre Dame. We ate ice-cream under the Eiffel Tower, watched as 10 polar bear student activists got arrested, and joined the red ribbon mass demonstration. I never got near the COP venue. But thousands demonstrated their support for action.

For me, it showed the power of actions, and the power of cycle actions – mobile, zippy, fun, healthy and a vast sense of comradeship, which we all need when facing crises. The experience still lives within me, and has stayed there strong and fast.

First Week of COP
Back in 2021, my Blue Zone ticket wasn’t until the second week. Week 1 was about pacing myself, not watching too much news, and working to promote events at work and across Glasgow. On the Friday I took part in the youth climate march along with 30,000 others. On the Saturday 400 of us rode through a storm from Edinburgh to Glasgow as part of the Critical Mass Edinburgh/ Pedal on Parliament “Cycle to COP”, raising the profile of cycling as a climate solution. Monday of week 2 was a networking dinner with other university colleagues from across the World at Glasgow Art Club where Glasgow School of Art had an exhibition addressing the Climate Crisis as part of their “Close of Play” series (“COP”, get it?). Thursday was seeing the Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir at the CCA, someone I’ve followed for years. Earthalujah!

First, let’s get the bad news out of the way in one egregious paragraph. It’s the 26th meeting, emissions have risen after every meeting since COP started with Angela in 1995. Targets are not met. Promises not kept. Funds not released. Oil and gas companies actively there to water-down the promises and the actions from countries. The data those countries provide on emissions (of CO2 and other gases) and their ability to absorb emissions is questionable: the less they say they produce, and the more they say they can reabsorb through their natural habitats, the better their position. The biggest delegate group at COP is that fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) sector. The biggest country delegation is Brazil, who are busy chopping down rain forest to feed our appetite for soya as animal feed and palm oil for just about everything else including the shampoo you use and chocolate bars you eat. Indigenous peoples are side-lined and ‘mapped off’ their land, and are not meaningfully represented. Historical emissions from places like Europe and the US are discounted, and military emissions are ignored: the military are the biggest users of oil and gas in the World and their emissions add up to dozens of countries-worth of emissions. The need for oil and gas for military use, and the use of military to protect oil and gas is an infinity loop of nastiness that keeps things going around and around 26 times. Geo-politics is King here, with some countries protecting or hating others, fighting over access to markets and profits, and creation of Third-World debt to control others. Through all of this, corporations naturally want to make the most from their current business plans and will only switch from oil and gas when supplies run out and we’re begging for clean energy. Politicians are either unable to take action, and/or are engrossed in this system. We’re left with COP manic scientists and frantic policy makers reaching some sort of unholy consensus and compromise. Whatever comes out of COP as a worst case scenario is our best case.

Well, I’m glad that’s over with.

I’m not depressed or cynical by this state of affairs, but that’s where we are. It’s complicated, and politicians are keen to show us simple answers. There aren’t any. But awareness is all. From there to a multitude of actions to fix this Wicked problem (a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.)

Is COP a failure or another small step? That depends on perspective that is so hard to gain even inside the fence. But we know it’s not enough, and are small steps away from a fire enough to escape getting burned?

I am traumatised by the economic and political hypocrisy and dishonesty around me. Are you? My treatment is to live my life with kindness and compassion, finding meaningful action and doing my bit, positioning myself and my work to address what I can. Seeing what is meaningful and what isn’t is important to humanity, and to our own selves. So it’s not so much about whether COP was that success or not, but what we do with COP. It’s the journey not the destination.

I don’t think it’s hopeless, but neither do I think the system as it is, is capable of change without major effort. Is it a choice of either societal collapse, or clean and green transition? Is it a sliding scale: more action now, less mess later; less action now more mess later? It’s difficult to get that perspective, but I know the more we meet to discuss the more we understand each other, so COP has that going for it at least.

Back to my reality in COP. COP was full of pavilions. If you’ve ever been to a trade fair, it was like that. Pavilions tout what I would call micro-innovations and distractions – look at Indonesia’s bamboo bike! Not the burning rain forest! – they push what countries are doing, and discuss ‘solutions’ like carbon free airplane travel, and technical inventions to suck CO2 out the air, or improve on nature somehow, bend it to our will, service our carbon emissions and continue to provide comfort to some. This is nonsense, but keeps a lot of people happily distracted and the solution within the current system. Can we be refocused, or are we too caught up in our own getting-on-with-it lives, our company wages and bonuses and the next step up the ladder? Are we being killed off by a bunch of comfy middle-class middle executives looking to their next oil and gas based bonus or share option?

Beyond the country pavilions are the meeting rooms. As an Observer, my role would usually have been to sit in the rooms watching the negotiations, mixing with the delegates, providing a different perspective for them, pushing ideas and what (in my case) universities and colleges can do to help. With Covid, access was restricted and meetings limited, but as a team we did get around and meet a wide range of people, and we felt that rising sense of perspective as we better understood what others see as the solution. There was sadness too in press conferences, one with Bangladesh and one with a smaller islands group, who are both disappearing under sea-level rises.

There’s a couple of dozen elephants in the pavilions. Such as little mention of fossil fuels, and our need to drawdown to almost zero production if we’re to stop climate breakdown. There was much talk of “percentage this by year then”, and little talk of systems change, or using things we have already to solve issues, like really promote and make cycling safe. It’s safer to look at solutions like recycling plastics and keeping the fossil fuel boat afloat. No-one wants to rock that boat, as the boat is tied to so many other aspects of our global society.

I have an active dislike of anyone saying “percentage this by year then”. Why are percentages and dates so irritating to me? Let me show you my Blue Peter graph

Imagine dear reader, for a moment we could actually take the male cow by the sharp extensions and radically reduce carbon and other global warming emissions – well the graph may well look like the bottom line, with a quick reduction in emissions, and a long, low emission play out to 2050 and beyond. What fossil-fuel-capitalism is offering is the top line: a while to think about it and carry on with the profits, and finally reduce. The difference is startling. Emissions for quick reductions are area A. Emissions for “percentage this by year then” are areas A+B. This is the reality of our system which refuses to act now. To rely on tech fixes we don’t have, hopefully sorting it out later, all led by people who caused the crisis is not a gamble I want to take.

We rely on keeping people happy with bamboo bikes, telling them recycling will fix it, and it will be OK. Mixed in, is a great sense of entitlement, evidenced by the car drivers who got upset and physically violent when we cycled from Edinburgh to Glasgow. People are promised stuff and grow to expect it. It’s difficult to change people’s minds when a £23Bn marketing industry tells them “Because you’re worth it”. But people are scared, and know something is up, they’re fearful.

COP was full of meaningless solutions. It doesn’t mean COP itself was meaningless, but I believe it needs to be truly released from the geo-political need to keep oil and gas front and central to our futures. There was movement, with fossil fuels being mentioned for the first time in their final report, and calls for a phase-down of coal. It doesn’t feel like enough because it isn’t. Too small steps can make us more fearful.

Wherever there is fear look for the pacifying response. The latest life-raft is Net-Zero – we can still emit, but we need to balance it out somewhere. Still fly, but plant trees. Still burn gas, but grow and burn trees too – the ridiculous notion of BECCS upon which COP targets for emissions reductions depends (growing lots of one crop and then burn it for energy, storing the carbon.) It’s nonsense, and Net-Zero is another Global North response. Keep the rich North going, and let the South plant the trees. When seen from the Global South it looks like what it is, madness.

Put simply, you can’t mix a below ground carbon cycle with the one above. The only reason we have a stable climate is due to most carbon being locked below. You can’t grow enough trees to compensate for releasing it. And forests burn don’t they? Or burn fossil fuels and then capture the carbon? Untested at scale, and un-scalable, if it works, in time. Suck CO2 out the air via huge machines? Recycle your stuff to buy more stuff, and make new types of light bulbs? These are simply industrial growth responses to industrial growth, and were much in evidence at COP. The culprits ‘fixing’ their crimes. These ‘solutions’ keep the machine going, at the continued expense of the poor, and as ever the indigenous people protecting the land where we will grow the trees and mine the lithium for electric car batteries. The language is ‘save the planet’ when we all know it’s ‘save humanity’, not to mention all the other species. So watch your language and say it how it is. Our current approach is one of the treatment of symptoms, when we need to treat the cause.

What would radical (by radical read “survival”) change look like? Well, the good news is the frameworks are there, the innovations are possible and the will is there, it’s just covered by a broken system. You can almost but not quite see it poking out at COP.

To start, a drawdown of oil and gas production as quickly as we can to low levels. The fantastic thing about this approach is the innovation needed, the redesign of our societies and economies, to make society more equitable, to start paying back historical debts like slavery and destruction of habitats. Such change has happened before in times of war.

Bonuses are many: fair allocation of resources, clean air, good soil, thriving seas and corals and fisheries. A restored and thriving Amazon. Supported, protected, growing local cultures. Survival of the students we teach.

We change major sectors of our economy: We remove industrial fishing from global south countries allowing their fishing livelihoods to flourish again. We replace bunker oil container ships, and planes with clean sail/electric ships; private cars with far fewer and shared automatous taxis. We have these technologies already. We reform Finance and put all the hidden off-shore cash, all $35 trillion of it, to work.

Why do poorer people in the Global South make our clothes and grow our food? This land and their energy should be better used to improve conditions in their countries. With current technology we can grow food in urban farms giving local people jobs, revitalising vacant buildings and areas of cities like Glasgow with healthy local veg, lab-grown healthy meat and fish. Clothing production and recycling can be localised. By changing these systems, we get to remove large-scale transportation of food and clothing, and the ships, planes and roads that go with it and the social injustice of other people making our stuff in poor conditions. More of the de-growth we need and the current system can’t supply.

We fill our cities with improved housing, small shops. We reduce air pollution that kills 8 million people a year, increase good health and life-expectancy, value all work, and respect and restore indigenous culture. We live communally, not separately: private simplicity, public luxury There’s ways to tackle gender and racial inequalities, and make society fairer, with more opportunities.

The city is a great place to look for answers. City-sized responses were in evidence at COP, with city-sized solutions to green cities and remove cars from them. Electric vehicles aren’t the answer for most, we need less cars in our cities not just cleaner ones. But localisation is the answer, and cities are the ideal stage to do it on – large, but generally under one organisation’s control headed by a mayor, with the resources to change.
We redesign everything upon which we depend on oil and gas to produce, to make new economies. We de-growth and de-link from GDP. All this and more.

A Golden Age of Humanity.

What Should We Now Do?
Art practice helps show us the way – creative people are creating work that visualises what we need to do, and the consequences of not taking action. It emotionally connects us to possible futures. Designers are needed to transition us from oil and gas products to a scaled-down and more efficient way of living.

But you don’t have to be a creative or environmentalist to be part of it. Imagine taking action across all sectors, everyone working on solutions for a better humanity. It sounds like a dreamscape, but we’re doing something similar now, but based on oil and gas, marketing what we don’t need to people who need to instead return to their roots, of feeling connected to family, tribe, village and sense of purpose.
Finance is a major issue, with banks funding $5trillion of investment in oil and gas between COP21 and COP26, just 6 years. Finance reform is the most difficult issue we face.

So, if banker or designer, electrician or historian, work within your own discipline, practice or workplace. Raise awareness and personal action: not by counting your carbon footprint (spoiler it was invented by BP to blame us for consuming their products) but by raising awareness and demanding that positive future vision and working towards it.

Our leaders will follow. Politicians work on a dual rail: one is offering what will get them elected; the other is what gives them power through corporate and other networks. This is why many have two jobs 🙂 Make them offer policies that provide real solutions. Demand it, and don’t be distracted by talk of cost and the necessity of oil and gas – the consequences of inaction are too great.

In colleges and universities make the crises we face the no.1 priority, a full part of every subject, every curriculum, every programme specification, teaching syllabus, assessment, student attribute, and learning outcome. Every profession from electrician to historian. Let’s teach the real history, uncensored through our cultural lens. Send out students ready to change society and economy for the better to make a more equitable and survivable future.

On our current trajectory, we face increasing societal breakdown and chaos under authoritarian rule. It doesn’t have to be like that.
Work at it, and keep working at it until you drop. Demand that Golden Age, the lives of the children and students around you depend on it. Enough incentive for you?

John Thorne, GSA Sustainability Coordinator

Pic: Projection duel at COP, Guardian