Dr Emma Jenkins is Director for the Institute for the Modelling of Socio-Environmental Transitions (IMSET) at Bournemouth University. She writes about her experience of attending the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.
I find myself sitting with a coffee and trying to take a moment before I brave the crowds again. So what have the first few days of my COP26 experience been like? Intense, surreal and overwhelming are some words that spring to mind as do fascinating, intriguing and friendly.
We arrived late Sunday night after a crazy drive north navigating floods and roads blockages. The irony of travelling to a climate change conference after a night of intense storms was not lost on me. After waiting for three trees to be removed from the road, almost getting stuck in a mini-landslide, navigating my way around an errant corrugated roof on the A4 and not being able to go faster than 55 mph on the motorway, I finally arrived at my accommodation - a mere 11 hours after setting off from Bournemouth.
On Monday I went into Glasgow and picked up my badge. I had a wander and tried to get a feel for where everything was. As you can imagine, it’s big and not easy to navigate. I have come to the conclusion that walking around COP feels like walking around an interesting international airport, minus the duty free shops; lots of walking to find the correct place to be - check, mediocre over-priced food - check, feeling of jet-lag - check. However, once you get into the actual talks and events it’s a world away from the usual on-board entertainment.
Being here on site when decisions are being made that quite literally mean the difference between climate catastrophe or not, is slightly surreal. The whole venue was veiled with a feeling of anticipation as world leaders came to the stage to state their positions on climate change and the actions the pledges they were prepared to make.
The joy that rippled through the crowds on Day 1 when 100 world leaders, representing 85% of the world forests, made a pledge to end deforestation by 2030 was palpable, while the announcement from the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, that India would hit Net Zero emissions by 2070 received a more mixed response. Similarly, the Day 2 pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% of 2020 levels by 2030 generated an energy in the room which is hard to describe.
But underlying this current of hope is criticism and frustration from developing and island nations who are on the frontline of climate change. This was clear from the opening ceremony in the powerful speech delivered by Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados. In her words: “1.5 is what we need to survive…..2 degrees is a death sentence….we do not want that dreaded death sentence and we come here today to say - try harder, try harder.”
And she is not alone, I am hearing this sentiment again and again. On the afternoon of Day 2, I ended up accidently seated next to the Presidents of the Seychelles and Kenya as they were interviewed by the BBC World Service. While they had similar views, the responses from President Kenyatta were particularly candid. He argued that developing nations are living with the consequences of climate change today while developed nations, such as Europe, are only just beginning to feel its effects with recent floods and wildfires. He went on to criticise developed nations for their lack of financial support for developing nations and for the ‘under-whelming’ outcomes from the Paris agreement. He argued that the consequences of climate change will be felt by everyone in the future if we don’t act today - words delivered with much passion and feeling.
Friday was youth day and a stark reminder of what this is all about - saving the planet for future generations. Is COP achieving this? Only time will tell, but the legacy of broken promises and inaction are pervasive and the promises of future action leave many unconvinced. The accusations of the youth groups and the indigenous peoples' groups of being excluded from the decision-making process are legitimate, as are their feelings of frustration.
In the meantime, the appetite for change is apparent as evidenced by the youth climate strike march last Friday and the global climate change marches on Saturday, with the one here in Glasgow drawing in up to 100,000 protestors despite the heavy rain and wind.
The end of Day 2 saw the world leaders depart, leaving behind their negotiating teams to argue out the fine details which could mean the difference between the success and failure of this conference. The rest of us are now caught up in events and networking around our areas of interest.
For example, I spent an afternoon in the Peatland Pavilion, learning of the many projects around the world which are focused on peat conservation and restoration. While this may not sound terribly exciting, peatlands are essential in our flight against climate change and is a particular research focus of IMSET team member Kim Davies.
Peatlands offer a nature-based solution to tackling climate change because they are a carbon sink - meaning that they can absorb and store large amounts of carbon dioxide. However, when they are drained or burned they become a major part of the climate change problem releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Talks were focused on projects from across the globe that are working with local communities to discourage the burning and draining of peat and encouraging alternative agricultural and conservation practices.
I'm also attending events hosted by organisations such as Historic Scotland and Historic England, focused on heritage and climate change, and meeting up with colleagues with similar research interests to ours at IMSET. This has included a Climate Heritage Network event ‘Lessons from the Vernacular and Historic Built Environment’ which was directly relevant to work that both myself and British Academy Research Fellow, Sarah Elliott, have been conducting in Jordan and Cyprus. And tonight, IMSET are off to Glasgow Cathedral for the Peatland Pavilion, Historic Environment Scotland evening reception - yes, more on peat!
While COP26 is definitely not easing yourself gently back into ‘in real life’ events, it has been a relief to be able to chat to people face to face rather than virtually - even if we have had to ditch the tracksuit bottoms!