A few weeks ago, I had the enormous privilege of attending COP26. It was a moment the entire climate movement had been building towards for two years – pitched as a ‘make or break’ moment for fending off the worst impacts of climate change. I myself had been working towards it for more than a year through my activism, and so was immensely excited and grateful to be accredited by UNICEF and The Leader’s Club to go as a UN observer delegate.
This enabled me to access the Blue Zone (where all the politicians gathered to have discussions), listen in on the negotiations, make interventions and hold meetings with parties to have my voice as a young person heard. In theory, at least.
Despite the largest ever youth delegation of any COP being sent this year, the summit was blighted by some of the worst access issues in its history. Vaccine requirements and travel logistics were an insurmountable obstacle for many in the Global South. This resulted in many really important voices being left unheard at the summit. For those who had the means to attend, that wasn’t the end of our troubles. In the negotiating rooms, on most days, there were only nine seats for observers – to be shared between the thousands of us representing countries and organisations from all over the world. Many feel this severely compromised the input of civil society into the negotiations, which is a real shame given the COP President’s effort to have those voices listened to in the run up to the summit.
Nevertheless, I still got to dip my toes far deeper into these intergovernmental processes than I ever have done before, and learnt a huge amount.
My Experience at COP
COP26 was, as a personal experience for me, both incredibly overwhelming and underwhelming. Having not been to any really large groupings for almost 2 years, the experience of suddenly being plunged into a conference with 40,000 registered delegates was quite strange. It was held in Glasgow’s huge Scottish Events Campus, which was fully kitted out for COP. There were the hangar-sized plenary rooms to house all 194 participating countries in negotiations, the stadium-like Action Zone that was divided into smaller stages for engaging talks about climate solutions, the vast halls that housed country pavilions (each a discrete events venue, exhibition centre and meeting place in itself!) and delegations’ private offices. It took me several days just to get properly orientated, and there were many parts of the venue I never visited.
The COP preparations were by no means limited to the Blue Zone venue either – they spread across the river to the Green Zone in the Science Centre, to the People’s Summit run by the COP coalition, and to hundreds of accompanying private and public events in the city, and thousands around the globe.
It just felt, for that moment, like the eyes of the world were on this issue like never before.
In parallel to hive of activity that Glasgow seemed to be, I was also about the busiest I have ever felt in my life. Some days started at 5.30am and ended past midnight (which as a student, perhaps I should be able to cope with, but by the end of the 9 days I was there I felt truly dead). Within these hours, it seemed like every minute was filled. This wasn’t because I was being worked hard by anyone – although I was associated with a lot of different groups at COP, I actually found myself with a lot of undirected time. And that, I think was part of the problem.
When you know you are so lucky to be going, there is a huge amount of self-inflicted pressure to be busy and purposeful at every moment. Whether that be by cramming in research and preparation for a media interview, listening to one of the many talks on offer, or following negotiations, there were plenty of ways to fill that time and it was quite paralysing trying to decide what the most valuable would be.
In retrospect, the way I approached COP as a first timer was perhaps one of the worst ways I possibly could have – as a freelancer of sorts, without a team to support and teach me, without preparing my schedule in advance, with minor obligations to everyone and no particular narrow focus to guide me. This is not to minimise the support and friendliness of many of the other young people I met at the summit – particular thanks to the UK Youth Climate Coalition and members of YOUNGO for checking up on me and involving me, it was really appreciated.
In fact, that was one of the aspects I was most looking forward to about COP26 – the chance to meet amazing people from all around the world, especially other young activists like myself! And I did – I came out of the summit with new friends from all corners of the globe, who I might have otherwise never had the opportunity to meet. Activists I’d admired from afar before, and those whose work was completely new to me. It was wonderful.
I also saw some fascinating figures speak; I was lucky to be given a ticket to Barack Obama’s speech, I listened in on panel discussions with Nicola Sturgeon, Alok Sharma and Nigel Topping, an interview with Stella McCartney about the fashion industry, indigenous land defenders talk about their efforts to shut down the Keystone pipeline. I met a personal hero, Earth Scientist Johan Rockstrom, and showed Ed Milliband a climate clock. As a friend remarked, it was like a rock concert where all of your favourite bands are playing at the same time, every single day.
This is where the COP attracts the criticism of being a performative celebrity-fest, so I tried to avoid being too star-struck. I tell you what though – most of the professional delegates didn’t bother – as soon as Obama turned up they transformed into a swarm of excited fans. Really not what I expected at such a serious event, but goes to show that people are just the same everywhere!
One downside for me was the fact that there were just so many people, all of whom were incredibly busy, and that made it very difficult to have any really meaningful conversation inside the COP venue. I just hope there will come opportunities to follow up properly with some of them in a better environment one day.
My primary concern at COP was always the headline goal of the summit: ‘keeping 1.5 alive’, as the slogan goes. This critical temperature threshold was written into the Paris Agreement as a beacon for all countries to strive for, and one beyond which millions more people would suffer.
The run-up to COP was marked by science and policy reports describing the urgency and gravity of our predicament, and just how far the world had to go to get on track for 1.5 degrees. The UN NDC Synthesis report perhaps laid it most starkly – the world had to halve global annual emissions by 2030, while the political pledges at the time amounted to a 16% increase in emissions by that date.
COP26 was seen as our ‘last best’ chance to take drastic action to set us on the right course, and front and centre of it was holding countries accountable to that ambition.
To that end, I partnered up with the US-based organisation ‘Climate Clock’ earlier this year to install the Glasgow Climate Clock. This was a multi-storey tall light projection on Glasgow’s historic Tolbooth Steeple tower, showing two of the most important numbers in the world:
– our DEADLINE: the time we have left until we overrun our carbon budget for 1.5 degrees, highlighting our narrow time window for drastic action,
– our LIFELINE, which counts up the percentage of the world’s energy generated by renewable resources.
These two figures lit up Glasgow city centre every night for months in the run up to COP, and remained up there for the duration of the summit. You can read more about our clock here.
It is our hope that they may have instilled in delegates the same sense of urgency that scientists and young people feel every single day, and act as an uncompromising reminder of their duty to keep their promise.
But we didn’t leave it there. One concern we had was that the negotiators, and the politicians who set their instructions, would keep themselves within the Blue Zone and be blind to the feelings of civil society on the outside. To open their eyes, we tried to get smaller portable clocks into the delegate space itself, so that its message would be entirely inescapable.
Unfortunately, my attempt to do so ended with a lot more personal attention from UN security than I had intended. Attempts at humour to break the ice did not land well with them, and my clock was confiscated as a potential bomb scare threat. In a sane world I think politicians should be more concerned about the 8 year countdown than site security (it would leave plenty of time for an evacuation wouldn’t it?).
But in all seriousness it’s that diligent approach to their work that kept us all safe when leaders of all nations gathered in one building, so a sincere thank you and no hard feelings to the guards 🙂
A few days later we succeeded with proper endorsement from the head of UN security, as the clock had caught the eye of none other than Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, and she wanted one to place in the UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn, Germany! We organised an official handover with a group of some of the amazing young people who were at COP, and now, as we speak, the clock is ticking away in one of the places most emblematic of the international effort to protect our collective future.
Another key objective of mine at COP26 was helping YOUNGO.
YOUNGO are the official youth constituency of the UNFCCC – if, as a young person, you want to have any formal input into the negotiations, it is through them. As they do at every COP, they were tracking the negotiations and hoping to make interventions on behalf of the young people of the world. They have a structure of working groups covering all the different themes of the negotiations; everything from Loss and Damage to Technology and Women and Gender. It’s a massive project to keep up with everything!
I made the mistake of trying to join in this work halfway through the negotiations, which meant that many areas were wrapping up, and by the time I was up to speed with the others I was a little late to be of any use. I did, however, learn a lot from following the negotiations (even if I didn’t understand a lot of the obscure mechanisms and acronyms that popped up) – it was a really useful insight into how the international politics of climate change actually works.
The Action for Climate Empowerment working group also took me under their wing and introduced me to their efforts to get young people recognised in the ACE decisions (which did happen, big kudos to the ACE WG for that victory).
Although it was impossible for me to keep up with all the work that YOUNGO did at the conference, there was one resounding win for young people that deserves celebration.
For the first time ever, the role of young people in tackling climate change was recognised in the cover decision, which calls on countries to increase youth participation in decision-making processes at all levels, from local to multilateral. The text also invites future COP Presidencies to hold annual dialogues between parties and young people. Although this is a broad statement of intent with no guarantee of effective or widespread implementation, it is nevertheless an exciting achievement.
The Glasgow Pact text above also mentions the Conference of Youth (COY) – a global conference that was held in Glasgow immediately preceding COP, where youth representatives from countries all around the world gathered to draft policy demands for countries. What lent it such power was the open and inclusive process that formed it: it was open to the input of all young people, and occurred both through the main summit in Glasgow, together with a series of smaller local and virtual COYs around the world to make it accessible. The statement was then published for an open consultation period on the internet.
It has had the input of thousands of young people from every corner of the planet and has so far over 40,000 youth signatories and counting. It’s an extraordinary achievement and presents about as close to a unified set of demands from young people around the world as it is possible to get.
The UK Presidency recognised this and held a panel event with YOUNGO where figures like Alok Sharma, Patricia Espinosa and Nicola Sturgeon gave their support for the statement and promised to present it to countries in the hope that they would adopt some of the policy asks, all of which they considered very reasonable.
The most conspicuous youth involvement at COP26 wasn’t, however, in the COP venue itself – it was on the streets outside.
On Friday, there was a youth march in Glasgow, where 25,000 young people took to the streets demanding a safe future from those behind the closed doors of the COP venue.
I’m sad to say that I missed this, as I was really wrapped up in the youth day events in the Blue Zone. At some point in the day I did hear the protesters, and I can’t remember if that was directly (in which case they must have been REALLY making some noise) or via Sky News’ live broadcasting, but either way their presence was felt on the inside.
I did, however, manage to get out onto the streets the next day as part of the wider climate march on Saturday, which was truly incredible.
As I made my way out of the conference venue towards the starting point, severely regretting my choice of clothes (suit trousers and shiny black shoes had a lot to deal with that afternoon), I was worried that the turnout was going to be a little underwhelming. The rain was tipping down, and I could only see a few scattered groups around the park – a few hundred certainly, but not the thousands expected!
For the very first time I met up in person with my friends at Climate Clock, who are normally found on the very opposite end of the world in the US. One of the most bizarre products of living in our day and age is feeling like you really know someone without having ever met them – after uncountable zoom calls throughout a project that lasted months, that weirdness has never hit me harder! They were kind enough to waterproof up my personal portable climate clock to protect it from the Glasgow weather, and I joined them and their activist friends from Ghana and Japan as the rally began.
As we started to move, it became obvious that my fears were entirely misplaced. For when our group marched onwards out of the park and onto a main road, both to our right and our left there were people as far as the eye could see. In fact, I was only with a single subdivision of the entire protest – the Climate Justice contingent. (Because the protest was so large, we had to be separated into blocks – youth, indigenous groups, nature, climate justice etc).
We numbered more than 100,000. It was the one of the biggest protests in the cities’ history.
While we took over the streets of Glasgow, others marched in a hundred other locations around the country, and a hundred countries around the world. It’s not difficult to see why, for many of the COP commentators and attendants, this was the most inspiring and uplifting moment of the summit. It showed that no matter what lack of willpower exists on behalf of leaders, the strength of feeling and determination of civil society is immense.
It really felt like a movement of movements of vast scale – unstoppable.
Speaking at COP
One of the reasons I was going to COP was to speak in the Green Zone. It was a panel event hosted by my friends Dominic Dyer and Born Free, and had an exciting lineup:
Will Travers, CEO Born Free
Deborah Meaden, Dragon and Businesswoman extraordinaire
Pen Farthing, former Royal Marine commando & founder of the charity Nowzad
Craig Bennett, CEO The Wildlife Trusts
and my friend Bella Lack, a fellow young activist
We had a really interesting and varied conversation about all sorts of topics, everything from the role of adopting plant based diets to reducing population growth in tackling climate change, how rewilding can help, and the voices that need to be heard in climate conversations.
You can still catch up on this conversation here
That was the only time I expected to be speaking.
While I was at COP26, I got an extraordinary and unexpected opportunity. In the final days of the summit, I was pulled into a meeting between all the UN observer constituencies (representing businesses, farmers, researchers, youth, indigenous groups, NGOs and more). We were planning a coordinated action on the final day of the summit – a ‘People’s Plenary’ session followed by a walk-out. Following on from a similar event at the end of COP25 in Madrid, the plenary was a UN-endorsed event that would bring all of international civil society together to affirm a collective unity and state our intention to move forward together against climate change.
I was feeding back the plan to the rest of the young people at COP. But the chaos of the summit was amplified if anything in the organisation of this final event, and that meant that a crucial detail didn’t make its way through.
The news broke on the morning of the session. We had to give a 5 minute speech on the main stage on behalf of all young people. And we had half an hour to write it.
That wasn’t the most relaxing half hour I’ve ever spent, especially when it got the stage of putting the finishing touches to the speech as the preceding speakers were actually talking. Imagine finishing your homework as the teacher is going around collecting it, but instead of a teacher it’s an audience of 700 – with cameras. It was only with the help of a whole team of YOUNGO delegates that we managed to write it in time.
As we were doing so, we heard some incredible (much more carefully crafted) speeches from some amazing people representing indigenous groups, environmental NGOs, farmers and more. It’s a real shame there’s nowhere to hear it on the internet, but in some ways that preserves the specialness of the moment – you had to be there!
In the end, after a nerve-wracking wait on the main stage, I walked up to the podium with Chandelle O’Neill, a fellow youth activist from Trinidad and Tobago, and together we spoke.
I spoke about the desperate need for action from politicians today, and how more than half the world’s children were already at risk. How 1.1 degrees was already here, and how so soon 1.5 would be far behind us unless we acted in line with the science. Chandelle followed up my talking about how young people were already playing a pivotal role in the climate movement, and where we needed to turn in the future.
After all the constituencies had their time to speak, the whole hall stood up and filed out in a long snaking line. This line, hundreds long, marched through the conference centre, past the country offices, pavilions and meeting rooms, and through UN security checkpoints into the fresh air of the city of Glasgow. As we did so, we trailed long ribbons of red.
Ministers lay down ‘red lines’ for negotiators; areas on which they are not allowed to compromise. Our red lines were simple: not delivering an urgent and just outcome.
It was a profound and wonderful moment which I’m so grateful to have been a part of.
I was in a very privileged minority to be present and with a platform at the summit, when this is an issue that is so pertinent to every young person around the world. It’s impossible to bring all the voices into the COP venue that deserve to be heard, but we can certainly try our hardest.
I work with a charity called Reserva: The Youth Land Trust, which, for a fabulous campaign, collected thousands of letters from young people all around the world. These letters were from children of very young ages right up to young people in their 20s, all describing why they valued the natural world so much and urging politicians to protect it.
On the penultimate day of negotiations, when countries were locked over difficult issues and everything hung in the balance, I paid a visit to the national offices. I went from delegation to delegation, handing out these beautiful handwritten letters, and watching the exhausted faces of negotiators melt into smiles as they read them.
It was a lovely way to round off my final day at COP26, and who knows what impact those young people had on the negotiators in the final decisive hours.
The Reserva team still has many more letters, and I’m there will be many more political moments that demand them. Next up, the Convention on Biological Diversity!
Was COP26 a success?
It’s the million dollar question.
If you were to ask the negotiators inside the summit, the chances are you would hear a cautious ‘yes’. If you were to ask the young activists on the street, the chances are that you’d hear a resounding ‘no’.
What’s the truth?
The positive narrative is that the summit made some impressive progress on key fronts, and achieved what some described as a ‘historic deal’.
Pre-Paris, global warming was predicted to take us towards 6 degrees by the end of the century, immediately post-Paris that dropped to below 4. The progress made in the run-up to the summit brought that down to about 2.1 degrees and after the summit the International Energy Agency released a new projection of 1.8 degrees. This seems to show extraordinarily fast increases in ambition are possible – the Paris ratchet mechanism, put through its first test, has worked immensely well. However, there are huge caveats to this. That 1.8 degrees scenario is the best case scenario if all announced pledges are fully implemented. In reality, current policies will take us all the way up to 2.7 degrees of warming, and near-term 2030 targets need strengthening rapidly to be compatible with further temperature reductions. As the Climate Action Tracker puts it – there is still a big gap in ambition to close (the science shows that pulling 1.8 down to 1.5 is a significant step up in emissions cuts), but there are even vaster gaps in action and in credibility.
It is widely agreed that the commitments made ‘kept 1.5 alive’ – although as some commentators put it, on critical life support.
It is at this point that a second outcome of COP – and perhaps the most important – comes to the fore. All countries agreed that they would come back next year with new improved 2030 targets in the hope of getting aligned with 1.5 degrees in the nick of time.
Without this tightening of the ratchet mechanism, which previously acted on a 5 year basis, I don’t think there would have been much hope.
At last negotiations closed on the ‘Paris Rulebook’, at last agreeing on areas that had been in deadlock for years, like carbon emissions trading and transparency. To be perfectly honest, these are all very technical and I haven’t learnt enough to have a well-formed opinion on them. But it seemed that they were the result of a lot of compromising on behalf of all parties, which led to some areas of texts being stronger than expected, and others weaker.
Alongside the official UN negotiations, the UK presidency unveiled a number of exciting announcements.
The Glasgow Leader’s Declaration on Forest and Land Use saw 141 countries agree to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030, covering 90% of the world’s forests. This includes many hotspots of biodiversity loss like Brazil and Indonesia. Many have expressed skepticism that this will really end deforestation, citing the New York Declaration on Forests in 2014 that tried and failed to something similar. Proponents of this new agreement point out that this deal is very different to that agreed 7 years ago – it is backed up both by more than $19bn of public and private finance, and is accompanied by pledges from the 12 biggest buyers of commodities to commit to align their buying practices with this goal, plus financial institutions with assets of more than $9 trillion pledging to divest from commodity-driven deforestation. It certainly seems to be a more robust, system-wide approach. But skepticism in follow through is certainly still justified (the fact that the likes of Bolsonaro are happy to sign up should raise eyebrows) and critics say a lot more needs to be done to ensure accountability.
A declaration on methane also hit the news, which sees countries place emphasis on that extraordinarily potent gas given the attention it needs at last. The pledge, which covers almost half of all methane emissions, asks countries to cut them by 30% by 2030, which governments claim could cut emissions by 0.2 degrees in and of itself (that is huge!). Again, there have been some voices raised questioning this – including Carbon Brief’s analysis that in fact a cut of 50% is probably needed for a 0.2 degree drop. And once more, the repeated issue of transparency, accountability, and enforcement puts it into question.
What seems to be one of the UK presidency’s most proudly-voiced achievements was the progress made to phase out coal. This included 23 countries committing for the very first time to phase out coal power, ending all new investment and building of coal power plants. Further, the G7, G20 and OECD agreed to end public international coal finance. China, Japan and Korea, the three largest public coal financiers, stopped at the end of 2021. And a partnership of countries agreed to help fund South Africa’s transition away from coal in a just and equitable way.
There were many complex and overlapping statements, some of which sounded slightly better than they perhaps were in reality, but nevertheless many agree this signifies the beginning of the end for coal.
A similar agreement was announced for other fossil fuel funding, where more than 30 countries and financial institutions signed a statement to halt overseas fossil fuel development funding and divert it to green energy by the end of 2022. This included some major funders like the US, and put pressure on other funders around the world. Again, a great step forward but steps must be taken to ensure that countries end funding domestically too.
All of that feels – cautiously – optimistic, doesn’t it? It’s not difficult to see why the negotiators feel that way. But if you haven’t been so fully immersed in the work as they have, and you step back to try to get some perspective, you might see it in a very different light.
You might remember that this is the 26th COP, that these discussions have happened since 1995, and that there has been no halt of the unstoppable climb in emissions in that time. That while there are now pledges and targets that should bend the curve of emissions, promises have been repeatedly broken before.
The major disappointment of COP was the lack of finance for developing and affected countries. Despite the year’s delay of the summit date, rich nations had not managed to pull together the promised $100 billion a year to help finance the net zero transition in developing countries, which was meant to be ready by 2021. Similarly, the Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility that was hoped to get up and running to help compensate countries for the damage already being inflicted by the climate crisis was postponed to discussions next year. The sole funding dedicated to the issue was an unexpected pledge of £2 million from Scotland and a further £3m from philanthropists.
This issue of finance, and very competing priorities between developed and developing countries, led to an undermining of trust between these key groups which only served to impair progress on other issues. I think that, even selfishly from the perspective of a country that would act as a donor rather than receiver of funds, this is one of the areas in which it’s most important that we make progress this year in the run up to and at COP27, because it’s degrading international unity and hindering efforts on mitigation too.
That’s the perspective of someone in a wealthy country, removed from the harshest impacts of the climate crisis so far. For a moment, try to put yourself in the shoes of people in a very different position.
If you’re in Kenya and you’re in the midst of a year-long drought with no sign of an ending, if you’re in Turkey or California and lost your home or family to wildfires that are getting worse every year, if everything you owned disappeared in the floods in Nepal, Indonesia or central Europe, this conversation about 2030 and 2050 targets and 1.5 degree trajectories must seem like it’s being held by politicians on an entirely different planet.
1.1 degrees is here, people are suffering, and action is still sparse when it should be everywhere. Money should be flooding into resilience and compensation, but it is nowhere to be seen. For those who have had their lives destroyed by climate induced disasters, the best they have been given is a promise to discuss their plight in a year’s time. It must be heartbreaking to see people celebrating the Glasgow deal on the other side of the world – how completely blind and unempathetic that must seem.
So you can see that what sounds like a simple question – ‘was COP26 a success?’ is in fact far more complicated than it seems at first, and the best answer is perhaps ‘Who for?’
Looking to the future
Now COP is over, and I think it’s an important chance to sit back and reflect. One of the greatest takeaways I have from my time at COP was a message from Brother Dung at the Tanaloa dialogue: ‘There is a culture here [in the West] of being busy, of not having enough time… you can’t solve any problem if you don’t have time’. This was a message that was repeated again and again by several indigenous groups: that they find our culture of rush strange, and that it not only places a huge toll on our health and happiness, but also may be decreasing the efficacy of our work and wisdom of our decisions.
So as the prospect of COP27 – our second ‘last chance to save the world’ – begins to loom, I’m not rushing to fill my day, but instead taking time to think about which areas of my activism have been the most impactful, and the most enjoyable. These are the areas that I’ll try to focus on in the coming year.
And for the many that seem to be losing faith in governments and the UN process – not without reason – I’d like to end by sharing one conversation that struck me particularly in my week at COP. On Youth Day, Nicola Sturgeon remarked to us as young activists ‘you still trust people like us – I think that’s very generous of you because our generation has still not done enough to earn that trust’.
To which one young activist, Clara, responded ‘we trust you not because we want to, but because we must’.
I am not an expert on the COP negotiations. I have tried to be as thoughtful, fair and accurate as possible in what I say on this post, but much of it is my perspective on a synthesis of wisdom from a variety of sources that I trust.
If you want to read more, I highly recommend the following
Did we keep 1.5 alive? – Carbon Action Tracker
COP26 outcomes in immense detail – Carbon Brief
Different takes on the summit from key figures – Outrage and Optimism
And one final thing to leave you with – what was for me, the most powerful speech of the summit, from the wonderful Elizabeth Wathuti, who I had the pleasure of briefly meeting.