In June of this year, the seven-story tall Tolbooth Steeple in Glasgow lit up with two of the most important statistics in the world. This moment was the culmination of more than half a year’s work on the biggest project I’ve ever helped to coordinate.
The idea for the Glasgow Climate Clock came to me after I saw the same figures on the New York Climate Clock in Union Square. The first of those, the Deadline, is the time we have left until we overrun our carbon budget for 1.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels. This is the target that countries all agreed to strive to limit warming to in the Paris agreement: exceeding it will endanger millions more people around the world, and put us at greater risk of crossing more of Earth’s biophysical tipping points.
The second figure, our Lifeline, is counting up – it shows the percentage of the world’s energy generated from renewable resources. This lifeline is one of many that we must grasp simultaneously if we are to have a hope of staying below 1.5 degrees.
This synthesis of science and art proved an extraordinarily effective communication tool, and hit headlines around the world, becoming the most liked post on The Washington Post’s Instagram ever. It turned heads and rang alarms in every corner of the globe.
It struck me that having this type of monument in Glasgow might just have the potential to influence one of the most important political events in our lifetimes: COP26.
At this UN summit, which was postponed to this November from its original intended timing in 2020, leaders from 196 countries will be gathering to discuss emissions reductions targets for the next decade, a crucial time period. Scientists think that if we are to have any chance of staying below 1.5 degrees, we must half global annual emissions by 2030. That is a monumental task, and currently, ambition is not nearly high enough. The last UN synthesis report concluded that all the existing country pledges would only stabilise emissions in ten years. And all of the updated pledges since then have barely closed the gap at all.
Beyond this issue of insufficient ambition, there is also a gulf between targets and actual emissions reductions. These two gaps, the ambition gap and the implementation gap, must both be tackled at COP26 – with less than seven years left until we overrun our carbon budget (as the clock tells us) radical and far-reaching policies have to be drafted as a matter of absolute priority.
So I contacted Glasgow City Council and Climate Clock, the US-based organisation that came up with the concept and set up the clock in New York. They were both very enthusiastic about the idea of a Glasgow Clock, and were keen to have me take a coordinating role in the project.
Saying yes brought about one of the most busy but exciting periods of my life, during which I balanced my 6 day/week degree at university with managing this international-scale project. Organising meetings with stakeholders in timezones often nine hours apart, writing proposals and press releases, and securing thousands of pounds in key funding over phone calls – it was a steep learning curve!
To cut a long story short, we teamed up with Greenpeace, 350.org, Lateral North, Ecotricity and others to project the Climate Clock onto two sides of the Tolbooth Steeple, a historic tower in the city centre. This projection has appeared on the tower every evening since we set it up in June, and will remain until COP26 in Glasgow, when world leaders will assemble in the city to negotiate the future of my generation.
Of course, we hope the clock will have its impact most felt as politicians start to arrive in the city itself, but seeing as many key decisions relating to country strategies and announcements at the summit are made months in advance, it was important to us that the clock was set up well in advance. As we had hoped, the clock has already made headlines in national and international news, and been seen by hundreds of thousands of people.
This Glasgow Clock is just one piece of a global movement that is using this communication tool to influence people and politics – including activists in Ghana, South Korea, the US, and even Greta Thunberg in Sweden.
This has been wonderful to see unfold, especially seeing as I had thought that the clock might be the centre of some controversy – not everyone in the environment movement is supportive of the clock as a messaging tool.
The wide support of the climate clock from figures in the youth climate movement like Greta, Xiye Bastida and Jerome Foster II, as well as the likes of Ban Ki-Moon and Christiana Figueres – one of my personal heroes – has been reassuring and fantastic to see.
There are plans underway to further increase the impact of the clock, tailor its messaging to be most effective at key moments in the run up to the summit, and even bring it inside the summit space to stare politicians in the face as they make key decisions. Watch this space!
Find out more about the Climate Clock organisation, who are to credit for all of the creative and most of the logistical side of this project, here.