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Reflections from COP26: Success and failure

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Emilia Melville is a Coordinator at Bristol Energy Network and Director at Praxis Research. She attended the recent global climate talks, COP26 in Glasgow, and shares her experience and reflections in the blog post below.

Was COP26 a success or a failure? Have you ever been to a COP? Were you in Glasgow? Were you looking from afar? Did it look to you like success or failure?

The Partnership asked me to share something about my experience at COP26 in Glasgow, from a personal perspective. I was there with Bristol Energy Network, on a Community Energy England ‘observer’ ticket to the Blue Zone – the ‘official’ part of the COP, within which all of the negotiations took place. 

To be honest I was a bit reluctant to go – I’d been to the 2009 COP in Copenhagen, and was burned by the despair that I, along with a lot of climate activists, fell into afterwards. I was scared of having to face that again, by engaging with the international political process. 

The Copenhagen COP had left me feeling wary of any narrative which says ‘this is our last chance to save the climate’ – if we set an absolute target for the outcome of a COP, and tell ourselves that all is lost if it almost inevitably fails to achieve this, it is very hard to find the motivation to keep going afterwards. And what happens in these international talks matters. Even my friends who were most cynical about the COP didn’t manage to completely protect themselves from disappointment when it failed. 

Being in the Blue Zone in Glasgow was partly an experience of being too close up to see the wood for the trees. To get more perspective,, I started listening to this excellent podcast ‘outrage and optimism’, on my bus journeys into town, and in the queue to get in.  It gives an engaging, thoughtful insider take and helped me understand what was going on in the progress of the negotiations themselves – which I highly recommend. Some of my analysis here is based on that podcast. 

Meeting with Darren Jones MP

I was glad that Community Energy England set some reassuringly achievable goals for our delegation’s time at COP: to lobby UK politicians to set policy that would support the community energy sector as an essential part of achieving net zero in the UK. The UK’s net zero strategy mentions community energy, but doesn’t provide any policy or funding support for it. Back in 2009 in Copenhagen I’d felt a huge pressure, as part of the UK Youth Climate Coalition delegation ‘inside’, to put everything I could into making a difference to the outcome of the talks, and felt extremely disempowered by finding no way to meaningfully do this, so having a clear goal was helpful.

After arriving through the various checkpoints (show result of daily negative lateral flow test, pass through airport-style baggage scans etc), delegates walked through into a huge exhibition hall, filled with ‘pavilions’ – one or two storey exhibition spaces – representing all sorts of interests, organisations or countries.

The UK pavilion served excellent free coffee in the lounge upstairs, and had morning MP briefings and other talks in the seminar room downstairs. A good place to encounter the UK politicians we were hoping to lobby. My colleague Dave did a great job of ‘accosting’ MPs, lords, and even the minister for energy Kwasi Kwarteng, and telling them how important community energy was.  We met with Darren Jones – MP for Bristol North West, who chairs the cross party House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.  Community Energy England will be following up with all of the contacts we made, but getting proper support for community energy will need all of us to write to our MPs and keep it on their agenda. See Community Energy England’s website for how to help!

I also spent a lot of time listening to talks at the Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change pavilion. A panel of Indigenous people spoke about the proposal for 30% of natural areas to be protected under the UN Convention on Biodiversity, and the history of Indigenous people being displaced from their lands through conservation initiatives. Their human rights to free, informed and prior consent are essential.  They argued that no indigenous land should be part of that 30%, but that instead Indigenous people should retain sovereignty over their lands, and be supported with funding to implement conservation on their own terms. 

This brought to life for me one of the key topics in the Mock COP we ran during the second week of COP in partnership with the Cabot Institute and Bristol City Council.

It was heartening to see Indigenous people represented on panels elsewhere – including at the Cryosphere pavilion in a talk on how to do research in a way that is collaborative with Indigenous people and their knowledge, rather than extractive. It may be that I saw these voices because I sought them out, and I know that COP26 was particularly criticised for not being inclusive. I don’t know who was in those audiences, and whether any of it filtered into the actual COP negotiations.

All of the Blue Zone delegates received a pass for free public transport around Glasgow. It was great to experience what it is like to have unlimited public transport – and to imagine how much it would help transition us toward car free cities if everyone had free public transport.  It did take 40 minutes to get into town though – in a city cut through by motorways where at off peak times the same journey would be 15 minutes by car, according to google maps. 

Outside the COP blue zone, climate activists gathered for the big march through the streets of Glasgow. Dave and I held the Bristol Energy Network banner the whole way through. There were open access events and a People’s Climate Summit around Glasgow, but this involved a lot of travelling around the city. There wasn’t an obvious place to go where ‘everything’ was happening, as there had been in the KlimaForum in Copenhagen.  Covid 19 had a big impact on the climate movement’s ability to organise – from uncertainty as to whether COP would go ahead in person at all, to restrictions on numbers of people in venues, caution about spreading it, and the challenge of regrouping after the lockdowns and the challenges of the pandemic.

The agreements made at COP26 take us to between 1.8 and 2.4 degrees of warming, depending on your assumptions. This is if all of the pledges are implemented. This is not enough – we need to stay below 1.5 degrees.  Before COP26 the pledges made took us to 2.7 degrees – so it is a step in the right direction, but much too small a step.  Hope lies in the fact that they agreed to meet again next year with revised and more ambitious targets – rather than waiting 5 years as would have happened under the Paris agreement.  However, the agreements on climate finance – to ensure rich countries (which caused the climate problem) are paying funds to poor countries (who are suffering most of the impacts) are insufficient.  This is not only bad for climate justice, it also reduces trust and global commitment to the COP process, and needs to be resolved for the next year’s COP in Egypt to be successful.  

Was it a success or a failure? I definitely felt more sad than happy in the week after COP, and when I think about it I am feeling more despair and anxiety than hope.  But I do also appreciate the huge number of people who have put their heart into making progress, and am heartened by the Outrage and Optimism podcasts reflections on how much further we have got than they would have imagined before the Paris COP in 2015. Let’s keep making our community climate action plans and ensure they really get us to net zero.

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