The Good, The Bad: How COP26 Played Out

A protester holds a placard displaying a "Stop Climate Crime" slogan during a climate change demonstration outside of the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on 12 November, 2021. (AFP Photo)

On Friday, youth campaigners, indigenous leaders and Extinction Rebellion members raised a cacophony of chants and drum beats outside COP26, and civil society groups inside the conference complex staged a walkout to join them.

Within the United Nations-controlled blue zone, delegates darted through the endless meeting halls or hunched around laptops as the clock counted down tense minutes to the end of the 12-day conference that is widely understood to be crucial to the future of humanity.

The Deals Already Reached

The ragged final hours of COP26 are a distinct contrast to the carefully choreographed first days when world leaders arrived with bustling entourages to deliver a flourish of eye-catching pledges and, in the case of Boris Johnson, eye-watering analogies, as the host nation’s prime minister likened the climate crisis to a football game and then a James Bond movie in his welcome address.

As locals adapted to the sound of their city being mispronounced “Glaz-cow” by visiting news anchors, Joe Biden’s first-day promise that “the United States is not only back at the table but hopefully leading by the power of our example” was a reassertion of American credibility after Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, but notable too were the absences of the leaders of Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, all major contributors to the crisis.

Those who endured the chaotic queues for entry into the tightly secured and COVID-regulated blue zone were boosted by India’s announcement that the country would go net-zero by 2070, albeit several generations hence but one of the last remaining major economies to have held out on such a commitment.

Then came the domino run of pledges: a declaration on Tuesday on ending deforestation by 2030 and a plan to coordinate the global introduction of clean technologies in order to rapidly drive down their cost; a commitment on Wednesday to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by the end of the decade; an agreement on Thursday to phase out coal-fired power between 2030 and 2040.

While artfully scripted, these declarations did leave lingering questions of credibility given all were agreed outside the main UN framework, and not by all nations. The heavy spinning did not help either.

The Failures And Sidesteps

Over the past fortnight, richer countries have been repeatedly challenged on their failure to hit the longstanding US$100 billion targets for providing climate finance to the developing countries struggling with a climate crisis not of their making. That was not resolved here, and the final draft agreement published on Friday morning still grossly underestimates the necessary amounts, according to global debt campaigners.

Although the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, now UN special envoy on finance and Boris Johnson’s finance adviser for COP26, told the summit on finance day that US$130 trillion of private capital was waiting to be deployed for just transition in the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (Gfanz), many are sceptical of how plausible it is to rely on big business to step into the breach. Many also concluded that further analysis of that huge figure would be necessary.

There were low points for individual nations. A few days after the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, refused to sign the methane pledge during his brief and grudging attendance, his government’s policy response to the climate crisis was ranked last in an assessment of 60 countries by the Climate Change Performance Index.

And this week it became embarrassingly apparent that the UK hosts were not joining the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, founded by Denmark and Costa Rica as a club of countries committed to phasing out oil and gas production.

Voice Beyond The Blue Zone

After an expletive-strewn speech on arrival in Glasgow, the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg pledged to go “net zero on swearing”, but she made no apology for the force of her fury at the school strikes rally last Friday. “This is no longer a climate conference,” she told the crowd of 10,000 young people in George Square. “This is now a global north greenwash festival, a two-week-long celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah.”

Her rage and frustration were shared by other activists who arrived over the first week, having struggled with COVID travel restrictions and overpriced accommodation. Many questioned why the green zone - where civil society, charities and campaigners meet - was set up across the river from the main conference site, and why there was so little public space directly outside the blue zone, meaning protests held there were regularly corralled by police.

The “saturation” policing presence across the city - as well as reported instances of harassment of activists - had a chilling effect on protests, according to campaigners, with the anticipated disruptive direct action at a minimum during the first week.

Regardless - and despite buffeting winds and heavy rain - about 100,000 took to the streets in Glasgow, joining others across the world in a global day of action.

As the summit has progressed, the stunts and actions have become more inventive - a troupe of giant Pikachu protesting against Japan’s refusal to reduce coal consumption; “Emotional Rebellion” activists screaming out their climate anxiety in the drizzle by the River Clyde, and emissions campaigners deflating SUV tyres across the city.

The responses became more inventive too: on Tuesday evening a guerilla protest projected slogans such as “Ban fracking now” onto the summit venue, only to find their words covered over as the official projectionist beamed “go away” across the arched roof of the Clyde auditorium.

The Fight To Be Heard

The legitimacy of the entire summit was called into question at the start of the second week, as observers representing hundreds of environmental, indigenous and women’s rights organisations revealed they were being excluded from negotiating areas, given limited tickets and prevented from joining online due to technical glitches.

Despite UK government boasts that this summit would be the “most inclusive ever”, a combination of COVID restrictions, travel costs and the UK’s hostile immigration system has meant about two-thirds of civil society organisations who usually send delegates did not travel to Glasgow, resulting in a summit dismissed as the “whitest and most privileged ever”.

The focus on gender equality on Tuesday heard warm words acknowledging that women and girls often bear the brunt of the climate crisis, but a rally outside the summit put things more bluntly: for indigenous women “femicide is directly linked to ecocide”.

The Star Speakers And Celebrity Interventions

The former US president Barack Obama nearly lost the crowd when he described Scotland as “the Emerald Isle” on Monday, but recovered sufficiently to be awarded a lifetime membership of the local student union.

Other celebrity visitors included the Hollywood actors Leonardo DiCaprio, who reportedly took a commercial flight to Glasgow to visit, and Idris Elba, who had the good grace to admit in his speech at the summit that he understood why “people might be a little irritated” to see celebrities weighing in on the climate crisis. The actor Emma Watson and singer Ellie Goulding detailed their meetings with campaigners on Instagram.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The ASEAN Post.