Inside the Green Zone at COP26

Author: Rebecca Shutt
Editor: Maria Stoica
Photo credits: Rebecca Shutt

Monday. 1st November. London Euston railway station. Just one day after the huge disruption caused by bad weather events and a tree falling on part of the railway line. The irony of the huge banners saying “No time for delay!” is not lost.

What is everyone heading to Glasgow for? 

COP26

The Conference of the Parties has been meeting every year since 1995 and forms the major annual negotiations between nations on commitments to tackle climate change. Delegates include political party members, press, celebrities and ambassadors, diplomats, and observers who apply in advance to attend. 

After 26 years of meetings and negotiation, the conference suffers legacies of unkept promises, one of the most frequently quoted being the 2009 commitment to raise £100 billion per year to address the needs of developing nations, which has yet to be fulfilled. This year, the pressure is on to convert pledges and promises that Greta Thunberg labels as “blah blah blah” into meaningful action. 

The official COP26 is split into the Blue Zone, where the negotiations between world leaders take place, and the Green Zone, which is the public-facing portion of the conference. Though in the same area, the Green Zone is about a 15- to 20-minute walk from the Blue Zone across the River Clyde – yes, they have separated the policy-makers and the public by a literal moat! Having said that, a decent mix of blue lanyard passes of the Blue Zone delegates peppers the crowds in the Green Zone each day. 

The flashy cars and submarines and gimmick-filled sponsor exhibits seem neglectful of the feelings of frustration and calls for action on the ground. It raises some serious questions, such as who is the intended audience of this show? What is the intended message and outcome? 

However, if the Green Zone is intended as a platform to bring more voices to the discussion table, then the panel discussions do seem to prioritise this. Many devote a lot of time to audience interaction, through participation apps such as Slido or in-person questions.

Strengthening Parliamentary Consensus panel.
The silver domes of Glasgow Science Centre, home to the COP26 Green Zone.

Sitting in front of an APPG for the Environment banner that reads “Promoting environmental ambition across Parliament” in the Strengthening Parliamentary Consensus panel, Philip Dunne MP criticised the proposed Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill for calling for net zero by 2030, citing risks of economic collapse and high rates of unemployment. As the UK has already committed to net-zero by 2050, this statement raises the question as to what ambitious environmental policy looks like to each of the members of parliament in the All-Party Parliamentary Groups and Select Committees. 

Meanwhile, Michal Beida, Mayor of Bytem, Poland and Stefan Krastev, Mayor of Pernik, Bulgaria argued in the Regions Beyond Coal panel that often, local policies are much more environmentally ambitious than national ones. However, there is a gap in capital and technical expertise to support their implementation. This sentiment was echoed by Anna McMorrin MP who spoke out for devolved UK governments and local councils in the Strengthening Parliamentary Consensus panel.

Othering” language was used by Anthony Browne MP who criticised the direct action of Insulate Britain, whose latest in a series of actions blocked the A538 near Manchester on 2 November resulting in several arrests. He also freely placed responsibility for consumer habits on the shoulders of individual members of the public. As usual, Tory rhetoric assumes people empowerment comes solely from allowing them freedom of choice, and neglects to observe that the ability to make sustainable choices come from luxuries of time, money, and being informed.

From “othering” language to lessons in hope and cooperation, the leaders of several indigenous communities from Ontario, British Columbia, and the Canadian North spoke about the importance of knowledge sharing and cooperation. Leona Humchitt, a Council member from Heilstuk first nation of Bella Bella, B.C. explained a world view that “everything is one”, meaning being one with the environment and every human being on the planet. This world view provides the motivation on which to act, developing community microgrids for access to clean energy. Emphasis was also placed on extensive local consultation and consensus building. This language feels more conducive to the cooperative collective action needed to solve the climate crisis. As Chief Howard Thompson, Mohawk, Wolf Clan, put it, “If we work together, we can get our grandchildren to become grandparents.” 

So, given this insight into the antics of the green zone, what is going on across the River Clyde?

The low-hanging fruit that has come out of the first week of negotiations includes the Glasgow declaration on forests and land use, with 100 signatories promising to end and reverse deforestation in 85% of the world’s forests. In addition, agreements were reached to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030 and over 40 signatories reached agreement over ending investment in new coal power generation.

And what about elsewhere in Glasgow? 

If the official zones feel anticlimactic, COP-goers can seek refuge in the many Fringe events around the city. Walking along the riverbank between Glasgow Central and Princes Quay, you would encounter the Sustainable Glasgow Landing hub and the Extreme Hangout, hosting activists, artivists, and community groups. The Centre for Contemporary Art and other cultural venues across the city have similarly climate themed programmes of events. 

How do we bridge the gulf between radical public opinion and pragmatic—or conservative—national and international policy? Author Alanna Mitchell claims it is through connecting with people through art: “Science is knowledge, but art has meaning, and people respond to meaning”

Window display of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow.
Vertical farm exhibit by IGS in the Sustainable Glasgow Landing.

Asking a PhD student from London to compare their experiences of the Green Zone to the Extreme Hangout: “The Green Zone felt dominated by companies pushing green-washed agendas and promoting individual action with little true impact. The panels often avoided difficult questions on the bigger picture of how to truly achieve net zero. By contrast, the young leaders on the Climate Justice panel in the Extreme Hangout were confident in discussing the actual changes that need to be implemented, and had a better understanding of what a just transition looks like.”  

“How many COPs to arrest climate action” XR activists march on Tuesday 2nd November.

And what about protests and march action? In the run-up to the big marches planned for the weekend, XR and other activist groups have been active in organising several smaller marches. Somewhat surprisingly, the footfall from the accompanying police officers seems to outnumber that of the protesters. The 197th Fridays for Future strike had a colossal turnout of thousands of young people, an excellent precedent for the main march the following day whose turnout is estimated at a whopping 100,000. One of the protesters commented: 

“The march was a platform for the ordinary person to express their feelings and stance on the climate crisis. It was galvanising to stand with so many people who felt a similar urgency and doom, and also to hear the pleas from those experiencing the climate crisis right now.”

Faced with empty promises and deflective showcasing, the question of “what are we here for?” is bounced around between delegates in a progressively existential manner as the conference proceeds. And arguably, after the incredible show of people power at the marches, the results of the second week of COP26 fell a little flat. The Glasgow Climate pact was agreed upon by 197 countries and contained a pledge to strengthen emission targets for 2030 by next year (3 years earlier than what is required from the Paris accord). The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 was formally recognised. But none of these results feel particularly groundbreaking. It depends whether your cup is half empty or half full, however we don’t have time to not be tackling this crisis with more ambitious collective action. 

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