Talking to a taxi driver in Glasgow this morning, it was interesting to get his outside perspective on the COP climate talks. Although it’s on his doorstep, for him COP26 was a distant, incomprehensible thing, almost like an alien spaceship. From this perspective, COP is about bigwigs from around the globe flying into his city, disrupting the traffic and the bus routes, and producing greenhouse gases in large quantities (with the 22-mile flight from Prestwick to Glasgow proving highly memorable). Luckily, he knew in a few days it would all be taking off to distant climes.
Yet there’s another COP that bears no resemblance to this flashy event that all too often resembles a circus. It is a COP that gets little or no media attention – beyond the occasional shot of a colourfully dressed indigenous person to enliven a news report of talking heads, or the usually sniffy coverage of the climate march on the middle weekend (handy for a quiet news day). It’s a COP that the taxi drivers seldom encounter.
The other COP is a gathering of scientists, campaigners, activists and social enterprises that come together to make up a shadow COP. You might almost call it the real COP, if the job of COP is the find the ways to change the world so that we live within the physical limits of this fragile planet, restoring our trashed nature while providing a decent life for all its humans.
The wardrobe is very different; few suits to be seen. Transport is public – tips on the reliability of Google Maps suggestions highly welcome – or walking and cycling. The topics are different: human health, inequality, protecting nature for its own sake, not just as a ‘carbon store’. The language expresses far more urgency. And what’s striking is that this is where the innovation at COP is to be found. It’s also where the joy, the fun, the real life is.
Climate change ‘too hard’
In the shiny pavilions of fossil-fuel-dependent nations (generally the worse the emissions, the fancier the pavilion), the story is of how hard it is to change our world, how we need to keep the current economic system while sometimes (and slowly) changing the technology. The phrase ‘just transition’ might get mouthed occasionally, but it is envisaged as a simple transition from man standing on an oil rig, to man standing beside a solar panel. When trying to demonstrate inclusiveness, it will be a woman instead. Nature is something to be managed, shaped, replaced, and above all, profited from.
Economic growth, as measured by gross domestic product, is king. ‘Green growth’ is the mantra, despite the fact that chasing economic growth and allowing giant multinational companies to dominate our economies is what got us in this mess. And the classical economics behind it – which failed to foresee the last global financial crash and has clearly comprehensively failed – remains unchallenged and unquestioned. Yet as Green MP Caroline Lucas said at a shadow COP event last night, it is hard enough to decarbonise our economy at current size, but hopes for growth currently embedded in almost every global government would mean a global system three times the current size in 2050.
Current climate commitments are the minimum we should be achieving
The two COPs interact of course; in fact, it is in the next three days when they interact the most. As I came into the convention centre this morning, a diverse group of campaigners was highlighting how plastics are choking our planet, plastics that are generally (although not exclusively) made from fossil fuels – carbon capture and storage that nature delivered hundreds of millions ago that we are now unpacking. I listened to the World Wildlife Foundation unpacking the draft texts released from the formal negotiations overnight, and its message reflected what I’m hearing from all corners of the shadow COP: this is a floor not a ceiling of what this COP has to deliver.
Slowly, achingly slowly, the official COP is moving towards the innovative ideas – and the urgency – of the shadow COP. Currently, the text actually refers to fossil fuels for the first time ever, despite the fact that around 90 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions on earth come from fossil fuels. There is acknowledgement of the need to deliver on ‘loss and damage’ (although way too weak) – the expression of solidarity between the Global North, that has caused the climate emergency, and the Global South, that is suffering the worst effects of it. And, in a breakthrough driven by the scientists, there’s no longer a challenge to the need to keep alive the 1.5 degree target for the absolute limit for warming of the planet above pre-industrial levels.
Everyone from the shadow COP will be pulling out all stops in the next three or more days.
And there’s one final key difference between the two COPs. The shadow COP emphasises democracy, participation, the hearing of all voices. They welcome the participation of all. So this is the time to share some of their messages, to email your MP, to speak to friends, family, colleagues, classmates about shadow COP. You can help enhance the strength of the voices that the official COP needs to hear.