COP26 Reflections From a whistlestop tour

Robin McAlpine – 4th November 2021

I start my visit to COP26 at the Green Zone. There’s a reason for this; when COP26 was announced for Glasgow, Common Weal got straight on the phone and booked the exhibition space at the Science Centre (where we held IdeaSpace a few years ago). If you don’t have a lot of money you have to be fly…

So it was inevitable when, six weeks later, the Scottish Government discovered and booted us out to use it for themselves, only to subsequently get booted out themselves by the UK Government (there’s always someone above you in the pecking order).

I’m only here to get a feel for COP26. Common Weal is designated as an official observer NGO but beyond that we have no role, so I’m the definition of an observer. What did I observe?

Let’s start with Glasgow. I arrive on a bright, chilly day, the sun shining and the weather calm. Glasgow looks handsome today – there are signs that the bins are starting to struggle with content but no sign of any rats (not that I have any ill feeling to the wee creatures – everyone’s gotta live somewhere…).

Transport from Glasgow Central to the venue isn’t awfully prompt and I find myself waiting for quite a while. This becomes a bit of a theme of the day – you’ll spend a lot of time in queues. But it does also point to one of the nicest things about my day, which is that everyone is friendly. The man who is guiding us onto the bus is a Common Weal supporter, says hello and we have a long chat.

When I eventually get there, I discover another theme for the day – you’ll walk. A lot. There are a lot of one-way systems and every distance feels like it is twice as long as it usually is. If you’re just in for the day like I am, you’ll find a lot of your day just gets sucked up in process. (This is particularly the case if, like me, you’re not super well prepared in advance and have to do things like go for a Covid test to get in the Blue Zone.)

So what’s in the Green Zone? Overwhelmingly corporate sponsorship. It is dominated by the ‘corporate partners’ with large exhibition displays telling you how green they are. The Hitachi exhibition has a concept electric car which I go for a look at but find that they have cubes on the floor with what appear to be priorities for a green future. Number eight is ‘decent work and economic growth’. I’m not sure they get it.

On past RBS and Sainsburys and a stall that appears to be primarily Hellmans (as in mayonnaise). I struggle to find anything to stop and look at, so I head upstairs where I do at least bump into a couple of English transport academics I know but haven’t seen for a few years. We have a really good chat, but it is impossible not to comment on the fact that the size of the universities’ stall is derisory.

At least the cake is good, I get to poke around at a robot which picks strawberries and there is an optimism about the place, wholly a result of the sheer amount of goodwill the visitors bring with them. So I head off to the Blue Zone – there isn’t a bus waiting so I walk. It’s a long walk but all the policemen offer a friendly hello and ask me how my day is going. It feels kind of how policing ought to be.

When I get there I discover there is a slight problem with my accreditation which also means I didn’t get the message about proof of negative lateral flow tests. Sorting all of this out sucks up yet more time; when I eventually get in I have time to do little more than nosey around before I realise I’m going to have to head off to make sure I’m back in time to do a talk for Yes Annandale.

So what can I tell you about the Blue Zone? Well, it has many more younger people than I expected and everyone seems buoyant and, again, optimism seems to me to be high. I don’t have time to get to any of the plenaries or seminars or discussion groups. This leaves not an awful lot to do – again, a result of poor planning on my part and an attempt to do too much in one day.

I head back to Central Station. Again, I can’t see a bus so I walk, the lights in the trees along the side of the Clyde are twinkling and again Glasgow looks mostly great. But then again, the soulless corporate buildings of Atlantic Quay could be anywhere and I only really feel like I’m back in Glasgow when I pass a pub with frosted windows through which emerge the sounds of a flute band.

What do I make of it all? I thought I might be overwhelmed by trying to see as much as I could in one day. I don’t want to feel negative – I want this to mean something. But I leave feeling a bit underwhelmed. The Green Zone is really a waste of time. There are a few interesting talks but it’s just dominated by corporate advertising and there just isn’t that much to see.

The Blue Zone feels like serious business – there are about four layers of security before you get in and it really is a United Nations-controlled space. The programme of discussion left me conflicted – on the one hand some of it looks really interesting, but on the other hand it feels late in the day to be having a first-principles discussion session on ‘what is a Just Transition?’.

Of course, the real purpose of the ‘Conference of Partners’ is that the partners negotiate some kind of meaningful, binding action. In the end that’s what’s important. The rest felt perhaps a little like a big academic conference. I want to believe that the world’s nations are way ahead of where some of the discussion here is, but I realise they may not be. We really are leaving this to the last minute.

I’m sure others will get much more out of COP than me, but it also seemed like some of the people who might get the most out of this aren’t here. Did the UK put on a good show? It didn’t captivate me. It certainly wasn’t challenging – I didn’t come across anything all day that questioned economic growth or consumption.

What did it mean for Scotland? Like I say, Glasgow was a decent host and will leave a positive impression on people. But as I bump into a Geneva-based trade unionist I know, pushing his way out of an eight-foot heavy-duty turnstile to get out of the venue again, he admits that he can’t think of a defence against accusations that this is a very exclusive event. I found little I would recommend to a Glaswegian who cares about this subject who wanted to visit something.

As I sit on the train on the way home I find it hard not to believe that, had Common Weal been allowed to keep our booking, we’d have put on a better show than this – and certainly a much more challenging show than this. Sky TV’s space was a beautiful display of foliage elegantly arranged – and not much more…

Every time someone says ‘net zero by 2050’ I wince and think ‘OK, only three more decades of making everything worse then…’. What did not happen during my visit was finding myself challenged. There is lots of polite artwork stressing the urgency of the need for change but somehow that doesn’t translate to a sense of urgency about much of what I saw.

I hope COP26 produces a really meaningful output. I hope the sea of delegates find it useful. I hope they found Glasgow welcoming and leave with fond memories of Scotland. But if this was meant to be the last chance saloon, it felt a bit more like the executive lounge of an airport.

Overall, I fear that the most important part of the whole sprawling event may turn out to be this Saturday’s protest march. I want to feel much, much more urgency than I felt over my whistle-stop tour.

Robin McAlpine is the founder of Common Weal and currently Head of Strategic Development.

2 thoughts on “COP26 Reflections From a whistlestop tour”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Interesting review Robin. To be frank, I don’t know how I feel. It is too important to be completely cynical about, but the advance “cliff edge” billing could be counter productive in creating unrealistic expectations? (I was born in the same year as the existential Cuban Missile Crisis so maybe I have something in my psyche which rejects absolutism?). As I am currently unable to walk far I won’t be participating in any of it; the Scottish climate may dampen the spirits at the weekend? The exhibitions sound more like the “modern homes exhibition” held at the Kelvin hall where you could let’s of free food samples and explore ridiculous designs? Emotionally, my biggest empathy went to the wheelchair bound Israeli delegate who could not get in on the first day due to communication error. Listening to her calm, gracious and rational take on it, on Tuesday ( “principles are fine but the daily details matter”), I felt really awful at her experience, an experience which remains all too frequent. That’s the thing about crowds, society etc; it is too easy to forget about the individual? Likewise, it is some of the smallest and most politically insignificant island nations/communities; those who have done no harm to anybody; who stand to lose everything if we in the wealthier nations don’t take responsibility?

    1. Robin McAlpine


      I wrote my reflections on the train on the way home. The further I get from the actual experience of being there, the more doubt I have about its merits. I had a deep scepticism that this was going to live up to its purpose before I went but tried to suspend it when there. There are so many people about who really want it to work that it leaves you feeling a degree of positivity. But I think it seems almost certain this is now going to let us down and the whole thing has been treated by almost everyone involved at a senior level as a PR opportunity without substance. This worries me deeply. Obviously…


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