Analysis: a fortnight where the planet's fate will be decided

27 October 2021, 18:15

Glasgow is hosting the COP26 climate change summit.
Glasgow is hosting the COP26 climate change summit. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

As world leaders head for Glasgow for the obligatory photo opps, handshakes and receptions, does COP26 matter beyond the green-washing of politicians and their policies?

Should any of us care what happens over the next two weeks? After all, not even the Prime Minister or the US President are hanging around for that long. All the hard negotiating work on targets and wrangling over finance will be done by civil servants and other governmental staff.

Already in Glasgow there’s a general feeling of a lack of public engagement in the whole event which will bring around 25,000 people to the city. Security has ensured roads are closed, shops near the site are closing, and the event is an ace up the sleeve of the rail union, RMT, in its demands for better pay. It is threatening to strike and cancel all trains for the duration - with today being a deadline day for the latest offer.

There is also a growing annoyance that it’s because of COP26 that the city council has put an emphasis on cleaning the streets - and not the increase in rats as a result of rubbish piling up as refuse collecting was affected by Covid lockdowns. The bin men and women of Glasgow are also threatening strike action in the second week of the summit.

Further, delegates to COP are being given transferable tickets allowing them to travel on any form of Glasgow’s public transport - again a service not afforded to the people who live there.

Read more: Glasgow facing 'public health crisis' with bin workers due to strike during COP26

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And although there’s a public sphere with events being held, it’s not quite the 2014 Commonwealth Games when tickets could have been sold three times over such was the demand. The closure of Glasgow attractions, such as the Kelvingrove Museum and Galleries, has also attracted the ire of locals.

Despite all of that, there are reasons why people in Glasgow and well beyond do need to care about what goes on inside the OVO Hydro, the site of the UN climate change summit.

Glasgow is billed as the last chance to meet the target of keeping global warming to 1.5C. It’s that kind of statistic which people find hard to grasp in terms of impact on their real lives - but basically it means that if it’s not met then all of us will increasingly be faced with potentially catastrophic weather events. Think of the fires in Greece and floods in Germany and Belgium earlier this year.

The decisions made at COP could also affect all our homes and our energy bills and how our energy is created and delivered.

Read more: Eco activist dressed as Boris burns boat outside COP26 venue in fossil fuel protest

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While it is up to each individual country just how they will meet their targets, there will be a huge emphasis on ending the use of coal across the world. China is the largest country still digging the black stuff out the ground to power its industries - many of which manufacture the goods we buy online and in stores. It has already made a pledge to end the use of coal-powered stations and is firing on all cylinders with its nuclear power station building programme.

The UK government is similarly looking at new nuclear stations as part of the energy mix. So the future of energy could be nuclear alongside renewables as reliance on oil and gas is also reduced.

COP26 won’t result in any decision by countries to stop drilling, but it will add to the pressure on governments to do so, and that will impact anyone who has a car.

Already filling up at the petrol station has changed; at the pumps you’re being asked if you take E10 or E5 - a biofuel that includes ethanol in a bid to reduce pollution and get older cars off the roads.

Then there’s also the demand that we ditch fossil fuel cars for electric ones. That is unlikely to affect those who can’t afford to drive a car in the first place - aside from improving the atmosphere. Of course COP won’t result in demands for all countries to switch to EVs, but it is already on the books for the UK.

Read more: COP26: What could be decided at the key climate summit?

Read more: Read more: How will COP26 be carbon neutral?

Sounds good and green - but the impact of growing numbers of electric vehicles could put pressure on the electricity grid and affect supply. Those spikes when people put their kettle on after EastEnders could soon be added to by people - at least those with driveways - plugging in their cars to charge overnight. It’s a conundrum which the UK government is yet to resolve.

COP will also discuss forcing countries to be transparent about just how they will meet their targets to get to net zero in the long run - though the emphasis is on action up to 2030. If successful it will mean that arguments about why people should bother putting the recycling out when India or China are burning coal at a rate of noughts will either become clearer or be debunked.

Lastly, there is a push to get the promised $100bn to poorer countries to cope with the impact of climate change - to help them develop and pay for damage caused by extreme weather and rising seas.

So while COP26 might feel like it’s an event involving the same old political faces, but not involving the public - aside from scheduled protest marches - without doubt what happens there over the next fortnight will decide the future of the planet.