IEMA's CEO Sarah Mukherjee MBE attended COP26 and reflects on her experience there and shares key observations on the event and proposed outcomes.
I set off to the COP in anticipation and with apprehension in equal measure. I couldn’t wait to meet colleagues again after so many months of isolation. However, the prospect of being with thousands of new colleagues face to face, after eighteen months of peering at each other on a screen, felt quite overwhelming. And, as I planned my packing for a ten day stay, I realised that my lockdown wardrobe was not appropriate for the series of Ministerial level contacts, facilitation, and presentations I had scheduled, and the gym-free months of early lockdown meant that my previous professional attire fitted a little too snugly to be comfortable for wearer or colleague alike.
This was not my first COP, but my eighth, although that made me a mere stripling compared to some seasoned veterans. However, previously I had attended as a BBC environment correspondent. This time, I had the honour and privilege of representing our members as a UNFCCC accredited NGO, or non governmental organisation.
Our small team were staying in Edinburgh, as we could not justify the astronomical prices in Glasgow, which had resulted in a citizens’ exodus. I had many conversations with bus drivers, baristas and our own members in the region who had friends staying everywhere from the Borders to the Shetlands as they paid off a chunk of their mortgage as a result of one of the most overheated temporary rental markets on the planet. The trains between the Scottish capital and the COP capital were fast and electric, with a shuttle bus to complete the journey to the Blue Zone, where the negotiators and governments met, along with those who had observer status like ourselves, and then to the more public facing Green Zone. “Oh, so you’re in the Citadel” joked one of my companions on the shuttle bus with a “Hunger Games” reference when he saw my blue lanyard. “You guys even have a moat and a drawbridge to keep you away from the rest of us”. It’s true that in previous years, the line between the Blue and Green Zones was almost imperceptible - this time, the venues are a bus drive away over the River Clyde and a bridge to the detriment, many said, of both groups.
The Blue Zone, where the majority of my meetings were held, felt like a cross between a trade fair and an airport lounge; thousands of people hurrying this way and that to meetings in huge conference halls, with little natural light and little connection to the outside world, apart from the occasional bracing and welcome gust of air as you travelled through the marquees that connected the different sections of the venue. This was an irony not lost on those who attended on Saturday for meetings themed around nature, when there was precious little of it around. The other worldliness of the venue was reinforced by a collective jolt of recognition as we left the shuttle bus for the station that evening, with a reminder that this was a main party night in one of the UK’s liveliest capitals. “How do they wear so little?” wondered a South African delegate, snug in a thick coat and a jumper, as we passed a stream of young people heading in the other direction in little more than T-shirts, jeans and hot pants.
Having tens of thousands of international high profilers in one place might be a security nightmare, but the global influx has been met with relentless good humour by the hundreds of train drivers, volunteers and support personnel, who have been unfailingly polite and enthusiastic, whether it was saying “Platform 17 for the COP” four thousand times a day, or getting thousands of people through several rings of security in time for negotiations and meetings. Glasgow has welcomed its temporary residents with open arms.
There have been criticisms that this COP has been under-representative of people of colour, given its global remit. It’s certainly true that, at times, some panels have not felt like they were truly representative. Transport and Covid restrictions have been a factor, and there has been more virtual representation at some events - but it is fair to say that COP has some way to go to ensure that everyone has the equal voice they need to ensure we get the best solutions to the significant problems we face.
Any COP brings the usual mixture of emotions - hope, fear and occasional despair at the seemingly glacial pace of international agreement, when the glaciers themselves, in many countries, don’t really have that long. But most people here remain optimistic - I have spent more than a week speaking to brilliant people from all over the world who are finding solutions, be they scientific, practical or political, to the problems that we face. I spoke to engineers working on low carbon air travel, biologists researching drought resistant crops and people working on supporting small scale farmers with low carbon farming methods across sub-Saharan Africa. Our members here tell us that they have never been busier with people wanting to embed sustainability into their organisations.
There is hope, but the clock is ticking, and we all hope our leaders can hear it as loudly as the rest of us.