OPINION: Inside COP26. It's like a tornado that may end in a whimper

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (right) greet

Prime minister Boris Johnson (left) and UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres (right) greet India prime minister Narendra Modi at the Cop26 summit last Monday - Credit: PA

After a chaotic start to COP26, Professor Rupert Read from the University of East Anglia reports on events in Glasgow.

Torn from its post and flapping in the bitter Glasgow wind, the huge COP26 banner seemed like an ill omen.

We stood on the pavement: thousands of delegates on the first day of the major climate summit, unable to get inside.

An hour later and I was bundled straight into a live television interview – as first Boris Johnson and then Prince Charles took to the stage behind me … my sense of foreboding didn’t improve.

Both spoke well and with passion. Boris maintained an earnest tone, later telling a roundtable of leaders of developing nations: “When it comes to tackling climate change, words without action, without deeds, are absolutely pointless.”

Then he flew back to London on a private jet - as did many others if the photographs of small planes lined up at nearby airports are to be believed.

Things really get going for the rest of us at the Conference of the Parties (shortened to COP) after the leaders take their leave.

Most Read

There are more than 20,000 official delegates not to mention the many thousands more journalists and observers.

Unlike many attendees, I have a chance to take in all the different sides of the summit.

It’s a bit like being inside a tornado.

While I’m a delegate in the official blue zone — giving press conferences and interviews, meeting fellow academics, scientists and civil servants — I’m also an activist on the streets, taking part in peaceful protest, giving speeches to crowds, and much more.

Rupert Read speaking at COP26

Rupert Read speaking at COP26 - Credit: Submitted

Many people in the blue zone, where the negotiations take place, have a great air of self-importance; they walk very fast, with faces fixed in a serious expression.

Of course, what is going on here is super-important. It is nothing less than our very futures that are at stake.

But the tragic truth is, no matter what happens now, COP26 is not going to ‘fix’ things. It can’t.

As I’ve discussed with colleagues here, such as Elizabeth May MP, Canada’s answer to Green Party MP (and former party leader) Caroline Lucas, conferences like this don’t have anything like the powers that they really need.

You see, the treaty that fixed the ozone hole - the 1987 Montréal protocol - worked because it had enforcement powers. The power to enact trade sanctions against non-compliant nations.

So when the COP process began more than 25 years ago, finance and trade ministers, the World Trade Organisation and big finance made sure that couldn’t happen again by preventing climate agreements from having any sanctions (eg trade sanctions) with which to enforce them.

We’ll never get a climate agreement that actually works until that changes.

And it won’t change without a much greater public protest: bigger even than the heroic school climate strikes led by kids in cities like Norwich, London and Glasgow and across the world, initiated by my friend and colleague Greta Thunberg.

So, when the news comes through next Friday that COP has ended with a whimper, and a deal that goes nowhere near far enough, don’t be surprised.

But do be a bit angry - and filled with fresh determination to step up and help change the future.

Being here in Glasgow has confirmed my understanding that governments won’t show the leadership necessary to prevent climate chaos, which in the next century will destroy the Broads and inundate most of East Anglia’s coast, unless we get in its way. And that’s just for starters.

Next week, the possibility of real climate leadership passes from them - our so-called ‘leaders’ - to us.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter