A day in the life at COP26
Catriona standing in front of a wall of plants and the words 'Welcome to COP26'
In this guest blog from Catriona Patterson, she discusses her experiences of attending the COP26 United Nations climate conference, currently underway in Glasgow. The blog gives an honest and personal account of the ups and downs of her experience as well as some top tips on what she learned from the day.
Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a day at COP26 – witnessing negotiations, attending talks and meeting lots of new people at the world’s largest (and most critical) climate change conference.
In the build-up to the conference, there was lots of speculation as to what our Glasgow COP would be like. This only intensified when COP kicked off on the 31St October, and there was an explosion of news, images and social media all trying to capture the activities taking place within the different zones and in wider Glasgow. Every day there are more reports and opinion pieces trying to analyse the progress of discussions or understand the long term impact of the present moment. Despite all this, I still didn’t know what to expect as an individual attendee: what would I actually do? So here’s my COP26 diary – a wee insight from Friday 5th November.
9.30am: I’ve already shown my passport 3 times this morning, and I’m totally disorientated.
My train from Edinburgh is filled with delegates – I find myself sitting next to someone practicing their presentation on behalf of the Finnish agricultural ministry – and I make it to the SEC Exhibition Centre train stop without any delay. But when stepping out of the station I see that the ‘Smartie Tube Bridge’ – the normal walkway to the SEC (the Scottish Event Campus, where COP26 is taking place) is shut and I realise that my mental map of Glasgow is currently useless.
Thankfully there are lots of local COP26 volunteers providing a ‘Glasgow welcome’ (my aunt among them!) and helping with directions. Generally, the advice is: yes, follow the people – go towards the gates – be ready to show your negative lateral flow test result. By the time I wind through the various street diversions, gates and queues, I’ve lost all sense of direction, but the throng has narrowed to a concentrated channel and I’ve worked my way through the various checks.
It’s very much like going through a visa border – clutching documents in hand, generally anxious that you’ve forgotten the one piece of paper you actually need – and, in effect, it is. The SEC has become ‘UN territory’ for the duration of the conference (with the associated UN staff and security guards!). I’d been warned about the airport-style security, but my experience is great: quick and cheery, and I even make a friend in the queue.
Years after Creative Carbon Scotland applied for official NGO observer status and months after applying for passes to attend, I’ve finally made it into the ‘Blue Zone’.
The SEC campus set up as the COP26 Action Hub with a huge globe suspended overhead.
10.30am – Exploring the Action Hub – from the literal globe to the global
The spherical hydro of the SEC campus is unrecognisable from the last time I was here. Hanging from the ceiling is a huge globe, reminiscent of the ‘pale blue dot’ images often cited in climate change discussions, and there’s a mix of open event spaces and casual seating. All around me people are meeting, gearing up to present, live streaming (complete with ring lights) or on video calls – and I even spot a couple of people having a quick power nap in a quiet corner.
Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface of the Blue Zone: it’s known as the place where the official negotiations between nation states is taking place, but what I didn’t realise is that it’s also hosting lots of events and activities that seek to connect with delegates from around the world.
Almost immediately I take a (socially-distanced) seat in ‘Code Red for Climate Storytelling’: a panel by Project Everyone exploring the role of media and communication in fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals. Over 30 minutes I hear from filmmaker Richard Curtis about how Love Island will soon be Underwater Island, from Laurent Gaveau at Google’s Cultural Institute about their labs bringing together artists and engineers for climate solutions, and from Dave Erasmus of MyChangingPlanet about their work with biologists and sonographers to plot the ocean soundscape as they sailed to COP26.
12pm Re-visiting Al Gore and the inconvenient truth
I make my way deep into the Blue Zone to the Pen Y Fan auditorium (the spaces at the climate summit being named after famous geographic UK summits – Cairngorm is next door) where Al Gore is presenting on ‘The danger we’re in, and the case for hope’.
It’s a powerful talk, but it’s also painful to remember that we’ve all heard it before. As even Gore himself points out, he’s given this talk over 1000 times since 2006, updating it as the science and the examples emerge. He shows us video clips of countless examples of climate disasters spanning floods, heatwaves and landslips but the most shocking thing is that so many of them happened in the last 12 months. Before almost every video clip he assures the audience that ‘they survived, by the way’, signalling we should brace ourselves for yet another harrowing scene.
A busy corridor during COP26 with people in masks for COVID-19 protection and well-placed hand sanitiser stations.
1.30pm From Australia to Japan and back again
I head to the exhibition hall to visit the pavilions: huge stalls hosted by nation states, international groups (the European Union, the OECD, the International Indigenous People’s forum on climate change) and other organisations (the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Bellone Foundation).
Many of the pavilions are two-storey– a ground floor exhibition and meeting space, and an upstairs with various talks scheduled throughout the day. It’s more casual than other parts of the Blue Zone, and there is lots of milling about. I run into a friend, and we manage to navigate through the maze to Australia’s pavilion, which has a reputation for distributing the best coffee.
On my way out I have a near-collision with a group of 10 people walking towards me at pace. I dive into a pavilion to let the group past and realise it’s a walking live interview and accompanying media entourage. From the name tag on the adult Scout uniform, I realise it’s the adventurer and TV presenter Bear Grylls. Today has a focus on youth and public empowerment, so perhaps it’s something to do with that…
3pm – A confusing experience of live negotiations
I’m glad I’m wearing comfortable shoes as I make the trek towards the negotiation spaces of the Blue Zone. Here the colour decoration of the pavilions is replaced by a huge expanse of grey and white: a mix of open plan hot-desks, media stages and doors to anonymous and guarded meeting rooms (24 in total).
I manage to decode the online programme and information screens to work out that I can observe some negotiations from Meeting Room 14, but they are being broadcast live from Meeting Room 8. I feel a little like the overflow class of an oversubscribed university course. I stay for around 30 minutes but struggle to understand what is happening. The session is titled ‘CMA informal consultations on new collective quantified goal on climate finance’ but the formality of the negotiation process means the discussion is quite impenetrable. The Chair closes the session and notes that no resolution has been found: I don’t know if it will be revisited or resolved.
Catriona inside the Blue Zone
4pm – The long walk to the Green Zone
Across the water from the UN ‘Blue Zone’ is the UK Government’s ‘Green Zone’: the official space for members of the public attending COP26, and host to stalls from organisations, initiatives and businesses alongside a civil society events programme. It’s being hosted in the Glasgow Science Centre, which is across the pedestrian bridge from the SEC. However, that bridge, and those surrounding it, are closed for security purposes, so instead of a 3-minute trip across the water, it’s a 20-minute journey. When discussions about COP26 often come back to challenges around inclusivity and the limited participation of civil society, I feel like the artificial separation of these venues only seeks to highlight the disconnect. However, I cross paths with an old friend from university on the way, which cheers me up!
I don’t know if it is a product of visiting relatively late in the day, or if my energy levels are fading, but the space feels a little lacklustre. The security is more thorough (and stern) and the activities seem more sparse, with corporate sponsors given the luxury of space, and small-scale innovation projects crammed into corridors.
5.30pm – Overwhelmed on the shuttle bus
It’s the end of my day, and I learn that there is a shuttle bus between the Blue Zone, Green Zone and Glasgow’s Central station. My pass gets me free travel, so I hop on to begin the journey back to Edinburgh. It’s also at this point that I realise that I haven’t had anything to eat all day – just two coffees and a lot of adrenaline. I’m overwhelmed with the idea that I’ve probably only experienced about 2% of what I could have seen in the day, and just quite how big the whole thing is. I can’t quite believe that some people will be attending two whole weeks at this pace!
A tree of paper leaves, coloured in and written on; pleas to stop deforestation, and promises to use less electricity.
Reflections and top tips
I appreciate how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to attend COP26, and how many people are excluded from these spaces – by process, by economic circumstance, by systemic marginalisation and also by the mystery of what actually happens here. But if you do have the chance to attend, here are my top tips
- Have a plan…and prepare to stray from it: I had created an agenda for myself based on the programme available on the COP26 app, but once I got there I ended up following people I met or hearing new announcements of confirmed events.
- Plan your food and drink: There were plenty of restaurants, cafes and eating spots serving Scottish and sustainable food within the Blue Zone, but I didn’t make time for it in my day. It feels like you’ll miss something by stopping to eat, but you definitely still need the fuel.
- You never know who you’re going to bump into: World leaders, celebrities, colleagues and friends mixing in one space is a strange combination. Recognising people and stopping to say hello was one of the joys of my COP26 experience.
COP26 is taking place in Glasgow until Friday, 12th November 2021.
All images supplied. © Catriona Patterson 2021