As we come to the end of the COP26 negotiations I wanted to take a moment and reflect on what I learnt during my visit to Glasgow. It was an eye-opening event to the power of innovation and desire for collaborative action between individuals, organisations and governments from across the world. I had the opportunity to speak with founders and innovators who are determined to find, and have found, solutions that will help us on our journey to net zero – because let’s face it, we need all the help we can get.
However, not everything I learnt was quite so positive. There is still a large gap between discussion and action, a gap between wanting to do something and knowing how to do it, and a gap between who gets a seat at the table and who is impacted by the decisions. So, I thought I would try and summarise my key learnings into three points, not an easy task. For context, I spent most of my time in the green zone with members of the public or at fringe events with a range of small and large businesses. Therefore, I can’t speak for the negotiations themselves other than through the conversations I had with people involved in those discussions.
Three Things I Learnt at COP26:
1. People do want to collaborate
This was the key message I took from the conference. We need to sensitively work together to get anything done. Everyone has a role to play and harnessing the power of collaboration is essential. By this, I don’t mean that everyone has an equal responsibility for the current climate change and actions to mitigate/ adapt to this. We are all well aware that some people, organisations, counties, industries are more responsible than others when it comes to pollution and emissions. That is why I premise the idea of working together with the word sensitively. However, the blame game isn’t helpful. If working together looks like richer countries financially supporting poorer counties, then working together is good. But digging deeper than just these headline worthy financial pledges, collaboration is more than this, it is about actionable and helpful support that does something useful rather than just making one party feel good about themselves. Sticking with the finance example, I was lucky enough to be sharing a dorm room with one of the policy advisors for Ecuador. She explained to me how even though there is money being pledged left right and centre to ‘collaboratively’ tackle and adapt to climate change, actually accessing this funding is a massive challenge. Money is not arriving in the right places or fast enough. Therefore, if we want collaboration to be productive, we must actually listen to each other’s issues and pain points before jumping to conclusions about all working together. Collaboration can be learning best practice or working with innovators/ academics to develop and integrate new technologies or sustainable solutions into business models. There are many examples I could continue with, but hopefully you get the gist. We can’t keep working in silo, but when we do come together, we must do it in a way which harbours positive action rather than reasserting old power dynamics because that isn’t helpful collaboration.
2. Many organisations still have no idea where to start on their carbon reduction journey
This one scared me. People are not being honest about what they know and what they are planning on doing. I have always known that decarbonisation is a mammoth task, but I naively thought that businesses hiding behind huge net zero pledges had at least had some idea about their baseline emissions and what they are doing to reduce them. I am very aware that this is a mass generalisation. I would like to make it clear that not all organisations are totally clueless. Some pleasantly surprised me with their reduction strategies which are currently in place. However, this was not always the case and many really did have no clue. What is said over a glass of wine is often far more insightful to the inner workings of an organisation compared to a shiny presentation by a company to a roomful of people and cameras. This is my first ‘corporate’ conference and so the first time I have seen this dynamic at play. I spoke to managers, sustainability officers and even CEOs who would let slip that they have no clue what they are doing, shortly before going onto a stage and presenting a very convincing, and what looked like thought through, presentation about how wonderful their net zero strategies are. I even overheard employees of the organisation, presenting under massive banners with their carbon pledges on, asking each other what the terms net zero and carbon neutral actually mean. What would be far more helpful is a bit of honestly (and far fewer inflated green egos). Admit what you do and don't know, then ask for help. Tell people your challenges because 9 times out of 10 there will be someone in the room who can help you. Stop pretending you have all the solutions.
Now, I don’t mean to sound judge-ey, especially considering in my first key message I discussed the power of working together and listening to everyone’s pain points. However, when organisations are just totally pretending that they have it all under control, how can we foster that productive collaboration?
This isn’t to say they don’t want to take action, although I was disappointed when someone admitted to me, they were mainly looking forward to the ‘drinks and dinner events’ of the conference. Often, the organisations who have pledged action do actually want to take action but they have no clue what they should do. I am not excusing this – there are several ways organisations can get support to implement plans for reducing their emissions and achieving net zero without only offsetting. What I heard was nothing I hadn’t heard before, people don’t understand climate jargon, pledges are confusing, there are too many methods and ways of doing something. We need a global standard which isn’t inaccessible.
What is inexcusable is some of the scenes at the green zone. I would like to share one of my experiences at a stand of one of COP26’s official partners who have spent who knows how much money on making sure their name is all over the conference.
I walk up to the overly green and full of plants stand. I see that there are some people looking very excited shaking bags of plant seeds. I start to have a look at the massive installation in the centre of their exhibition and am hit with a wave of frustration. The installation is a magnetic board for members of the public to stick up a magnet with a pledge on it. These pledges included things like ‘talking to your friends and family about their consumption habits’, ‘turning off the lights’, ‘eating less meat’ etc etc, all the classics. So why was I so frustrated by this seemingly harmless and possibly educational installation? Because the large corporation whose stand it was, has absolutely nothing to do with any of the pledges that it is asking the members of the public to do. They are not educating the public about how their organisation can actually do something to help them reduce emissions, they are instead shifting that onus onto the individuals in an absolutely meaningless manor with pledges that have nothing to do with their organisation. So, I go up and ask the member of staff about what this particular organisation is doing in the fight against climate change – hoping to be wowed by the answer considering they have one of the largest exhibition stands at the largest climate conference to date. The person tells me that they have pledged net zero by 2030 and then points me in the direction of the magnet tree asking if I would like to make my own pledge. I push a bit more and ask about what is being done by this 18.6 billion USD revenue organisation to achieve this ambitious pledge. The person starts to go into a well-rehearsed spiel about reducing plastics. I then ask about carbon specifically, considering the pledge is net zero emissions. He starts talking about plastics again. I then explain that it is great to be promoting ocean clean ups etc but how is this helping with the net zero target. He starts to get a bit flustered and shows me the QR code on his lanyard to direct me to their website which will ‘tell me all I need to know’. But unfortunately, I didn’t come to Glasgow to be directed to a website and I didn’t think that the question I asked was a particularly difficult one considering they are a partner of COP26 and the net zero pledge was their opening line when I asked about what their company is doing. So, in my biggest ‘Karen let me speak to the manager’ moment I thanked him for explaining about the plastics and asked if I could speak to someone who knew a bit more about the carbon side of things. He then continued to direct me to the website and magnet tree. This confirmed to me that no one else on the stand knew about anything more than the fact they have pledged net zero by 2030. I was shocked. How could this company have the nerve to not fully brief their staff about their plans (if they even have any) to reduce their emissions when they are a principal sponsor of the event. This tells me that the company is treating COP26 like any old industry fair or marketing event and not the biggest climate conference to date. Also why do the employees not know about it anyway – considering it has to be a full company effort. After explaining that I would take a look at the website (which I did and still learnt very little) and filling out an online survey to say I wanted to find out more about their strategy (which I have still received nothing from), I was sent on my way to the magnetic tree and handed a packet of seeds. This was the final straw. The person I had been speaking to started explaining to me that the way this organisation is supporting people is by giving out a small packet of seeds to everyone that came to visit the stand. I was told I should go and ‘rewild my local area’ in the middle of November. A nice sentiment, right? Apart from the fact that this is the 18.6 billion USD revenue company’s answer to solving climate change. Not impressed. I’m all for companies supporting individuals, that’s collaboration; but this was a joke.
3. Who gets a seat at the table (or seat on the panel) matters. "COP is too stale, pale and male".
People talked a lot about diversity and the importance of listening and taking different voices seriously. There was a gender day, a youth and public empowerment day and many events about indigenous people and international programs in the Green Zone. But that was just all a lot of hot air, because when it actually came down to it, who had a seat at the table? Men, and quite often it was "stale, pale, males" a phrase even used by Mary Robinson in her outstanding speech on women’s climate finance. I was outraged at some of the panel discussions I attended. For example panel events on climate change economics with 7 men and one woman, I attended a panel on 'climate action' with an all male panel. COP has continued to marginalise certain voices. One of the best events of the whole conference for me was the Climate Justice and Gender Equality panel (pictured below) I attended which highlighted the importance of applying a gendered lens to the negotiations, however this isn’t always possible because women don’t have an equal seat at the negotiations table. 74% of the ‘top leaders’ in the negotiants have a male voice. The questions ‘How do we drive change when we can’t even get into the room?’ was a shocking one and highlights how all of the promises of COP being a diverse COP has just not been delivered and the repercussions of this will be felt by those who have been marginalised in discussions.
COP26 was an unforgettable experience for me and felt like a historic moment in time. It has energised me to continue my work on climate change (because there is a lot of work to be done). I have come out of the event feeling optimistic about the incredible innovation and passion that many individuals and organisations have. However, I am also concerned about the lack of understanding of where to start and what to do from some of the biggest influencers out there. This was my first COP but it most definitely will not be my last. I hope that I can continue to learn about the different stakeholder’s pain points so that I can help in assisting a more collaborative approach to climate change.
- Laura Mitchell