I returned home on Friday after almost two weeks at COP26 in Glasgow. It was like running a marathon for ten days in a row – shuttling about from meeting to dinner, protest to prayer vigil, summit to roundtable discussion – and then press 'repeat'. What, if anything, apart from near exhaustion, did those two weeks of intense activity achieve?
Was COP26 a success? For me, it is too early to answer this question. We will only really know whether it was 'enough' in the months and years to come. In my own mind, there were at least two COPs going on in Glasgow. At this point, I have mixed feelings on whether either succeeded.
The first COP was the one happening in the so called Blue Zone. It was the official COP of the climate negotiators – a windowless labyrinth of marques and hangers which had been transformed into UN territory for the COP. I was lucky to have a Blue Zone pass so was entitled to enter this highly protected area.
Inside, it was a hive of activity and as the days progressed, a place of stress, tension and near exhaustion. I have to admit I barely used my official pass. After an initial visit, I quickly decided that this was not where I wanted to be for the most part. Even with a pass, due to Covid restrictions and a fear of protests, it was hard to access and follow the negotiations. Moreover, I have spent many COPs literally inside the tent – and the prospect of spending endless days indoors filled me with unease and a little claustrophobia given the Covid pandemic.
The People's COP
Thankfully, there was a whole other COP happening in Glasgow, and that is where I spent most of my time. There was a ‘People's COP’ happening out on the streets, in parish halls, in churches and mosques, in community centres – every available space was taken up with activists, NGOs, union organisers: civil society of every sort and colour.
Everywhere you turned there were people organising – making colourful banners, displaying knitted blankets (Stitches for Survival), praying, shouting, singing, discussing. It felt like everyone was finding their place in a wonderful kaleidoscope of humanity fighting together for a safe future.
I spent most of my two weeks among people of different faiths who were working on connecting faith and climate issues. Here are a few highlights:
COP started on October 31 with a colourful multi-faith vigil in George Square, Glasgow. The following evening, in St. George’s Church in the Tron, Glasgow, there was a packed multi-faith event where pilgrims and representatives from faiths gathered together to present petitions to COP. The event was a wonderful expression of faith in action. At the end of the event, one Scottish minister from the Church of Scotland said something that has stuck with me: 'We now need to act as if we believe that God made the world and it is worth saving.'
I spent a lot of time marching in Glasgow. The Fridays for Future march on Friday November 5 was a sight to behold. Tens of thousands of young people, children and parents filling the streets with colourful pleas for the grown ups (us) to protect their future. Having been very involved in the Irish climate strikes in 2019, it was moving to see how this movement has grown and now embraces so many groups of parents too!
Saturday brought more marching. In the pouring rain and gale force winds, I walked with the Laudato Si globe, as part of the faith bloc. Despite the inclement weather, this march was the largest demonstration ever held in Glasgow, with estimates of around 150,000. Having taken part in many marches, I was very struck by the strong faith presence and the sense that this movement of peoples is growing stronger and more diverse.
FaithInvest partnered with the Focolare Movement for two events in Glasgow. One was a community event on Faith Plans for People and Planet in a mosque in Govanhill, also co-hosted with the Ahl Al Bait society. It was such a celebration and an engaging evening bringing international visitors to COP into contact with local communities from different faiths. The other event was a wonderful dinner with the Focolare Movement for faith leaders and dignitaries attending COP. It was a wonderful occasion full of joy and a sense of re-connecting with old friends and making new ones. It reminded us how important human connection is in the movement for a just transition.
Faith communities were also active during COP, trying to increase pressure on the fossil fuel industry and finance industry to tackle the crisis. I spoke at a wonderful webinar on divestment co-hosted with Operation Noah. The powerful voices of communities who feel excluded from the negotiations made it an uncomfortable, yet really important conversation and well worth watching back.
The event that FaithInvest co-hosted with GEFI at Glasgow University, entitled ‘Faith in the SDGs’ was a great success. It brought together faith leaders, including Lord Wallace, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, and financial experts and investors to look at how faiths can shift their assets to address the crises we face today. It pointed to a deep shift in thinking happening among faiths right now – and realignment of how they use their money.
The final verdict
So did COP succeed? For certain, what is written in the final COP cover document – the main negotiated text – is not enough. Nowhere near enough. And sadly, at this stage in the climate crisis, delays are deadly. The text is an excruciatingly, carefully worded document designed to moderate expectations, limit responsibility, curtail ambition – at the very point when the opposite is needed.
The world needed governments to raise their game, act generously, and come up with transformative ideas for the ‘race to zero’. The most positive thing in that text is the fact that all governments need to come back next year – not in four years’ time – to raise their ambition.
However, the other COP – the Peoples’ COP on the outside – was a massive success, in my opinion. The truth of the situation and the energy and the motivation to solve the crisis was there. In all the COPs I have attended, I have never felt such an energy in civil society and also in many parts of the business sector, especially finance.
What is exciting now is that the energy being generated externally is now not simply about advocating what others need to do. In light of the failure of many COPs, the civil society engagement is deeply pragmatic. It is also about coming up with the solutions, re-imaginging the future we need, rolling up our sleeves and mobilising the resources to make it happen. This is a major shift and one that is speeding up.
Looking ahead, one must hope that there is a point where these two COPs reunite. My experience this year is that they are very far apart. At some point, however, the external pressure, the energy for change, has to translate into political and policy change. One can at least dare to hope that perhaps by COP27 this can happen. But for that to happen, it is going to take everyone.