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Opinion: Can COP26 produce the goods? Ask me again in ten years' time

It is time to cop on, end the empty promises and sickening cross-sectoral greenwashing, writes MEP Grace O’Sullivan.

Grace O'Sullivan MEP

WITH HYPE IN the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow suggesting people like the Pope, Greta Thunberg, the British Queen, and David Attenborough were lined up to attend, it seemed like the hottest ticket in town was making the annual scramble for All-Ireland and Late Late Toy Show tickets look like queues for ice-cream.

As the clock ticks down to the actual kick-off on Sunday, however, and with some activists calling for the COP26 to be cancelled because of concerns about inclusion, we hear the Pope will be ‘represented,’ that Greta will ‘probably’ go and the Queen’s attendance has been called off on medical grounds. With David Attenborough lined up to play a high-profile role as the People’s Advocate, I’m sure organisers are crossing fingers and toes he won’t cry off.

Against that backdrop, the question many are asking is can COP26 produce the goods by being the place where meaningful, effective action on climate change is progressed?

COP26 is a big, big deal. In recent years, the most talked-about outcome at a climate COP was the Paris Agreement, the international plan to tackle climate change which was agreed at COP21 in Paris in 2015. 195 countries attended that memorable COP, and agreement was reached around reductions on greenhouse gasses, increasing renewable energy, commitments towards limiting global-warming increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, five-yearly reviews and climate finance to assist less well-off nations.

  • The Journal’s Orla Dwyer will be reporting live from COP26 every day. Sign up here to get her daily must-read newsletter from Glasgow

COP didn’t take place last year due to Covid, so COP26 is the most important COP since Paris 2015, as the five-yearly review deadline means the opportunity is there to revise and ramp up action. It’s vital.

Six years on from Paris, news earlier this year from the International Energy Agency says global energy-related CO2 emissions are set to rise by 1.5 billion tonnes in 2021, ‘driven by a strong rebound in demand for coal in electricity generation.’ That staggering figure sees global carbon dioxide emissions making almost-record jumps, their second-biggest increase in history – a deeply depressing thought that adds to the urgency of the climate emergency we are now immersed in.

So can COP26 produce the goods? That question is challenging. I’m not being flippant when I say ask me again in ten years’ time and I might be able to give a better response. In short, what happens in the aftermath of COP26 is what will determine whether or not the answer is yes or no. It truly, truly is time to cop on, time to end the empty promises and sickening cross-sectoral greenwashing. It’s time to get on board at every level, because the emergency we are in is a crisis of epic proportions.

‘No-one treats the crisis like a crisis’

Boris Johnson glibly summarised the four areas COP26 will focus on as coal, cars, cash and trees. In non-Johnsonian language: to secure global net zero carbon emissions by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach; to adapt to protect communities and natural habitats; to mobilise finance; and to work together to deliver. 

So will – or can – COP26 be the turning point the world so desperately and so urgently needs? Will it succeed in kicking off meaningful action in those key focus areas? Writing in the Guardian in recent days, Greta Thunberg put it perfectly:

Since no one treats the crisis like a crisis, the existential warnings keep on drowning in a steady tide of greenwash and everyday media news flow.

It’s a disheartening sentiment, but one I can identify with. As a fellow activist, who has been banging the drum on climate change since the 1980s when I started my 20-year career with Greenpeace, I know how it feels to think the world isn’t listening.

But while there’s no doubt we are absolutely not yet doing enough, and powerful lobbies like the fossil fuel industry and agriculture are still being enabled with misguided support and harmful subsidies that are scuppering attempts at real progress, there is still some hope. Over the past few decades of my activism I’ve seen a shift in thinking and some positive action. While we have a lot of catching up to do, I’ve been heartened to see ambitious steps in the right direction in Ireland announced in recent times. The problem is concrete, meaningful, binding political action on a global scale is not happening quickly enough. At least, not yet. 

After making the decision in recent years (after much soul-searching) to shift my activism into the political arena, I have to believe the fight is one that can be won. It’s tough to get individuals and systems on board, as I know only too well. Over the past year much of my time has been spent on work as the European Parliament’s lead negotiator on far-reaching environmental legislation.

At the moment I’m engaged in intense and very challenging negotiations (known as trilogues) with the European Commission and Council. In theory everyone agrees we need change, until it comes to the specifics of course! In July, the European Parliament backed my work, which calls for change that can make a real difference in the fight to tackle climate change. The fight continues, but I’m emboldened with the Parliamentary mandate, as well as the mandate of public opinion which is increasingly coming onboard.

‘The insidious creep of greenwashing’ 

In another observation in her Guardian piece, Greta Thunberg says that ‘hope all starts with honesty.’ The honest truth is that we are, as UN Secretary General António Guterres said recently, ‘at the verge of the abyss.’ He was speaking on the findings of the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report (another big deal) on our ongoing climate emergency, which he described as a ‘code red for humanity.’

We are most definitely in a code red situation, and the IPCC report makes for harrowing reading. The scientific evidence that only massive global action will get us back on the road to survival is strong and incontrovertible.

It would be naive to say the transition won’t be challenging. It will. In some areas more than others. But the science is not exaggerating when it says that doing what needs to be done is about life versus death.

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It is terrifying that the climate emergency is not being taken as seriously as it should be, and a growing prevalence of lip service and greenwashing seem to be infiltrating every sector. It’s only a few short years since a certain high-profile airline-chief (you can guess) described climate change as ‘complete and utter rubbish.’ We might see less of that sort of bluster these days, as climate denial goes behind closed doors. What we see instead though, is the insidious creep of greenwash, such as the advert I saw just last week, displayed on-screen at a garage, making bizarrely grandiose claims about carbon neutrality!

Can COP26 be successful?

As a massive international gathering, where political leaders and experts come together under the gaze of the global media to examine the climate crisis we are in the midst of, COP26 represents some of the hope we all need – hope that political leadership, globally, will finally come to meaningful consensus around acknowledgements, binding commitments and life-saving action in vital areas.

It remains to be seen if COP26 can be the catalyst that kick-starts a surge in action. It can only be successful if it can move beyond greenwashing and talk, into that space of honesty Thunberg describes. 

A climate-neutral world is a better world for everyone, even those who fight the change because it might impact negatively on them in the short term. 

A climate-neutral world is a fairer world, a more balanced world, a world where we can make plans, where a future is something we can look forward to. It is possible. But it requires massive change, at every level, across every sector, supported by systemic transformation that includes binding commitments.

COP26 can be an opportunity, a space where world leaders finally get serious about aligning real, concrete action, with the blah, blah, blah, the talk, the rhetoric, that at this stage, in some areas, is beyond ridiculous. Activism works. Now is the time to get on board, and cop on to the seriousness of the emergency.

Grace O’Sullivan is a Green MEP for the South constituency

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Grace O'Sullivan MEP

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