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Saoi O’Connor: COP26 won't give us what we’re fighting for - only the people can do that

The Irish climate campaigner says framing COP26 as the focal point of global climate action is robbing us of our own collective power.

Saoi O'Connor Climate Justice Activist

ONE WEEK AGO, I was sitting in an airport in Glasgow for the first time since COP25 in Madrid.

All of the diplomats in pressed suits with skinny ties had yet to arrive for the twenty-sixth conference of the parties, so Glasgow was much quieter than it is right now, with delegates arriving from all over the world.

A navy blue and lime green COP26 poster is leering down at me from the wall. From the doors of the elevators. From the vending machines and the billboards and the posters on the toilet doors. They started to go up last week. There’s even one outside the window of my room in Glasgow: “HM GOVERNMENT – TOGETHER FOR CLIMATE ACTION.”

After my experiences in Madrid, being followed down the street by COP posters makes me feel uneasy. The negotiations in 2019 hit Madrid like a ton of bricks, after having been moved to Spain only a month or so prior. They wrapped up with little to show for - a global warming battle plan that fell well short of what science said was needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Glasgow, on the other hand, is steeped in anticipation. The shadow of the SEC looms on the city’s horizon. I pass it on my way to the bus stop. Her Majesty’s Government’s blue and green banners watch my windows when I sleep.

The UK Government would love for you to believe that this is an anticipation of the summit’s outcomes. That this COP – this most long-awaited COP – will set the scene for their country to be the heroes of the hour. That somewhere in the Scottish events campus in November, someone will pull the key to these negotiations out of a hat and everyone can go home, with a pat on the back and a new lapel pin for their collection.

The truth is that this summit is unlikely to have ‘outcomes’ of any kind of worthwhile nature, for the ‘world leaders’ or for the climate (and rest assured, those outcomes would be incompatible). Not even the kind of ‘outcome’ which involves diplomats holding hands over a 32-page document that does not once mention fossil fuels.

Nearly six years on from the signing of the Paris Accords at COP21, we are failing to live up to the commitments that were made there. Every year we wheel out the photos and the speeches. Every year it is upheld as the gold standard of global climate cooperation. And every year the emissions curve continues to rise.

Even if we were on the Paris track, the emissions reductions the agreement sets out are not enough. The UNFCCC framework states the intention to stay “well below 2 degrees” (of global mean temperature rise compared to pre-industrial levels) and to stay below 1.5 if possible.

This half a degree distinction is the difference between life and death for unfathomable numbers of people, communities and entire cultures, as well as plant and animal species and ecosystems. The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees in real life is life and death. The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees at COP is politics.

glasgow-cop-26-climate-change-campus Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Recently, the question I’ve been asked most often is this: “are you hopeful about the results of COP26”. It’s a question I still don’t know how to answer.

To my mind, the COP is not only not willing to deliver the results that we need on climate, it simply isn’t able to.

COP is an arm of the system, and it is the system that we need to change. Increasingly, climate negotiations are becoming a spectator sport, with global north businesses, celebrities, youth participation orgs and many non-stakeholders lining up to be at, and be seen at, COP26. At the same time, grassroots activists, frontline communities and even ministerial delegations from MAPA (the Most Affected Peoples and Areas) are struggling to get in the door.

The COP itself has run in large part on fossil fuel sponsorship, an arrangement that has allowed big oil to exercise huge influence over past negotiations. Recent reports claim that fossil fuel firms won’t have a formal role in this year’s summit, though they are expected to attend fringe events. 

Every single country is going into those buildings with an agenda, and, from the global north, almost none of their intentions involve taking responsibility for historic – or even current – emissions.

Of course, there is important work to be done at the COP, by activists and others, but framing the COP as the focal point of global climate action is robbing us of our own collective power.

So, am I hopeful about COP26? The truth is, I don’t know what there is to be hopeful, or unhopeful, about.

COP26 is a point on the timeline of the climate movement, and I have no doubt that it will be a big one. But big conferences, colour-coded lanyards and diplomats in 5-star hotels don’t have the capacity to deliver climate justice.

None of these conferences can give us what we’re fighting for, only the people can do that.

I don’t have hope for COP26 because to believe that these conferences will give us the best results we can get would be to compromise, to settle for less than justice, less than what the people deserve.

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I have no expectations for the COP, and that, for me, is the most hopeful position I can take, because it opens up the space to hope for something better.

Saoi O’Connor is a climate justice activist who began the Fridays for Future strike in Cork in 2019. 

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This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Saoi O'Connor  / Climate Justice Activist

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