Having spent a week on the fringes of COP26, Chris Hall gives his perspective on a unique and ambiguous event.
Question: What’s the difference between Davos 2020 and COP26? Answer: Greta made a speech in Davos. While Hollywood A-listers and billionaire philanthropists rubbed shoulders with world leaders and Fortune 500 CEOs – many making up for a 20-month networking drought – the world’s most famous climate activist stayed outside the fence, refusing to lend her credibility to proceedings.
Who can blame her, you might think. Certainly, it’s easy to find elements of the ridiculous in turning Glasgow into Davos-on-Clyde for two weeks at the beginning of November (invitation to nightcap with Stella McCartney and Brian Moynihan, anyone?).
But if a cross-section of the world’s most influential people want to educate themselves and others about climate change, why stop them? No matter how fashionably late their arrival on the scene. The outcome is not necessarily more greenwash.
Big business attended Glasgow’s Scottish Event Campus in numbers never previously seen at a climate summit. Shorn of their entourages by the restrictions of COP26’s door policy, CEOs mixed nervously with a rainbow coalition of climate scientists, negotiators from threatened island states and representatives of displaced indigenous peoples. The CEOs had left their male, stale and pale worlds for a fortnight in a more egalitarian and unpredictable environment. Harmless cultural misunderstandings and serendipitous chance meetings were suddenly an hourly event. They may never be the same again.
All sides benefited from this melting pot experience, and so too may the rest of us. The negotiators knew the world was listening, sometimes at the next table, sipping Irn Bru. Having to push past actors, bankers and the US Treasury Secretary to attend their next session reminded the policy experts that the outcome of their deliberations mattered to so many. The pre-COP virtual technical meetings had been dour and stodgy affairs, the distance between the participants palpable. It was surely right to get people in the same room, day after day, inspired to new levels of resolve by the evidence all around them that the world wished them well.
And where else would you want CEOs to spend their time and attention when plans to avert an existential crisis are being discussed? Would we rather they conduct business as usual, denying or ignoring the problem? Or would we want them to be trying to get their heads round the challenges, the opportunities and the jargon of the net zero transition?
Much was made of the number of COP26 delegates from the oil sector. Yes, some of them probably were looking to lobby politicians, to slow the pace of change. But I’d be surprised if any succeeded, less so if some realised the jig was up, such was the one-way traffic of commitment evident in every panel discussion and presentation.
If sometimes COP26 preached to the newly converted, that’s not an entirely bad thing. If the assumptions of long-term campaigners were challenged, checked and reinforced, so much the better. In many cases, CEOs from the industries most at risk from climate change were there to talk to investors. Pension funds took the opportunity to find out how investee companies were evolving their strategies based on what they’d seen and heard in the plenary sessions, exhibition halls and side events. How does the deforestation pledge impact your supply chain? What scenarios are you using to value your property portfolio? What does a just transition mean to your workforce? The path to net zero will be smoother when CEOs have credible answers to these questions.
Is this a template for all future COPs? Some elements may persist, but the summit was forged by very peculiar circumstances, with the world shaken by a pandemic and mistrust. Born of Johnsonian boosterism, it was a strange British confection, but there was method to the madness. By inviting the world to COP26, the home team ensured a supporting cast and a global media glare, allowing also for local participation in the Green Zone. Collectively, these bystanders urged the negotiators and politicians to higher levels and bigger commitments than they had planned. This may explain why Russia and China wanted to stay out of the limelight. Following the opening World Leaders Summit immediately with Finance Day – and its declaration of a US$130 trillion commitment to the Paris Agreement – lent crucial momentum to the proceedings, even if that commitment deserves close scrutiny.
Personally, my first COP was a strange affair. Security and social distancing measures meant it was often easier to monitor proceedings virtually, although the many science-led sessions were fascinating and encouraging. Accommodation on the shores of Loch Lomond, but less than an hour from COP26’s nearest train station, meant I was unable to share a dram with Stella. In fact, my most interesting conversation came in nearby Finnieston, over tea with a vicar, who just also happened to manage £1 billion for ethical clients.
Many who stayed the distance reported an overwhelming sense of elation at the end. This had much more to do with spending 14 energy-sapping days with like-minded, if self-selecting, souls than the final declaration. COP26 achieved much less than we need, but much more than many had feared. It also raised the profile of the climate crisis to an appropriately universal level. Let’s hope that change is permanent.