Will COP26 deliver?

With the UN climate conference around the corner, poorer governments and civil society groups risk being excluded, threatening the legitimacy of the summit. Eve Livingston speaks to activists who are adamant that change will come from the grassroots.

A man wears a suit and carries a large whole head mask of Boris Johnson. A police officer stands in front of him.
The head of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is featured in a Greenpeace protest outside Downing Street, London earlier this year. PETER NICHOLLS/REUTERS

As world leaders, climate scientists and policymakers prepare to descend on Glasgow for November’s beleaguered COP26 UN climate talks, activists are adamant that change will come from the grassroots outside conference rooms and not the negotiations taking place inside them.

Rising costs, poor vaccine access and quarantine regulations have all stymied the ability of marginalized and indigenous groups to travel to Glasgow, which will host the COP26 climate talks between 31 October and 12 November.

‘While the richest will be able to attend, poorer governments and civil society groups risk being excluded, threatening the very legitimacy of the climate summit itself,’ War on Want’s Asad Rehman said.

Meanwhile trade unions have blasted cuts to street cleaning, rubbish collections and public transport in Glasgow, voicing concerns that the city is failing to live up to its own environmental responsibilities.

Activists and organizers in Scotland have also long been preparing for COP26, with a strong internationalist focus. Stop Climate Chaos Scotland has co-ordinated accommodation and visa support for indigenous delegations; Jim Lister, a volunteer organizer with the Glasgow Fair Trade Co-operative, has spent the past few weeks setting up a fringe event with participants from Finland to Lebanon. ‘Fair trade is central to environmental sustainability, [that’s] the general argument we want to make,’ he said.

Quan Nguyen, Scottish Co-ordinator for the COP26 Coalition of civil society organizations, said he doesn’t hold out great hopes for the summit, in terms of the radical cuts to pollution needed to slow global heating. ‘For us, it’s a moment to reorganize and work for system change,’ he said.

The Coalition has facilitated local hubs of activity across Scotland and the UK, ‘joining those dots – between school strikers, trade unions, Extinction Rebellion, migrant organizing. We’re all fighting symptoms of the same thing: a broken system.’

COP itself will begin with a world leaders’ summit, at which point Nguyen hopes activists around the world will join the COP26 Coalition in a banner drop to ‘give the leaders a good welcome’. From then until the conclusion of talks, the Coalition will host a daily ‘movement assembly’, live-streamed globally.

A Global Day of Action on 6 November will see protests and marches in cities across the UK and the world, with a flagship demo in Glasgow expected to attract hundreds of thousands of protesters. And a People’s Summit will follow from 7 to 10 November, with activists taking stock of the news coming out of COP26 to shape their own discussions about strategy and future organizing.

If activists do not expect climate justice to emerge from COP26, they are hopeful about the energy on the streets outside. For Nguyen, that means engaging members of the public who have never thought about these things. ‘I would like to see a new momentum for the climate movement,’ says Nguyen. ‘That would be a success for me.’