The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow ends tomorrow, and I feel the need to jot down a few thoughts. To start with, let’s be clear, COP26 is going to be an abject failure because the UK Presidency sees it as a commercial opportunity rather than a crisis that need solving rapidly. They neither care nor comprehend the scale of the problem which the world is facing. Hence, we just get more #BlahBlahBlah.

I speak as someone who has been a “climate scientist”, that is to say that I spent three years working on a research degree on the potential effects of climate change in Scotland. Climate change is real, I have seen it happening in my lifetime, and this is without doubt the greatest crisis to face humanity ever. This is not news, for nearly three decades the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits – called COPs – which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’. In that time, climate change has gone from being a fringe issue to a global priority. And yet, those in power still don’t get just how serious this crisis is.

Possible the biggest cause of the failure of COP26 is that the UN gave the Presidency of COP26 to the UK (although at the time this decision was made, the UN might not have predicted just how disastrous a choice the UK would be, I don’t know how far back the decision was made). The man chosen by the UK Government for the job of presiding over COP26 was/is Alok Sharma MP, whose voting record, should have, raises substantial concerns around his suitability to chair a summit many describe as the world’s last chance on climate change. This is not to say that the UK Government is uniquely venal corrupt and greedy (there are other countries that are as bad or worse), but it is probably (currently) the weakest democracy in Western Europe, and that is saying something given that Italy is the co-host of COP26.

The thing that really scares me, is that back in 2002-05 when I was researching the potential effects of climate change in Scotland, I spent a lot of time pouring over the modelling predictions of the future UK climate which were published in 1998. Those models were at the time consider to be pessimistic, however, some of the predictions they were making then for the 2030s and 2040s, we are seeing now. Back then we had no foreknowledge of the fracking boom which has released huge amounts of fossil methane into the atmosphere, but the warning were clear that we had to scale back the extraction of all fossil fuels. Mistakenly, there was a view that reserves of fossil fuels were running out and that by the 2020s the remaining reserves would start to become too expensive to extract, sadly this has proved not to be the case. It is, however, important to remember that the Stone Age didn’t end because our ancestors ran out of stones, they abandoned using stones and moved on to other technologies. We can do the same, we can choose to abandon unsustainable fossil fuel technologies and move to clean, modern sustainable technologies, we can even build a better more equitable world.

Between the first UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, in Berlin in 1995 and now, there has been progress. Here in Scotland, and in some other European countries, a substantial proportion of our electricity is generated via renewable means. In Scotland’s case, last year (2020) 97.4% of our electricity was from renewable sources, narrowly missed a target to generate the equivalent of 100% of its electricity demand from renewables. Indeed, most sectors of the global economy have shown reductions in carbon emissions. The one sector that has failed is transport, and this failure is entirely due to road transport, where carbon emissions are actually rising!

Given that transport accounts for around one-fifth of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and road transport accounts for three-quarters of transport emissions. Put simply, road transport accounts for 17% of total global CO2 emissions. Given that there are existing, proven, cheap and effective solution to rapidly cut these emissions, you would think that Active Travel and sustainable public transport would be high on the transport agenda. But no, the only thing on the COP26 agenda for road transport was e-cars. Why? Because the UK Government only invited Automotive Industry to be road transport sponsors in the Blue Zone. Not public transport providers, not the rapidly growing cycling industry, just cars.
The aim quite clearly is to maintain a high level of car dependency, and if possible to increase it. 🤬 🤬 🤬

The UK Government lead declaration on road transport basically reads:

  1. “we will work towards all sales of new cars and vans …”
  2. “we will work intensely towards accelerated proliferation and adoption of zero emission vehicles …” [No mention of active travel]
  3. “As cities, states, and regional governments, we will work towards converting our owned or leased car and van fleets to zero emission vehicles” [by which they mean e-cars and e-vans]
  4. “As automotive manufacturers, we will work towards reaching 100% zero emission new car and van sales …” [No mention of the role that cycle manufactures could play because they haven’t been invited]
  5. “As business fleet owners and operators, or shared mobility platforms, we will work towards 100% of our car and van fleets being zero emission vehicles …” [non motor vehicle fleets can go whistle they aren’t even though about]
  6. “As investors with significant shareholdings in automotive manufacturers …” [No talk about ramping up investment in alternative forms of transport such as cycling]
  7. “As financial institutions, we confirm our support for an accelerated transition to zero emission vehicles in line with achieving 100% new car and van sales …” [again not consideration of the alternatives]
  8. “As other signatories, we support an accelerated transition to zero emission vehicles in line with achieving 100% of new car and van sales …” [signatories involving active travel are not invited]

“We will support efforts to achieve the road transport breakthrough announced by world leaders, which aims to make zero emission vehicles the new normal …”
Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, three paragraphs
“We will work together to overcome strategic, political, and technical barriers, accelerate the production of zero emission vehicles …” [read e-cars and e-vans] Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah …]

[Last paragraph]
“We recognise that alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport, as well as addressing the full value chain impacts from vehicle production, use and disposal.”

Then the signatories.

In case anyone is wondering why I am focusing on transport, ask yourself “What can I, personally, do to reduce emissions?” Here are the genuinely impactful actions, according to the data.

What can we personally do to reduce emissions? Here are the genuinely impactful actions, according to the data. Biggest thing, stop driving. Data in image based on this paper.

Basically, the UK Government in the name of the UN is totally ignoring the advice of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on global warming urged world leaders to reduce motor journeys and highlighted cycling as an important way to ensure a safe and sustainable world. To be very clear on this, it is carmakers who are pitching themselves as the solution to the problem (which in no small part is of their making) with electric cars, not the scientists. The reality is that e-cars can only play as very small part of the overall solution, as they are so inefficient as a means of transport.

Meanwhile, outside the Blue Zone, on COP26 Transport Day, around 150 people turned out to protest at less than 12 hours notice. This demonstration was organised by GoBike and Pedal on Parliament (PoP), the grassroots campaign groups who had co-ordinated the much larger Pedal on COP26 rides as part of the Global Day of Action in Glasgow at COP26 the weekend before, which had attracted some 1,500 cyclists (the full Global Day of Action march was estimated to have been over 100,000 strong, with people coming from around the world). Note that both PoP and GoBike are volunteer run and funded by the sale of t-shirts (unlike the Astroturf Facebook groups funded by the big money lobbyists).

It is striking that the demands of the grassroots campaigners outside the Blue Zone are far more closely inline, which what the global scientific community say is needed to prevent the worst effects of Climate Change, than the proposals being made by the “world leaders” inside the Blue Zone. The lack of genuine Leadership from the British Presidency of COP26. The only hope for the world now is that pressure from the bottom up will win through, as those at the top table seem to neither care nor comprehend the scale of the problem which the world is facing.

This Tweet sums up where we are now