COP 26 Glasgow fails to punch above its weight
From creaking infrastructure to meat feast sandwiches Glasgow’s hosting of COP 26 tells us a lot about the long journey ahead of us as we move to a more diverse, resilient, sustainable world.
Glasgow is Scotland’s biggest city. The conurbation of the old “second city of the empire” is home to over one and a half million people but it has been swamped by the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26). Cruise ships have berthed to provide 5000 extra beds, roads and even cycle paths have been closed as the city struggles to cope with presidential motorcades and the general gas-guzzling vehicles that provide safety and, of course, gravitas for politicians.
Homes, flats, beds, and even sofas across the city have fully-booked signs upon them. Glasgow is rammed.
Over the COP period, popular city-owned, managed, and maintained venues have closed for the public to allow them to open up for visiting dignitaries. During COP the Glasgow underground, a kind of Tonka Toy version of a normal city metro system, has extended hours on a Sunday and an integrated travel pass is also available for visitors. This might not sound like much, but both of these “innovations” have been on the top of Glaswegians’ wish list for a decade or more. What seems impossible for the public has been but a breeze for the many politicians, journalists, and business people bursting into the city in November.
There are activists and official observers at COP 26 although COVID and a perfunctory UK Government response have taken their toll on the number able to travel from the global south but at least many local Glaswegians are able to take part in the events on the fringe away from the main floor.
Over at the official venue complex The Scottish Event Campus, the event almost seems to have arrived by stealth. Visuals matter, especially in a world of snap-happy Instagrammers and Tweeters. The bizarre situation of snaking queues outside and empty halls inside, and a disabled Minister unable to access the venue, create visuals that no organiser wants.
No event exists in a vacuum and the venue has a hugely important role to play in creating the right atmosphere for an event. It sets the mood music. When hosting an event all the little things matter. At the last COP in Madrid, I snapped a security guard idly standing next to a lamp heating himself and the air, plastic water bottle in his pocket.
Look hard enough and you will spot many ”on no, they haven’t have they!” moments within the COP 26 venue.
Alexandria Villaseñor, a 16-year-old activist at the event, has complied a thread on Twitter that has made for compulsive reading over the last week as she details her experience including how she has “spent 4 hours in line over the last 2 days”
A COP is normally years in the planning. But it isn’t always plain sailing. In 2019 Madrid picked up the tab and organised the event with less than two months’ notice after Chile pulled out as host. This COP was supposed to take place last year. But COVID derailed that.
Putting on an event of this size while still subject to COVID restrictions has proved to be a massive challenge for the organisers and it isn’t helped when the UK PM ignores Scottish public health advice and appears maskless: CNN took him to task in a way many wish Police Scotland would have done.
The hosting of the event has been something of a political football with the UK Government accused of being unable to delegate to the organisers on the ground, as well as trying to run a most complicated event without any event professionals involved. The UK civil servants have been stretching; this international event organising lark is no mean feat.
The mismanagement, the politicking, and the impact of COVID have in part hidden an uncomfortable truth for Glasgow, put simply the city didn’t have the infrastructure to cope with the event in the first place. However, like many other UK cities in no way did it want to miss out on the prestige and the extra revenue that comes with a major event. Money and status are too tempting to miss out on right?
Over the next few months, we will hear calls from many quarters that COP 26 showed that Glasgow needs more hotels, bigger venues, and more roads so as not to miss out on these massive events. The locals coped, so bring it on. In Scotland, we are used to calls like this, Edinburgh, during the summer and winter festival months succumbs to the clamour.
And with that, Glaswegians, Scots and citizens of the world will find themselves facing the most fundamental questions: do we keep stretching, do we keep investing to become bigger and bigger or do we embrace what we have, who we are, and what really matters?
The climate crisis demands we all take a different approach, one much more in tune with a down-to-earth Glaswegian.
We all need to celebrate who we are and make all of our cities better, not bigger.
We need to keep our venues open and greatly extend the commons for those who live in our cities, not closing it off for commercial gain.
We need to integrate our transport systems making public transport easier and crucially cheaper.
We need to eat less meat, from a more resilient, local supply chain.
We need to stick a jerkin on (as my Glaswegian father would say) rather than heat the air around us.
It is likely that we will search long and hard for truly inspiring big wins from the conference floor this November. But maybe COP26 biggest success can be that cities like Glasgow come out and say it loud and proud and with a Gallus swagger: we don’t need to be bigger to be better.