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SITUATION UPDATE 2 November, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Climate activists use COP26 to highlight agenda

Leanne Self

Climate protests COP26

Summary

  • More than 120 world leaders and around 25,000 delegates are in Glasgow for the UN's COP26 climate conference which began on 31 October and is due to end on 12 November.
  • The conference is considered crucial to tackling climate change before it becomes uncontrollable, with world leaders under pressure from environmental groups to take more ambitious action.
  • Security has been significantly ramped up around the Scottish Event Campus, which is hosting the summit, with around 10,000 officers deployed each day.
  • Environmental groups have organised a series of demonstrations in Glasgow, as well as across the UK and internationally throughout the conference. The main protest is scheduled for 6 November, with around 100,000 activists due to gather in Glasgow.
  • An influx of around 25,000 delegates and even more demonstrators will likely put a strain on public transportation systems and traffic in and around Glasgow.
  • Although stringent COVID-19 measures are in place at the summit itself, the spread of COVID-19 among activists during demonstrations is a cause for concern.

Situation

The United Nations’ (UN) 26th Conference of the Parties, commonly known as COP26, began on 31 October at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in the city of Glasgow. The COP26 summit, postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will bring more than 120 world leaders and an estimated 25,000 accredited delegates from around 200 countries to Glasgow to put forward their plans for climate action known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). The summit is scheduled to end on Friday, 12 November, however, previous experiences of such events suggest the talks are likely to extend into Saturday or even Sunday.
COP summits are annual events, with this year’s two-week conference seen as crucial to securing legally binding commitments before climate change becomes uncontrollable. World leaders are under immense pressure from environmental and climate activist groups to agree on more ambitious action to achieve goals established in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2015 Paris Agreement. Under the latter, nearly 200 parties agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (°C) compared to pre-industrial levels, but preferably to 1.5°C.

Despite almost three decades of UN-led climate conferences, climate experts warn that the planet is now at least 1.1°C (34 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the pre-industrial levels, with temperatures still rising. Data suggests that even if countries stick to their targets of achieving net-zero emissions before 2050, the atmosphere’s temperature will still likely see a dangerous increase of 2.7°C (36.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

After a series of extreme global weather events in 2021, including floods in Germany that killed 200 people and large-scale wildfires in the US, Canada and across the Mediterranean, expectations for what COP26 should achieve are higher than usual. Meteorologists have warned that such weather events are becoming more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. However, Swedish climate activist and founder of the Fridays for Future movement, Greta Thunberg, has expressed reservations about the outcomes of COP26 as world leaders have fallen short on promises in the past.

In the weeks leading up to COP26, tens of thousands of people joined climate protests across the world, organised by environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Greenpeace and School Strike 4 Climate. The cities of London, Berlin, Rome, Brussels, The Hague, Washington D.C., Zurich and Milan are just some of the locations where large-scale climate demonstrations were staged in October.

In anticipation for the arrival of dozens of world leaders, Police Scotland significantly ramped up security around Glasgow's River Clyde complex, where the SEC is located. A large security perimeter has been erected around the complex, officially designated as the "Blue Zone", which will come under the control of the UN for the duration of the conference. In addition, around 10,000 officers will be deployed each day during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow to ensure security and maintain order, especially during scheduled protest action by climate activists. It has been described as one of the largest policing operations undertaken in Britain.

On 30 October, environmental groups kicked off their protest action in Glasgow. One demonstration was joined by Greta Thunberg who told protesters that politicians attending COP26 are "pretending to take our future seriously", adding that "This COP26 is so far just like the previous COPs … that have led us nowhere". While sporadic climate demonstrations are likely to take place throughout the two-week summit, the COP26 Coalition, a broad alliance of groups and individuals, has organised a "Global Day of Action for Climate Justice" on 6 November. On this day, as many as 100,000 people from 100 organisations are expected to attend a rally in Glasgow, with some travelling from all over the world. Demonstrations and other associated actions are expected to take place in more than 75 cities and towns across the UK. Beyond the UK, the COP26 Coalition has called on environmental organisations around the world to take part in solidarity actions, with demonstrations already scheduled in the cities of Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Lisbon, Stockholm, Istanbul, Nairobi, New York, Mexico City, Seoul, Sydney and Melbourne, among others.

Implications

As countries around the world shift their focus to COP26, environmental groups, both domestic and international, are using the opportunity to make their demands for stronger climate action heard. Although public campaigning and climate change activism have long played a part in legislative and policy reform, there has been an increase in the number of high-profile protests and campaigns related to climate change since 2018, including from Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future and School Strike 4 Climate. The rising activism signals a change in tone regarding the climate crisis with an increased sense of urgency, particularly among younger activists who have expressed fear of the expected impacts climate change could have over their lifetime.

Notably, Extinction Rebellion has announced that throughout the two-week summit it has planned a series of "high impact", non-violent protests to cause "deliberate disruption" across Glasgow. Exact locations and timings of such demonstrations are unclear; however, due to the nature of Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, protests have the potential to spread beyond the city or occur in several locations at once. Road blockades, either with structures or humans, are a key tactic used by Extinction Rebellion as a means of causing significant traffic disruption without using violence. Such actions are often met with a notable police presence, with arrests of participating activists likely. In some cases, demonstrations have the potential to result in clashes between protesters and police officers who may resort to using tear gas and other crowd dispersal methods. In addition to the Extinction Rebellion actions, Greenpeace have confirmed its attendance at COP26, which would indicate the potential for additional "non-violent direct action".

Although many demonstrators are coming from around Scotland, a large number of activists have also travelled to Glasgow from all over the UK, as well as from other countries. The influx of around 25,000 delegates and even more demonstrators will likely put a strain on public transportation systems in and around Glasgow until at least 12 November. In addition to public transportation disruption, traffic congestion throughout Glasgow is likely, not only owing to sporadic protest action, but also due to increased security measures and associated road closures around the River Clyde complex. Large swathes of Finnieston, as well as the Clydeside Expressway, are now closed until 15 November. Although the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce has insisted that the climate conference would be a significant boost for the city and provide future business opportunities, the heightened security, traffic restrictions and threat of large-scale demonstrations will likely impact business operations in the near-term. Traffic disruption is also possible across the entire central belt of Scotland, even as far east as Edinburgh.

In addition to security concerns, the arrival of tens of thousands of COP26 delegates and even more climate activists to Glasgow could pose key health challenges. While stringent health and safety measures are in place at the summit itself, health experts have warned that the spread of COVID-19 among activists during demonstrations is a cause for concern. Infection rates in Scotland are currently "stable"; however, even a small increase in cases could see a return to exponential growth. The impact on community transmission of COVID-19 may not be apparent until 10 to 14 days after the summit. Any such spike after COP26 may not guarantee a re-introduction of strict lockdown measures, but if numbers continue to increase beyond levels manageable by the country's healthcare system, then advice may change. The spread of COVID-19 during demonstrations could also pose a threat to other countries should activists who travelled to the UK return to their home countries with the virus.