Queues, Covid and confused messaging plague COP26

You do not go to a climate change conference for the laughs, so I was pleased to come across a global warming joke just a few days into the COP26 summit here in Glasgow.

It was told at a gathering of financiers on the COP sidelines by Sir Martin Smith, the investment banker whose family founded the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford university.

One day, he said, planet Earth was wandering about the universe when it came across another planet who asked how things were going. Not so well, said Earth, who had been feeling poorly.

“Do you know what the problem is?” asked the other planet. “Well,” said Earth. “I’ve had quite a bad case of homo sapiens.”

“Oh don’t worry about that,” said the other planet. “They don’t last long.”

As Smith said, the story sounded funnier when he first heard it many years ago. At COP26, the idea that Earth could heat to levels that make human life unsupportable is all too imaginable.

The world is already around 1.09C warmer than it was before fossil fuel burning took off in earnest and this conference is supposed to make sure it does not exceed 1.5C. Or as one is constantly told inside the vast COP venue overlooking the River Clyde, we must “keep 1.5 alive!”

As the week has worn on, there have been times when I have been more concerned about keeping myself alive. Like thousands of others, I did not count on a fallen tree cancelling my train from London to Glasgow on Sunday, or the bracing seven-hour drive on a rainy motorway that followed, after kind fellow strandees offered a lift in their hurriedly rented car.

The horror grew the next day with the discovery that, to enter the COP venue, one needed to join huge queues in suboptimal Glaswegian temperatures and little chance of serious social distancing.

“No pictures!” barked a female security guard, pointlessly, as hapless victims began tweeting photos of the crowds.

This is my sixth COP and I have never seen such organisational mayhem. Then again, it is the only COP whose organisers have had to grapple with a pandemic that became all too real on day five, when I did the rapid Covid test required to gain entry to the venue each day.

It was positive. So was one taken by Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, and an unspecified number of other attendees, some of whom had doubtless flown more than a day and spent precious funds to be present at a conference that is literally supposed to save the world.

Confined to my Airbnb quarters, I logged on to a press conference inside the venue where organisers were being asked how many COP26 Covid cases there actually were. “A few,” said a man from the UN, adding the number was not being made public.

We’re not being complacent, said COP26 president, Alok Sharma, but numbers were lower than in the rest of Scotland and “at this point, we’re comfortable where we are”.

I would feel more reassured if it were not for the striking degree of media management surrounding this event.

This is the first COP to be held in an English-speaking G7 country since Canada had one 16 years ago, and its British hosts are no slouches when it comes to massaging messages.

“Leaders representing over 85 per cent of the world’s forests will commit to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030,” Downing Street declared in one of a number of news releases with a late night embargo that left journalists scrambling to work out what the news actually amounted to.

The strategy brought helpful morning headlines but looked less clever by the end of the week as more details emerged.

Indonesia, one of the forestry pledge’s most important signatories, turned out not to be ready to completely end deforestation by 2030.

Poland, which had signed another deal to “consign coal to history”, later said it would not be phasing the fossil fuel out until the 2040s, which is what it had already said it would do.

The “sapiens” in homo sapiens means wise. COP26 could use as much of that wisdom as possible before its end next week.

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