News | COP26 Photo Ops, Strikes, and Protests

While the UK government prepares to present itself as a climate leader at COP26, social movements are getting ready to push their agenda under difficult circumstances



Clare Hymer,

Demonstrators gather in front of the Standard and Chartered Bank during a climate protest in London, England ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, 29 October 2021. picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Frank Augstein

Ahead of COP26 in Glasgow next month, when world leaders will once again come together with the stated aim of agreeing on ambitious action to address the climate crisis, two very different pictures of the UK are being painted. On the one hand, the host country of this year’s COP is an international climate leader, boldly forging a path towards a cleaner, greener world. On the other, the UK is a climate super-villainperhaps more so than many of the worst offenders on Earth.

Clare Hymer is a commissioning editor at Novara Media, a UK-based independent left media organization. Novara Media will be in Glasgow to cover COP26.

There are no prizes for guessing which picture the UK government is trying to paint. Prime Minister Boris Johnson—a man who scoffed at climate science in a Telegraph column as recently as 2015, the year of the most significant recent UN climate summit—now seems to have done a full 180, promising “urgent action” on the crisis, with the presidency claiming “the UK has a lot to be proud of” in this regard.

This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. Here’s a quick run-down of the UK’s goals for COP26, the reality of its current and historic climate policy, and how activists and climate justice movements are trying to reset the agenda.

“Coal, Cars, Cash, Trees”

Let’s first take a moment to get to grips with the background to COP26. After being pushed back in 2020 due to the global pandemic, one key aim of this UN summit is for delegates to conclude negotiations on the rules of the Paris Accord—the agreement made in 2015 that countries would aim to limit global heating to “well below 2°C” above pre-industrial levels, striving for 1.5°C.

Alongside its official goals, the UK government has developed a four-word slogan for its priorities at COP—“coal, cars, cash, trees”. The claim is that if countries make significant changes in these four areas by the end of the decade then further temperature rises can be prevented.

It’s worth looking at each of these areas in turn. First, the UK is asking rich countries to “kick the coal habit” by 2030, with others following suit by 2040, and for all countries to commit to not building any new coal plants. The UK’s record, Johnson has insisted, is proof that this is possible, with coal generating just 2 percent of the country’s electricity today compared to around 25 percent five years ago.

Second, Johnson has called for other countries to “follow the UK’s lead and abandon fossil fuel internal combustion engines”, stating that the UK will ban sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 and that only zero-emissions vehicles should be on sale across the world by 2040.

Third, to deliver on these first two goals, the UK has said that developed countries must recommit to and making good on past promises to support developing countries to transition their economies, mobilizing at least 100 billion US dollars annually.

Fourth, seeing as “trees are among our best natural defences against climate change”, the government has called for more ambition when it comes to tree planting, stating that “to be net-zero for carbon you must be net-positive for trees”, and that by 2030 “we want to be planting far more trees across the world than we are losing.”

These ambitions, however, are either deeply inadequate or hugely inconsistent with the government’s record elsewhere. While calling for other countries to phase-out coal, the UK has funded countless coal projects in developing countries, locking them into reliance on fossil fuels—and is currently looking at approving a new coal mine in Cumbria. While electric cars might sound nice, the EV industry is nonetheless much more resource-intensive and environmentally destructive than mass transit options.

While demanding climate finance for the Global South, progress towards reaching the annual 100-billion-dollar target has been limited, and financing has often taken the form of market-rate loans, not grants. And while tree-planting and other such “nature-based solutions” might sound like low-hanging fruit when it comes to effective climate mitigation, these “solutions” frequently take the form of carbon offsetting schemes, doing nothing to stop the production of emissions and often devastating Indigenous and Global South communities.

In short, while finger-wagging at the rest of the world, the UK government is using its position as COP26 host in order to execute a monumental greenwashing offensive. Climate justice movements, however, won’t be having any of it.

Resetting the Agenda

Like past COPs, this year’s summit will draw tens of thousands of activists from around the world, the majority dissatisfied with both the pace at which negotiators are making progress and the “solutions” they are proposing. Unlike past COPs, however, this year civil society groups and organizations will face even more barriers to pushing for more ambition than usual.

In recent years, those from the Global South have often struggled even to get to COPs due to the fact that four of the last five summits have been held in Europe and travel costs are high. But this year, divides between North and South have been further deepened by COVID-19.

For one, the fact that the majority of people in poor countries are still unvaccinated because rich countries have blocked a vaccine patent-waiver means that many activists—not to mention delegates—from the Global South simply won’t be able to travel to Glasgow. Even those who can will face extortionate accommodation costs, with landlords hiking-up Airbnb prices to almost 30,000 pounds per week. Tellingly, former UK lead negotiator Sir David King has explicitly said he thinks the public “circus” of social movements and civil society groups should be kept away from COP26 because of the health risks posed this year. 

Activists, however, are nonetheless organizing to make their voices heard in Glasgow, arguing that their presence at COP—and particularly that of those most impacted by the climate crisis—is crucial to any modicum of transparency to which these summits can lay claim. The COP26 Coalition—a UK-based coalition of civil society groups and individuals mobilising around climate justice—have formulated their own set of demands for the summit. These include rejecting fossil fuels, “net-zero” and “false solutions”, starting the “just transition”, and committing to reparations and redistribution to Indigenous communities and the Global South.

Local demands are bound to draw attention too—particularly the campaign to stop a new drilling permit at Cambo oilfield to the west of Shetland, which Johnson is currently preparing to sign off on, alongside strikes by rail and bin workers highlighting the importance of workers’ interests to decarbonization efforts. To raise the heat on these issues—as well as call into question the legitimacy of the COP process—a “global day of action” has been called for Saturday, 6 November, with a youth climate strike also planned for the day before.

COVID-19 will no doubt present barriers to these mobilizations. But activists will also be trying to mobilize in the face of an increasingly authoritarian state, hell-bent on repressing public protest. While Police Scotland has said the policing of protests at COP26 will be “welcoming, friendly and proportionate”, activists are concerned that an influx of officers from elsewhere in the UK will undermine this, with English forces already implicitly applying the police, crime sentencing and courts bill widely criticized as an attack on the right to protest.

This is hardly the first time a COP has happened in the context of a crackdown on protest, of course—but when coupled with the problems posed by COVID-19, movements will certainly be facing unprecedented challenges.