Thoughts from Abroad: A Reflection on Week 1 of the UN Conference of Parties (COP) 26

By Pierce Holloway, CPJ Editor-in-Chief

From November 1st to the 6th I had the immense privilege of attending the first week of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 26th Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Glasgow, Scotland. My time at COP26 was ripe with captivating juxtapositions, intriguing talks, and harsh reminders of climate impacts. I am thankful to have attended the conference. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with professionals and academics from across the world. Yet, I left with mixed feelings and a refocused eye on how my planning education may be leveraged to affect positive change. Many reports have come out noting COP26 as a failure which is accurate in some senses. However, there is still progress to be celebrated.

Many articles have been written in the past weeks describing COP26 as the most exclusive COP in history, noting that celebrities and world influencers alike were unable to obtain passes.[i] Beyond the task of getting a pass, one had to find housing in Glasgow. This mission was one flush with privilege, paved easier for those with access to more money (not climate activists). Locating housing was difficult: an estimated 25,000 people were expected at COP26 while Glasgow has only 15,000 hotel rooms.[ii] Even accounting for Airbnb and other non-traditional options there was still a noticeable dearth in local accommodations for an event billed as the “biggest and most important climate-related conference on the planet.”[iii] This resulted in attendees such as myself locating housing in Edinburgh, a 55 minute train ride east, and other satellite towns. What does this say about the UN’s promotion of better planning and development if their climate conference fell so short on housing? This may be even more evident next year where COP27 is scheduled to take place in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh.[iv]

Every day I woke up at 7:00 AM in Edinburgh, bought food for the day, and caught the hour train to Glasgow. Next, I caught a circulating electric-bus (a sign of more transit electrification to come) exclusively used for COP26 attendees.[v] The 10-15 minute ride led me to the hour-long process of going through three waves of security to enter the conference area. This totaled a nearly 2.5 hour daily commute from my door to the conference. This daily journey was facilitated by a travel pass provided to all COP26 attendees which allowed for free access to all public trains and busses. While helpful, the unified travel pass is drawing criticism from local residents that are still required to have separate paid passes for trains and busses, questioning why a similar unified pass is not available to them.[vi]

Each day of the conference was jam-packed, attending panels and presentations from world leaders, academics, and professionals alike. The conference center was divided into two general areas, the pavilions, and the UN negotiation & plenary rooms. The near 50 pavilions represented many of the prominent countries and NGOs attending as well as specific interest groups for indigenious peoples, water, and nature. The plethora of individual stalls and rooms resulted in roughly 40 conference pavilion talks and 10 UN negotiations occurring at any one moment. This abundance of possibilities left me often feeling overwhelmed on how best to utilize my time.

My experience at the conference, while laden with a full schedule of insightful talks and interesting conversations, left me with 3 general criticisms of COP26:

COVID-19 precautions

The COVID testing system in place was not enforced the first day at all. The system used was based on self reporting, it was possible for someone to test positive for COVID on a rapid test but report a negative test. Attendants at the first gate only looked for a text from the NHS saying that the individual had registered a negative test. This issue was very concerning for myself as I and thousands of others waited in lines shoulder to shoulder for nearly an hour to get inside, only to be packed together at talks, and walking through hallways.

General lack of space

In passing conversations with other attendees I was told that the event space for this COP was by far the smallest space for the conference yet. While anecdotal, I find it easy to believe due to the packed nature of the pavilions, which begs the question of why this space was chosen originally. The limited space manifested in a severe lack of seating in the UN negotiations. Each of the open meeting rooms had a stated capacity which was quickly reached. With people standing along the wall or sitting on the ground not allowed there was often little to no room for observers such as myself. If this capacity limit was due to COVID precautions, why then were the pavilions where people were packed tightly into small spaces not policed?

Innovation versus behavioral change

The paths offered towards more positive climate outcomes were overwhelmingly spearheaded by innovation and creation of new markets. This speaks to me as a continuation of capitalistic ambitions: solving a problem fueled by desires of infinite growth with further fuel for capitalistic motivations. For example, on transportation day electric cars dominated the conversation while there was much less emphasis on designing our built environment to greatly reduce our need for cars overall. Now this is not to say I am a luddite of innovation or believe that we can completely turn away from a capitalist economy, but I am wary of its implications. Additionally, it is a question of equity: how can we ensure that innovation in the global north doesn’t serve to benefit only select populations?

The main COP26 banner falling down on the 3rd day Source: Pierce Holloway

Criticisms aside, I concede that there were a myriad of positives that I took away from this conference:

A planning education may be rewarded

From the many presentations and panels I attended, an overwhelming theme is that the world needs people focused on the intricacies of climate change adaptation at its implementations . Individuals that understand the value of communication, are able to adapt/react to a changing world, and value community leadership. From my perspective this embodies what a holistic planner should be. The skill of effective communication and systems thinking is invaluable to translating innovation into action. Specifically, there is a need for individuals who know how local governments and communities can manipulate new policies and resources to adapt to a changing world.

An emphasis on systems thinking

Climate adaptation cannot exist in a siloed field. One of my favorite themes was the repeated need for system-based thinking in nearly every approach, be it transportation, housing, energy, social equity, etc. Multiple speakers emphasized the need for policy makers to consider how intertwined climate adaptation must be to achieve its goals. Moreover, the nature of international issues necessitates systems thinking approaches.

Strong developments for third party verification of climate accounting efforts

I was very happy to learn about efforts towards creating tracking techniques that will allow for third party verification of climate accounting efforts. Much of this work appears to be coming out of the Open Earth Foundation and the Data-Driven EnviroLab, headed by UNC public policy professor Dr. Angel Hsu. Her work along with others is blazing a path towards methods that are allowing for validation of how corporations and governments are keeping with their climate emission reduction goals. The development of climate accounting is a necessary step to be able to track how organizations are adhering to their climate goals.

There has been a shift in talks from mitigation to adaptation and resilience

Consistently, I heard panelists acknowledge that we are past the point where we can solely mitigate climate impacts. A major speaker on this was a panel moderated by Ali Zaidi, US Deputy National Climate Advisor. Zaidi spoke multiple times on how we are entering a time where we must adapt to the future of climate change instead of simply operating under the belief we can mitigate it.

With COP26 officially ending Friday November 12th there are already analyses and many criticisms arising. One such report notes that the goal of not exceeding 1.5 degrees of warming is not in reach based on current pledges.[vii] This report among others is just cause for concern and is yet another call of activists and scientists to keep politicians’ feet to the fire and to not give an inch. This conference and exposure to the international governance involved in climate adaptation has made me consider how best I can leverage my privilege and education to affect a positive change on the climate frontier. There are many issues surrounding international development and top-down policy development but I feel through listening and remaining a humble learner I and other planners may be able to affect positive change.

[i] Taylor, Matthew. 2021. “Cop26 will be the whitest and most privileged ever, warn campaigners.” The Guardian.

[ii] Hodari, David & Colchester, Max. “Glasgow Expects 25,000 Climate Summit Guests. It Has Just 15,000 Hotel Rooms.” The Wall Street Journal.

[iii]COP26 – what we know so far, and why it matters: Your UN News guide.“ 2021. United Nations.

[iv]UN Climate Change Conference 2022.” IISD SDG Knowledge Hub.

[v] Manthey, Nora. 2021. “World leaders get the e-bus at COP26 in Glasgow.”

[vi] Musson, Chris. 2021. “’Work To Be Done.” The Scottish Sun.

[vii] Dennis, Brady et al. 2021. “World leaders reach climate agreement at U.N. summit following two weeks of negotiations.” The Washington Post.

Pierce Holloway is a second-year master’s student at the Department of City and Regional Planning with a focus on Climate Change Adaptation. Before coming to Chapel Hill he worked as a geospatial analyst for Urban3, working on visualizing economic productivity of communities and states. Through his coursework he hopes to explore the nexus between adaptation for climate change and community equitability. In his free time, he enjoys long bike rides, trail running, and any excuse to play outside. 

Edited by Ruby Brinkerhoff

Featured image: Author Pierce Holloway attending COP26. Courtesy of Lauren Jensen.