I thought the Cop26 summit had reached peak weirdness when the Beast – the American presidential limo – swept past a Greggs on the back streets of Glasgow. Then I saw a picture tweeted by a Zimbabwean government spokesman showing his fellow country folk cramming Scottish whisky into trolleys at a local branch of Costco.
And in between – take your pick here – I bumped into the heir to the throne, his son, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio or billionaires Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates as they strolled just a couple of feet from my microphone. Not that they deigned to speak to me of course.
Cop26 is politics at its strangest. A mix of grubbiness, glamour – and longer queues than the glitziest rock concert.
It has been at times infuriating. Hearing the rich and famous tell us once again that time was running out to save the planet, yet knowing they’d swooped in on their gas-guzzling private jets is surely the definition of hypocrisy.
And yet I’m grudgingly glad they showed up. Because if they hadn’t, the pessimist in me might be tempted to turn the lights off and wait for the apocalypse.
The world leaders have left, so while other officials get on with the worthy stuff of seeing if their promises can stick, it’s as good a time as any to take stock.
And aside from the spectacle, the last few days have been a tussle between hope and despair.
Let’s do the hopeful bit first. The commitment to end global deforestation by 2030 was signed by more than a hundred countries, including Brazil, China and Russia.
Likewise, a 30 per cent cut in methane emissions – which have accounted for roughly 30 per cent of global warming since pre-industrial times – by the end of the decade was another breakthrough, though big emitters like China, Russia and India didn’t give that one their signatures.
And while the politicians are often accused of talking the talk, time and again this week I’ve heard businesses walking, talking and chewing gum when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.
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We can argue the toss over so-called “greenwashing”. But the valiant efforts of Greta Thunberg and her apostles have changed the debate: businesses know their customers expect both talk and action on the climate. The chancellor’s requirement on UK-listed companies to demonstrate how they’re transitioning to net zero is merely a recognition of the new reality.
Now for despair. And there was plenty of that in the Glasgow air too.
The president of Palau in the Pacific told delegates that his country was suffering a “slow and painful death”. A leader of Ecuador’s indigenous people said decisions made at Cop26 would determine whether they too lived or died.
Climate change is already killing people, but despite the urgent need for action, there appears to be dwindling hope of stemming the loss of life by limiting warming to 1.5C.
Although research by the University of Melbourne suggested the pledges made in the last few days – not least by India – put the world on track to keep temperature rises below 2C, the lower limit aimed at in the 2015 Paris Agreement looks increasingly unattainable.
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India – whose leader did at least attend, unlike China’s President Xi – committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions only by 2070, a full two decades behind the UK target. China’s no-show jeopardised Boris Johnson’s dream of a deal to accelerate phasing out coal.
Furthermore, can we trust the promises made by those who did turn up in person? Governments proved unable, for example, to deliver on a 2014 pledge to halve deforestation by 2020. Less Cop, more cop out. And there have been bitter recriminations from the developing world about richer nations’ failure to stump up the $100bn a year they promised to help poorer countries transition to cleaner, greener technology.
But time and again those I spoke to at the summit agreed on the importance of keeping hope alive. Despite the hellishness of the crowds and the hot air at Cop26, it’s crucial that the do-gooders and the global leaders keep showing up. In fact, one likely outcome of this week is they end up meeting more often to check on progress. And as the world continues to burn, we’ve all got to raise our voices to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire.
Yes Cop26 is a talking shop but it’s the only shop we’ve got. So while I’m glad to be escaping for now, I’ll be back along with the rest of the world to see how our elected representatives are doing.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm
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