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2021 podcast series: COP26

Activist Mara de Pater joins us to talk about the upcoming climate conference COP26 and the campaign Rail to the COP.

18 Oct 2021 7 min read

This is episode 10 of our 2021 podcast series. Listen to the episode here and find other episodes and previous series here.

Mara is a young white woman with light coloured hair, picture on a sailing boat on the ocean. There are others on the sailing ship slightly out of shot.
Mara de Pater during the Sail to the COP journey in 2019

COP26 is the United Nations climate summit taking place in Glasgow from 31 October.

In this episode we find out more about the COP and speak to Mara de Pater from Rail to the COP, a campaign that brings together policy makers, experts and young people to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable travel industry.

Rail to the COP is organising a Climate Train from Amsterdam to Glasgow on 30 October. 

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. Representatives from all around the world will attend in order to discuss and agree on coordinated action to tackle climate change.

The Paris Agreement came out of COP21 in Paris in 2015. It united nearly all the world’s nations in a single agreement on tackling global warming and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. But the emissions cuts agreed at Paris weren’t enough to keep warming to within 1.5 degrees, or even 2 degrees. The nations agreed that every five years they would come back with an updated plan that would reflect their highest possible ambition. 

The goals of COP26 are

  • To secure global net zero by mid century and keep the global warming limit of 1.5 degrees within reach
  • To adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
  • To mobilise finance – developed countries must make good on their promise to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year 
  • To work together to rise to the challenges of the climate crisis

COP26 is being called ‘the world’s last best chance to get runaway climate change under control.’

Flight Free Fact

World-wide, transport is responsible for 16.2% of greenhouse gas emissions, but it is much more in rich countries. Transport accounts for 29% of emissions in Europe and it has gone up by a third since 1990. That’s mostly road transport but aviation plays its part. So it’s ironic that we are pinning our hopes for fighting climate change on people flying into Glasgow from all over the world. 

To find out more about the COP and about more sustainable ways of getting there let's speak to Mara de Pater. 

Flight Free UK

Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about the inspiration behind the campaign Rail to the COP?


I’m from the Netherlands, from Amsterdam. I’m a big travel enthusiast and also an environmentalist, and that doesn’t always match. I’ve been trying to bring those two together for the past years, not just by travelling more sustainably, but also through actions and campaigns. I was one of the initiators of Sail to the COP. Rail to the COP is sort of an offspring of Sail to the COP. 

Flight Free UK

Could you remind us what happened? Where were you sailing and what happened?


The idea was to get to COP25 in Chile, by sailing ship. We started in Amsterdam. It was a pretty long journey, but half way through we heard that Chile wasn’t going to host the COP any more due to social unrest in the country, and that it was going to be moved to Madrid.

We weren’t going to be able to turn around and get to Madrid in time so we started calling for people that were in Europe to change their flight tickets for Chile to train tickets for Madrid. We also called for as many youth as possible to get to Madrid and demand ambitious climate goals, and we asked them to travel sustainably by train or by bus. That’s where the idea of Rail to the COP started. 

Flight Free UK

The COP is mainly for the countries to negotiate a new climate agreement. Why do activists and campaigners go, and what do you expect to do while you are there?


It’s important that the conference is open and transparent, and that societal groups such as NGOs can be at the conference not only to observe what is going on but also push for more ambitious climate goals. That’s especially important because there will be a lot of people there lobbying for the fossil fuel industry or the aviation industry. It’s important to balance their voices out with voices that have the common good in mind.  

"It’s important the conference is open and transparent, and that societal group can be there to push for more ambitious climate goals."

It’s especially important for youth to join these conferences, and people from regions that are already affected by climate change, to show world leaders that policies need to be made for them. 

Flight Free UK

How do you feel about the fact that so many people will be flying into Glasgow to attend the conference?


I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I think it’s important for anyone to be able to join such a conference, especially those that are living in regions that are threatened by climate change. So I think it's fair if they fly into these conferences. 

But I do think we have to find ways to limit those flights. One option is to ask everyone that comes from the continent where the conference is being held to not fly. Another is to move more of the meetings online. But I think even in an ideal world we will still have some people flying around for important conferences like these, and that’s just a reality that we have to live in.

Flight Free UK

We want our politicians to lead by example, to show through their actions that they believe that the climate crisis is real, and not flying would be one way of doing that. But it seems that they are in the habit of flying, and also very open to accepting the aviation industry’s view of itself as essential to modern life. It would be nice to see politicians being prepared to change the way they do business.


That’s one of the reasons why, with Rail to the COP, we’ve invited politicians and national delegates to join the train, so they have an easy opportunity to lead by example, and also show others in government, or other policy makers, or just the public in general, that they are willing to change their behaviours. The delegations of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are joining the train.

I know that most politicians will be joining the COP in the second week, and as our train leaves just before the first week, they won’t be able to travel on our train. Hopefully they will still be travelling by train. 

"We’ve invited politicians and national delegates to join the train, so they can lead by example and show others they are willing to change their behaviours."

Flight Free UK

Could you tell us a bit more about the Climate Train itself? What was the motivation behind it and how are people getting involved?


One of the reasons is to get people to the COP sustainably. Another is that we really want to build connections between youth activists, experts and policy makers, and a train is a very informal setting where people can sit together and have a conversation. We are organising a programme with a lot of workshops and dialogues during the train ride to really foster that connection between the different groups. 

We hope that the connection will last during the COP as well, and also afterwards. We want to make these groups more aware of the different perspectives on sustainable travel. We also want to collect all of the outcomes of these conversations to present them at the COP. 

"We want to build connections between youth activists and experts, and a train is a very informal setting where people can have a conversation."

Flight Free UK

Why do you think it’s important to promote alternative travel methods to aviation?


The main reason is the very high greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, and it is very important to bring those down. When we are looking at the prognosis for the coming years, aviation is expected to grow so much that it will exceed any planetary boundary that we have. So there is a big need to change to more sustainable options.

A very important reason for me is that I see there is a lack of policies when it comes to the travel industry. For example, after the Paris Agreement, all the countries had to make national goals, and only ten percent of the countries that made these goals explicitly mentioned transport. So it’s a topic that is not being discussed enough. 

Flight Free UK

To follow on from that, what do you hope the outcome of COP26 will be?


I’m a little bit pessimistic at this point. I would be very happy if, at the COP, it’s going to be less talking about very tiny details. That is what frustrates me the most, that it’s just talking, talking, talking, and nothing really happens. It seems that these negotiators have no clue that the world is on fire, or almost on fire.

So I hope that the COP itself will be more meaningful. Not so focussed on the bureaucratic details. I mainly hope that we are able to raise the ambition, and also that the public is more aware of the need for urgent action.

"I hope that the COP itself will be more meaningful. I hope we are able to raise the ambition, and that the public is more aware of the need for urgent action."

Flight Free UK

At the end of the day the COP only sets national targets, it doesn’t formulate policy, and it doesn’t determine how individuals, companies and cities respond to the targets. So even if there was no COP those agencies would still be able to take action. 


Yes, but the COP and the outcomes of these agreements are the framework on which the other policies are built. So it is definitely important, and that’s also the reason why I think so many people are interested in going to Glasgow, and just being there to show the need for more ambitious goals. 

Destination of the Month

For Destination of the Month, the team chose two places that are within easy reach of the city. Maggie chose sailing down the River Clyde to old-fashioned seaside resorts on the paddle steamer Waverley.  Bertie chose New Lanark, an eighteenth century cotton-spinning village on the Clyde, which is a World Heritage Site. 

Thank you once again to Mara de Pater for speaking to us. For more information about the Rail to the COP or to donate to their campaign, visit their website here.

You can listen to the full episode here and find other episodes and previous series here.

Voiceover: L. Sophie Helbig. Soundtrack: Chasing Balloons by Yeti Music.