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What do we want from the COP?

With the climate change Conference of Parties starting this weekend in Glasgow, we ask what action is needed to tackle our rising emissions.

FlightFree UK
29 Oct 2021 4 min read

Image shows the river Clyde in Glasgow with an arch bridge going across, and industrial buildings on either side.
The River Clyde in Glasgow, where COP26 is taking place

Last year we hosted an event, A Flight Free COP?, asking if it were possible, or feasible, or even desirable, to stage a no-fly climate conference. This was after COP26 had been cancelled because of Covid. 

After COP21 in Paris, the agreement was that every five years there would be a re-evaluation of how we were doing. World leaders were geared up to descend on Glasgow in 2020 to measure our progress against the promises made in Paris, then make new promises to set our collective emissions on course for no more than 1.5ºC of warming. But Covid hit, and the talks were postponed.

There are many compelling and sensible reasons to rearrange a conference because of a global pandemic. But it can’t be forgotten that the climate crisis is still progressing and continues to do so regardless of Covid. The pacts made at Paris need to be scrutinised and updated, urgently. 

"It can’t be forgotten that the climate crisis is progressing regardless of Covid."

Youth climate campaigners felt so strongly about this that they staged Mock COP: a virtual conference in the place of what would have been COP26. Campaigners around the world called on world leaders to meet online in lieu of real-world meetings in order to progress talks on arguably the most pressing and time-sensitive issue of our time.

There could have been many advantages to holding COP26 online in 2020, not least that we would now already be enacting any policy agreements made there. It could have enabled delegates from all over the world to attend, especially those from countries where the climate crisis is hitting hardest, who are most needed at the table.

Of course, this is not an ideal solution in all circumstances: for poorer nations with limited internet capacity, connection issues could prevent meaningful involvement in negotiations, and it is vital that we hear their voices. 

Perhaps the most powerful part of a no-fly conference is the message it sends. Showing leadership in low-carbon behaviours is one of the most impactful things we can do to affect change. It shows we truly understand the climate emergency and are prepared to do whatever it takes to solve it.

"Perhaps the most powerful part of a no-fly conference is the message it sends."

Now the delayed conference is happening in person, there will of course be people attending by plane from all over the world, many of whom cannot realistically get there without flying. But for those who are attending from the continent where the conference is taking place, there is no excuse for not travelling overland. Campaign group Rail to the COP is encouraging delegations that are within rail distance of Glasgow to attend by train, as well as running the Climate Train, to encourage and facilitate interactions between people involved in the sector. 

"For those who are attending from the continent where the conference is taking place, there is no excuse for not travelling overland."

This makes it even more disappointing that our own leaders are travelling by air. The distance between London and Glasgow is a mere 400 miles. Trains depart hourly between the two destinations; a recent race staged by the Campaign for Better Transport showed there was no time advantage to flying. Some climate activists are even cycling the distance. A typical short journey by private jet emits ten times more greenhouse gases than the same journey made on a scheduled flight in business class, and up to 50 times more than the same journey by rail.

"A typical short journey by private jet emits 50 times more than the same journey by rail."

It’s likely that we'll be disappointed by the outcomes of the conference. Johnson tells us that Jet Zero means that we don't have to worry about aviation emissions; they can be addressed with technology and offsetting. Government ministers are unashamedly dismissive of the need for demand reduction. They clearly state that they don’t want to control how people live their lives, and that “flights make life worth living.”

It’s hard to tell families who cannot put food on the table, or whose lives are blighted by aircraft noise and pollution, that it’s flights that make life worth living. In any case, unpopular politically as it may be, the difficult truth is that we will have to change everything about the way we live in order to deal with the climate crisis. 

There are a raft of measures that we repeatedly call for: carbon labelling on transport tickets; a tax on aviation fuel; a moratorium on airport expansion; a frequent flyer levy; the cancellation of flight routes where a viable alternative exists. These measures would be consistent with the climate advice repeatedly given by the IPCC and the Committee on Climate Change. The government thinks we can fly carbon neutral by 2050, but that simply won’t happen if we allow demand to keep on rising.

"The government thinks we can fly carbon neutral by 2050, but that simply won’t happen if we allow demand to keep on rising." 

In a publicity stunt, world leaders will fly home with tanks ‘full of SAF’. SAF, or sustainable aviation fuel, is the government’s preferred course of action because it can promise emissions reduction of up to 70% without having to talk about behaviour change. But with the maximum certifiable mix of SAF to kerosene at only 50%, in reality the savings are likely to be a lot less.

This is the time for world leaders to make meaningful decisions that will keep a liveable planet for future generations, not to keep on pedalling the same old greenwash.

We need the government to stop pretending the UK is a climate leader and put in place policies that will actually make a meaningful and rapid reduction in emissions.

The window of opportunity is closing. Let’s not miss it.

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