Cop26: How Glaswegians view the global climate summit on their doorstep

·9-min read
The Cop26 climate summit which is taking place on the edge of the Finnieston area of Glasgow has been met with a mixed reception (The Independent)
The Cop26 climate summit which is taking place on the edge of the Finnieston area of Glasgow has been met with a mixed reception (The Independent)

When the late chef and travel show host Anthony Bourdain visited Glasgow, he dubbed the city “Europe’s no-bulls*** zone”.

The scrappy but warm-hearted counterpart of the more cosmopolitan capital Edinburgh now finds itself host to the Cop26 climate summit which has attracted thousands of delegates, protesters and business people with the goal of keeping “1.5C alive” and averting a climate catastrophe.

For any city, holding a major international event – attended by several hundred world leaders – in the wake of the pandemic was never going to be easy, and it has gotten off to a bumpy start with long lines, complicated Covid restrictions and tech glitches.

Glasgow has also faced its own trials in the run-up to the United Nation’s Conference of Parties, known as the Cop. Rail workers came close to a strike during the summit over pay and conditions, which would have spelled disaster for the 20,000 delegates navigating the city.

Bin collectors and street cleaners have been on strike for the past week due to a row between their union and the city council, leaving rubbish overflowing in Glasgow’s streets along with reports of rats and fly-tipping. Local residents and businesses must contend with diversions and delays after major expressways and roads were shutdown for security.

The city has suffered during the pandemic. Glasgow has had among the highest number of Covid cases in Scotland, and last week recorded the highest number of deaths. Scotland’s largest city will be the hardest hit economically by the Covid fallout in the country, a recent report suggested.

The Independent headed to Finnieston, which has Cop26 on its doorstep, to find out what Glaswegians, with their ubiquitous inability to mince words, thought of the commotion – and if it would make a difference.

Overwhelmingly, there were warm sentiments towards those who had come to Glasgow determined to reverse the trajectory of the climate crisis.

“The people that want to change things are here and I hope their voices get heard,” said taxi driver David Doonan, 64, who has been ferrying “great people from all four corners of the earth” in the back of his cab from the airport into the city.

“I hope that something comes out it. You would hope the protests will keep it alive.”

But there was short shrift for those in power. “Politicians tell lies, as we all know,” Mr Doonan added. “I listen to them promising they’ll do things in 2030 – but then will they go back to their country and say, forget it?”

Sean Graham, 24, who studied at Glasgow University and is barman at The Islay Inn, said: “I think with figures like Greta [Thunberg], they are raising awareness in the right way.

“But we need to improve emissions and then you see Biden’s transport from Edinburgh to Glasgow. They want to achieve something but they’re doing the complete opposite.

“It’s probably an ‘old man’ thing to say – but why didn’t they just do it online? We’ve got the technology. Look at what we were doing during the first lockdown, when everyone got on Zoom.”

George Fraser, 56, of Finnieston, echoed that sentiment. “The expense is just astronomical,” he said. “And how much are they going to achieve that they couldn’t maybe have done over the computer?

“They could have used that money for better purposes, actually putting it towards climate change or giving it to the poor people. I think the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is growing even more.

“I mean, just the amount of security, that whole street [Argyle Street] was lined with police on both sides. Who’s paying for that? And Biden brought how many cars over – what, do we not have cars here? I’m sure the Queen could have lent him a few for it.”

He added: “And did you see Boris next to our national treasure David Attenborough with no mask? How does that guy get away with it? He’s a top blagger.”

For some, Cop26 had been good for business. “It has been first class but it’s short term,” Mr Doonan said, noting that while travel times had increased, “I thought it was going to be worse than what it is.”

Others were equally pleased by the uptick in trade. “It’s been good for business,” said Jeevan Gosal, 23, who was working behind the counter of his family’s off-license GG Brothers in the heart of Finnieston. “I mean, everyone knows Scottish whisky. So lots of whisky, and nice red wines too.”

At Roots, Fruits & Flowers, Marina Notaraki, 30, said they definitely had more customers in the past week. “We have had lots of people from Cop coming into the shop. It’s been a little bit insane,” she said.

Others thought the heightened security and cordoned-off roads may have put off regular customers.

“It’s hard to gauge as we are always busy,” said David Anderson, the 28-year-old barman in The Ben Nevis.

“I feel like a lot of Glasgow-based customers are not turning up but plenty of [Cop26] people from nearby are, so it’s kind of balanced out. We’re selling an awful lot more whisky than we are pints of Tennent’s, is the other thing.”

There was heavy criticism for the sudden road closures and major diversions earlier this week when world leaders including President Biden, Boris Johnson, French leader Emmanuel Macron and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau attended a VIP reception at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, hosted by Prince Charles.

“People couldn’t pass from one side of the street to the other,” said Ms Notaraki. “Not even delivery workers or elderly people could cross, and the police wouldn’t help them.”

Tapanat Chaigosi, 27, a finance-tech graduate from the University of Glasgow working part-time at the Thai Sam restaurant, said that the road closures meant orders have dropped and delivery drivers couldn’t get around.

“Each day we would like to have more specific information but we don’t have it,” he said.

Some local residents had been forced to take long detours through the “pitch-black” Kelvingrove Park to get home due to the event. (Police Scotland later apologised for the situation.)

“As a woman, I always avoid that park, it’s very dark. It doesn’t matter if it’s Cop26,” Ms Notaraki said, adding that it would benefit local women “if we would feel safe to walk through it”.

Others noted the rush to spruce up the city and extend hours of public transport during the event. Cop26 attendees have been provided with a free travel pass to all of Scotland, but the same gesture had not been extended to residents of the host city.

“I feel people who live in the city, they’re the ones who’ve been marginalised by it all,” said Mr Graham. “Having the subway open later is a great idea, but they’ll cut it back to normal hours once Cop ends.”

Mr Anderson said: “There’s been a drive to clean up things but that will last a couple of weeks, and everything will just go back to business as usual.

“In terms of inconvenience to people that live around this area, I’m very sympathetic because nobody has told anyone anything. Organisations like the police have been incredibly unhelpful.

“There’s a lot of hypocrisy. Universal travel cards have been given to all delegates but there’s not been any kind of offer of that kind of service to the people of Glasgow. Extension of subway hours on a Sunday, which is again, temporary. The first thing I saw when I walked past Cop was a bin overflowing with empty Starbucks cups. I am very cynical about the whole thing but not without reason.”

When it came to the larger issue, there was little doubt that the climate crisis was human-caused and was impacting daily lives, including in Scotland.

Mr Doonan said that while once he may have been sceptical about climate change, “I think we are now all accepting that the planet is heating up and we’re causing it.”

He recalled a recent day at work in Glasgow. “The rain come down, and I’ve never seen rain like it in my life. It was like biblical times, horrendous. The roads were like rivers and, I thought, this is global warming that’s causing this.”

While there was hope for the event to make significant impact, not all were sure it would.

“I’m someone who’s very passionate about climate activism, but I’m quite cynical about whether this is actually going to achieve anything,” Mr Anderson said. “There’s an onus on you as an individual to recycle, for example, as opposed to the big companies that actually cause the emissions. Tokenistic would be my way of describing it, sort of a mutual back-patting.”

Mr Fraser also expressed doubts over the true purpose of the conference. “Electric cars, this is the next big moneymaker,” he said. “Get out your other cars, and we’ll give you a wee government help. I just don’t trust any of them, that’s the bottom line. I’m from Glasgow – trust nobody.”

Mr Chaigosi said he believed the climate crisis was an important issue and that his home country of Thailand had suffered from years of bad air pollution. “My prime minister came to Cop26, and I think he could get some ideas about changes for my country,” he said.

Ms Notaraki, who is originally from Greece, referenced this summer’s devastating wildfires in her home country, and the record-breaking temperatures.

“The wildfires were close to Athens,” she said. “I come from an island which is approximately four hours by ferry [from there] and my parents could see the fire in the sky.”

She added: “On the one hand it feels like the leaders are starting to get the message. But on the other hand, it feels like they’re going to try to do everything to save their profits first. It’s very sad.

“I do hope things are going to change but I think it’s always money. I don’t feel trust anymore.”

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