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COP26: A pivotal moment in the climate crisis or a load of hot air?

Climate activist and school strike leader Holly Gillibrand interviews former energy minister and COP26 President Claire O’Neill about the conference that could change everything… or not.

Claire O’Neill was COP26 president until January 2020. The former energy minister wrote an open letter to PM Boris Johnson saying she was “surprised and dismayed to be phoned by Dominic Cummings last Friday to be told I was no longer required to act as your COP (Conference of the UN Parties) president”.

She has continued to tear into the government’s strategy and question its commitment to tackling climate change as Alok Sharma, the business, energy and industry secretary, took the lead role for COP.

Holly Gillibrand, is a 15-year-old environmental activist from the brisk and beautiful Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. She is also a leader of the school strike movement, started by Greta Thunberg, in Scotland.

The Big Issue brought the activist full of energy together with O’Neill, who’s encountered the problems of trying to make political change, to find out if COP26 could be pivotal – or if it’s all a lot of hot air.

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Holly Gillibrand:My impression of COP has been that rich countries can come in, talk about how great they’re doing, and then walk out and forget about climate change for a year. It feels like more of an ego moment than talking about actual action that can be taken. What do you think will happen at COP26?

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Claire O’Neill: The challenge is that not many people, including me until quite recently, actually understood what COP is for. At the core it’s negotiations. One of the things we’re looking for at COP is the dotting of Is and crossing of Ts of the Paris Agreement, [of 2015], which sounds incredibly dull and dry. And frankly, it is. But without that, you can’t keep everybody honest so it’s quite an important part of the delivery.

That’s the heart of the COP. It can be quite hard to get an ambitious agreement, because you’re always trying to make those who are less ambitious happy.

When I was COP26 president I wanted to livestream the negotiations. I thought, these are the most important negotiations on the most important global topic. They should be held in the public domain.

We want to use this moment to make sure everybody is digging deep with their own climate plans, whether that’s reductions in emissions or removal of carbon. I’d like to see much more focus on gender, frankly, in the climate conversation because it’s women and young girls who are in the firing line globally from the worst impacts of climate change.

HG:Women only account for 25 per cent of the COP26 leadership. On a worldwide scale, developing countries’ voices are most important because they’re going to be worst affected by climate change. Why else do you think that it’s important we include marginalised groups in the conversation?

CO:There is no question that the more diversity you have around the table the better the general outcome, so it’s a great point. If you talk to people like Damilola Ogunbiyi – now on the energy advisory board for COP, who is a former energy minister from Nigeria and now works at the UN – she is very clear about energy transition looking really different in developing parts of the world. In the developing world, often gas is a good way to get off coal, and it’s the cheaper way of providing power.

It is in a country that simply hasn’t built out its grid to deal with big renewables. So I think this question of diversity of representation is absolutely vital. We’ve got to have young people, we’ve got to have people from different communities, but to have people who are challenging some of the orthodoxy about what the energy transition looks like.

Even though I don’t think the UK is doing great right now it doesn’t mean I think we can’t

HG:Do you think the UK is doing enough?

CO:We could always do more. Having been the minister who brought in the net-zero legislation and got the COP, I’d say we could always do more. There is always a question in my mind about who pays for everything. Sometimes the right solution is cheaper – it’s really good to plant trees, it’s a really cheap way of sucking down CO2 and it has amazing benefits if it’s done properly. When it comes to some of the big technology questions – hydrogen as a substitute for coal and steel plants for example – this is expensive stuff, so who pays? It’s either shareholders or it’s taxpayers, or you borrow it all now and it’s future generations.

We are going to face some tough decisions. But if I was to give us a report card now, I’d give us a B. We are miles ahead of most European countries in terms of our decarbonisation to date. And the devolved administrations have done some great stuff. You have to show that it’s possible – sometimes the narrative is so negative that people just don’t think it’s possible to recover.

HG:I would disagree with your report card for the UK. When it comes to the climate crisis we need to be completely, absolutely honest about what we’ve done, because if you’re not being honest about your emissions, and your contribution to this process, then you’re not going to be able to solve it.

We have been one of the biggest emitters in history. If you include that then we’re right down at the bottom of the chart. When you include imports, exports, aviation and shipping, we’ve only reduced our emissions by 10 per cent since 1990.

I think I’m quite an optimistic person but I think you can tell people the real truth, and the real figures, without making it seem hopeless because that’s the best way to create change. Even though I don’t think the UK is doing great right now it doesn’t mean I think we can’t.

We need to revert power back to the lowest level possible, which will empower people in their area to make change

CO:There’s huge power sitting at regional, devolved and local government levels. I changed the law to make sure that no new house could be built with fossil fuel heating from 2025 but the opportunity to specify what that housing looks like, what its energy efficiency is, how it gets its power, is all in the hands of the local authorities. We don’t ever think enough about how we should lobby locally. And I think one of the really powerful things to do is actually to hold our local authorities and local councils and devolved administrations to account and say, you’ve got the powers – you’re just not using them.

HG:I really agree with that. When it comes to solving this crisis and other issues we need to revert power back to the lowest level possible, which will empower people in their area to make change because, right now, politics feels so far away. Politics is what people in their communities do as well, it’s not just about what happens in Westminster. Do you think grassroots movements will create change?

CO: Everybody has a part to play. There are so many added benefits of removing carbon from the atmosphere, like rewilding ecosystems and bringing nature into people’s lives, or stopping flooding by having properly managed watersheds. This is all the good stuff that’s almost coming along for free in the climate fight, and it takes organisations out there like the ones you’re involved in to keep making those arguments. We have to pull all the levers we’ve got.

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HG:I’ve been thinking about democracy and the climate after the Kill the Bill protests. Movements like Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter rely on being able to demonstrate. If you can’t, then you can’t challenge the system.

CO:The right to protest is an important one. Interestingly I don’t think the democratic process, or voting, reflects what people feel about the environment. Most people did not cast their vote in the last election thinking about the planet. People are not translating their views on the environment into politics in this country. There’s a disconnect between the importance of this movement and what people feel with the democratic process. And I don’t think that protesting on the street will bridge the gap – what’s going to bridge the gap is political campaigning.

HG:I think people are keen for the government to be more ambitious.

CO: Lockdown changed our commuting patterns, something we always really wanted to happen. It changed the way that we travel globally, it changed our thinking. A lot of us have got closer to home, I’ve planted dozens of trees in the field outside my house. There will be a challenge to keep some of those things going forward.

HG:It’s the big industries that need to change, and they were still going. And that’s why global emissions only went down around seven per cent.

CO:I think people assume [emissions being reduced] will happen really close to the end. Like we’ll continue doing what we’re doing, and suddenly in 2045 we’ll suddenly have some Big Bang that will mean we don’t have to change our way of life. But ultimately people want to keep living a good life. If you spoke to [Indian PM] Narendra Modi, he wants everyone to have 24/7 electricity. That would mean young women can study, he said. I find that hard to argue with.

COP26 takes place in Glasgow from November 1-12

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