Gillian Mawdsley, solicitor and former Policy Executive and co-secretary of the Society's COP26 and Climate Change Working Group, writes about her experience of attending COP26 in Glasgow.

How I made it to COP26

I was fortunate to be appointed as an observer at COP26 through my Associate Lecturer position at the Open University. Recruitment was achieved democratically as part of RINGO, Research Institutions NGOs, and in putting forward an expression of interest, I outlined how my interest in attending had developed; what I would take there and bring back, and importantly, my green credentials in leaving no carbon footprint as a delegate; an aspect which I was pleased to achieve, given my home's proximity to the venue.

I must acknowledge that I would not have been selected but for my background and the knowledge and experience derived from my work in supporting the COP26 and Climate Change Working Group while at the Society.

Preparing for COP26

The weeks leading up to COP26 were, for me, dominated by personal health concerns as a result of the multiple warnings of it being a Covid-19 super-spreader event (with even my gym closing to become a lateral flow centre), transport chaos,  plus the inevitable time-consuming administration and registration with the UN and the necessities of undertaking and recording lateral flow tests.

However we arrived with anticipation on Sunday, 1 November. There was a ring of steel round the Exhibition Centre.  A security guard watches under the familiar leaden grey skies of Glasgow. It was the eve of something, but quite what was still to be discovered.

Monday dawned – and now another ring of steel surrounds another iconic Glasgow landmark - this time Kelvingrove Art Gallery had police as far as you can could see in readiness for the Heads of States’ formal dinner.

Attending COP26

My impression on arrival was one of being very overwhelmed, despite my familiarity with the actual Glasgow location. It was unlike any European Working Group that I have ever attended. Why?

It may be a consequence of the 18 months of casual dress lockdown, but the abundance of formal dress suits and ties was a surprise. Many attending in the blue zone were officials, civil servants, lawyers. The sheer number of people was also quite overwhelming. Had lockdown made me shy or was I just so unfamiliar with crowds and the volume of people - I acclimatised quickly.

The range of the events in support of COP26 was truly inspiring with events being hosted by many including the UN, individual countries’ pavilions, trade organizations, the WHO and so on, too many to count.  What inspired most was my abiding memory was the telling testimony of those representing the indigenous groups including those highlighting the need for education and the impact on the vulnerable  such as women. I heard too from the science experts, not normally those from whom I hear, having renounced science at school. Well known persons mixed with their entourages in the public hallways including My Obama heading upstairs.

I was merely an observer on what was the stage of international crisis.

My travels took me to other alternative venues including talks on ecocide seeking to activate a law to protect the earth. I attended “Moths to a Flame” at the Kibble Palace in the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. Its message was to turn calls for urgent action on the Climate Emergency into a magnificent mass-participation art installation at COP26, Glasgow 2021.

In Retrospect

Just a few weeks have passed since I attended COP26. How do I feel now?

I cannot suggest that it was a life changing experience but it was one of the seminal events of my legal career - memorable and different, unique and inspiring challenging and humbling.

The high spot of COP26 was watching the negotiations in the plenary sessions. It was at least a familiar landscape from my government legal experience in participating in various Working Parties and as it was about drafting, I recognized  the issues. In an audience of over 1500 delegates in a room appropriately named ‘Cairngorm’, I watched the UK President, Mr Alok Sharma and his officials maintain concentration on over 38 countries’ complex interventions. To watch the hour of tense negotiations on Saturday on the TV just prior to the conclusion was a moving and highly emotional event (and not just for Mr. Sharma’s undoubted exhaustion.)

I am not an environmental lawyer not a policy civil servant. I would however, invite them to work out what the Glasgow Climate Pact will mean going forward. It is much too early to judge as the UK continues the COP presidency until Egypt in 2022.

We cannot tell if the voices of disappointment over the conference being a failure will rule. Evaluation is by any account much too soon. The conversation outlined some initial thoughts  that  if it is evaluated from the conference's original stated goals, the answer is yes, it fell short.

Two big ticket items weren’t realised: renewing targets for 2030 that align with limiting warming to 1.5℃, and an agreement on accelerating the phase-out of coal.”[1] But that is too simplistic a view. There were achievements such as:

  • A move away from fossil fuel as a source of energy.
  • The 1.5℃ global warming target was now clearly flagged and fully within the public awareness. There was recognition that actions are required to reach the set targets.
  • Mitigation of nature and ecosystems are required, including protecting forests and biodiversity. Australia and 123 other countries promised to end deforestation by 2030.
  • Countries are “urged” to fully deliver on an outstanding promise to deliver US$100 billion per year for five years to developing countries vulnerable to climate damage. Transparency is required on delivery.  
  • A high-level ministerial roundtable meeting is to be held each year focused on raising ambition out to 2030.

So my own rather lay impression is not that it was the “Blah Blah Blah” suggested by Greta Thunberg, but represented some progress. Let’s watch to see what happens now as inevitably the world moves on to worry about the next Covid variant and Xmas. 

The challenge going forward

What I felt was a personal and professional responsibility. It will take time to seize these opportunities to spread the message and learning obtained from COP26, but what can I change?

I can share some of the messages from COP26, such as this blog. I  can recognise the need to uphold environmental sustainability which starts in my own backyard. I can include COP26 in my teaching, whether pro bono, access to justice or ethics.

It was the EU delegate who showed the photo of his grandson. that summed it for me.

I too have a new grandson aged nine months and I think about their future. We live in Scotland – comparatively safe we would think, or is it? For now perhaps yes, but speak to those whose electricity was cut off by Storm Arwen and they may have a different view. That, combined with the delegate from the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu indicating that their homelands are currently under water and that “we are sinking”  resonated.

Climate change is for now and affects us all.

My COP26 in pictures

Professor Abbe Brown: My experience of attending COP26

Abbe Brown, Professor in Intellectual Property Law at the University of Aberdeen, is a member of our COP26 and Climate Change Working Group and Technology Committee. In her blog, Abbe writes about her experience as a delegate at COP26 in Glasgow.

COP26 and Climate Change

Find out more about the Society's work around COP26 and climate change