Credit: Janka Deak

Glasgow deserved better from COP26

By Jeevan Farthing

Two years on from the UN Climate conference being hosted in Glasgow, the environmental and policy challenges facing the city remain pertinent.

Two years since COP26. Two years since Prince Charles turned up at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Joe Biden was chauffeur driven past halls of residence to a VIP-dinner, and John Kerry was spotted outside The Dirty Duchess in Finnieston. Two years since 100,000 of us took the streets and crammed around George Square for hours, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of Greta Thunberg (who, despite many rumours, unfortunately failed to turn up to Polo Wednesday the following week).

Two years since Friends of The Earth took over Tramway, with an exhibition empowering vital voices in the Global South; since the protest artist Darren Cullen drove his Hell Bus up the M6 to the Glasgow School of Art; since Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam appeared at a student flat in North Kelvinside, police in tow, urging us to drop out of uni and join Insulate Britain.

Two years since droves of people came up on the infamous Avanti train from London Euston, packing out community centres, conference halls and hotels to make Glasgow bustle for the first time since Covid. It was exciting, all the attention on us, with these famous, important people making headlines in our city. My friends and relatives were buzzing, I’d just moved away from them and I was a student here, in Glasgow, where all the action was happening, a place at the forefront of something big, tangible, and remarkable.

At George Square, Thunberg called COP26 a “global north greenwash festival”. While I, as a 20-year old student, am no expert in the proficiency and sufficiency of the negotiations agreed upon at the Scottish Events Campus (SEC), I am a resident of the city in which they occurred. Reflecting on what happened to Glasgow during the conference itself – and on the opportunities wasted in the two years since – COP26 increasingly feels like a cop out. What happened to the city should have been wholly exhilarating, but living here during the conference instead involved navigating an environment that was dirty, overcrowded and chaotic.

Almost everything and everyone important was situated behind police cordons and bollards, shutting off a huge chunk of the city from those of us who live here. Kelvin Way, the only well-lit walking route between student accommodation in Finnieston and the University campus, was closed off at random intervals, with young women having to make their way home in the dark through Kelvingrove Park, because of that aforementioned VIP-dinner.

Landlords raised rents to make a quick buck from the climate crisis, all the while exacerbating the city’s already abysmal housing shortage. It was galling to see delegates handed free travel passes by Glasgow City Council on a whim, while the rest of us continued to pay for extortionate bus services, battle a Subway system with 40-year old rolling stock, and wait for Scotrail trains that never turned up on time. There was outrage when a disabled minister was denied entry to one of the conference areas, disgust as rubbish piled high on the streets from overflowing bins, and fury as road closures caused traffic chaos, which, in turn, increased air pollution levels by a third

At first, I was optimistic that the conference would bring something beneficial to Glasgow. I hoped it would provide opportunities for residents, cultivate a legacy which we could be proud of, and recognise that both the diplomats sitting in the Glasgow Science Centre and the local residents staffing it really are fighting the same fight when it comes to climate change. I hoped that the swarms of journalists, politicians and activists entering Glasgow would raise awareness of the challenges and injustices which we as a city have grappled with for too long. Instead, once the two weeks of the conference were over, the buzz went away. For all the hope of sustained interest, there have been two very minor protests on local banks conducted by Extinction Rebellion, and that’s about it. Forget about legacy, forget about impact – Glasgow went back to normal.

And what is normal, two years on? Glasgow City Council have recently introduced a Low Emission Zone in the city centre, but Great Western Road and Byres Road, the two main arteries next to our University, remain clogged with wall-to-wall traffic, while elevated motorways still slice up communities, incentivising people to carry on driving. The housing crisis rears its ugly head, with living costs remaining stubbornly high – even with a rent freeze – and most tenement flats continue to be poorly insulated, remaining infested with mould, and reaching sub-zero temperatures in the winter. While the buses are now electric, and free for Under-22s, our public transport is, on the whole, still rubbish: the line of people waiting for the number 4 outside the Reading Room gets longer every day, and the private companies are still doing the hokey-cokey on whether to provide night buses. The Scotrail platforms at Glasgow Central Low Level still reek of piss, the Avanti train to England is still pricier than the plane, and the subway still isn’t wheelchair accessible, still hasn’t been extended since 1896, and still shuts down at 6pm on a Sunday.

I say all this not to talk down Glasgow, but to want better for it. This city is a brilliant, multi-faceted place: summer evenings in Kelvingrove, when it remains light until 11:30pm, will never not be joyful, the Barras will always be the best place to see a gig, and our sandstone tenements will always glow in the Autumn. But what the COP26 conference brought to the fore is how conflicting it can sometimes feel to live here. The conflict of finally feeling closer to power – with discussions profoundly affecting our lives and livelihoods taking place, for once, somewhere other than Holyrood or Westminster – only for us to be physically excluded from those discussions, and for power to be removed again two weeks later. The conflict of wanting to embrace and welcome visitors who’d only just discovered the delights of our city, and despairing that they could pack out our world-class restaurants, overwhelm our resources, and then leave again without regard for the locals who had to pick up the pieces. The conflict of feeling viciously proud of our statue capped with a traffic cone, and getting defensive over the state of Sauchiehall Street, while faced with constant infuriating reminders that infrastructurally and economically we will always have it worse than Edinburgh or London. 

COP28 is happening in Dubai right now, and Susan Aitken, the leader of Glasgow City Council, is going over there. I can’t say I feel particularly optimistic. It’s difficult to see how young people in Glasgow can feel any less powerless, any less fearful of the climate emergency, when we continue to be left behind and left out of the minds of decision makers. Two years on from the United Nations coalescing world leaders in Glasgow, our stakes really aren’t that different. If they can’t prompt things to improve for us, who can?


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