In October 2021 Jessie Stevens cycled more than 570 miles to Glasgow to take part in COP26. But she left feeling underwhelmed. Will COP27 be any different, she wonders?
The morning’s drizzle was just clearing as we slowly rolled into Glasgow Green, savouring the final moments of our 570 mile journey. As we drew closer, the sound of live music, whooping and singing filled the air – the finisher’s party for all those who had pedalled to the summit, was just getting into full swing. I can remember that day like it was yesterday. The feeling of pure elation as I unclipped myself from my bike and finally sat down on a very soggy park bench, was unmatchable. For the past ten days, we’d been battered by storms, eaten some very interesting snack combinations and been shown the true joy that comes from community action. And now, as one journey was finishing, a new one was beginning. People Pedal Power had been founded with the mission to bring more diverse voices to COP26 and to help mobilise climate concerned people all across the country to take action. Community action and some incredible conversations about the crisis, was exactly what we got.
Two days later, after a lot of time spent washing sodden clothes (no waterproof bag can withstand four days of torrential rain!) and catching up on some much needed sleep, I was ready to collect my pass to the Blue Zone at COP26. After so long spent outside, moving through the landscape, slowly and mindfully, entering into the huge, clinical environment, was a shock to the system. It was one of the most unfriendly places I have ever been. Like most young people in the space, I was ignored, patronised and excluded from the talks and events. I left my time there feeling dejected and full of grief as I watched all the announcements unfold, full of greenwashing and empty promises. You didn’t have to spend very long anywhere near the SSE centre to see the myriad of brand advertisements and campaigns.
From Detol to Unilever and even NatWest, it seemed to me that the only criteria sponsors needed to be involved, was shed loads of money. The untruths didn’t stop when you entered into the Blue Zone itself. I can clearly remember my first morning there, heading into the corporate ‘Pavilion Area’, in search of somewhere to grab a coffee and breakfast before my first meeting of the day. After quite a bit of searching (getting lost was the theme of my time there), I stumbled across a stand giving away free coffee. Jackpot! No sooner had I ordered my drink then I saw a small logo on the wall behind. Turns out my coffee wasn’t free, but instead it was paid for by one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies…
COP26 was supposed to be the time to put bureaucracy and political differences aside, include everyone and create actual change. Instead it was another event hijacked by the ulterior motives and power play.
Will COP27 be any different? To be perfectly truthful, I don’t think so. This summit has already been branded as the ‘most regulated’ COPs to date. This is due to the Egyptian government making it effectively illegal to protest and the higher levels of security due to the country’s instability. With the sea on one side and desert on the other, the venue (Sharm El-Sheikh) is only accessible by air or heavily militarised roads – not particularly welcoming to members of the public wanting to be involved in the summit. In addition, the announcement that Coca Cola will be one of the summit’s major sponsors, doesn’t instil any sense of trust that business and politics will be kept separate. With the two things that enable summits like these to be effective (public interaction and collective organisation), basically scuppered, how will the politicians and diplomats be held to account?
Like every summit that has come before it, COP27 will no doubt be a show of greenwashing and empty promises. However, what will be different from its predecessors is the growing groundswell of public pressure to act on the crisis. It was very clear at COP26 that the people on the streets had the most power and influence. From mass protests of around 100,000 people, to the thriving People’s Assembly workshops and talks, the community outside of the summit was growing symphony of action, joy and hope.
For all of the fears of greenwashing and lip service at an official level, for me and many others in these spaces, the two weeks were a time to reconnect with comrades from all over the world. It was a time to meet in person those we’d spent years working with over Zoom. It was a time to organise and make our movements even stronger than ever before. I can’t quite explain the electric atmosphere that hung over Glasgow at that time. It was a period of huge stress and upheaval, but also one of hope and undying optimism, as so many incredible changemakers came together for one uniting purpose. And so, whilst this year’s summit will have much less physical interaction from the public, all across the world, the chorus for change is getting louder. It’s now a matter of whether our leaders are willing to listen.
Jessie Stevens is the founder of the movement People Pedal Power, which mobilised people all across the country to cycle to COP26 to highlight the need for more diverse decision makers. The idea came about when she saw that the cheapest way to reach the summit was to fly – but the rail fair from her native Devon was prohibitively expensive. So she cycled: a journey of more than 570 miles, which took ten days. She has co-produced a film about the experience.