Edinburgh's independent student newspaper

COP26: All eyes on Scotland after years of anticipation

COP26 logo
Friday 29th October 01.36

In the coming weeks, Glasgow will play host to world leaders as they meet to agree further steps to be taken to combat the climate crisis.

The Conference of Parties (COP) is a decision-making body associated with the United Nations’ efforts to slow climate change, with this year’s summit (COP26) taking place between 31 October and 12 November.

Leaders hope to build on the 2015 Paris Agreement, when all countries agreed to a commitment to limit global temperature rise to well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels.

Data shows that the climate has already warmed by around 1.1° C since this time, with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projecting 1.5° C of warming likely to be reached within 20 years if emissions go unchanged.

In Paris, countries set ‘national determined contributions’ for carbon emissions, aimed at limiting the overall release of carbon into the atmosphere. Emissions from human activity – including farming, travel, and energy production – drive global warming, which in turn threatens to cause major disruption to the world’s climate and ecosystems.

Who will attend COP26?

Politicians, scientists, campaigners, protestors, and journalists will all be descending on Glasgow.

COP26 President Alok Sharma will host the event alongside Boris Johnson. US President Biden will be in attendance, as will former President Obama.

Following a recent stay in hospital, it remains unclear if the Queen will attend. However, the royals have been symbolically involved in the run-up to COP26, with Prince William recently awarding £1 million to five winners of his Earthshot Prize for climate innovation.

Whilst over 100 world leaders have confirmed attendance, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has confirmed he will not travel to Scotland, and Chinese premier Xi Jinping is not expected to join the summit.

Both major world powers will be represented in negotiations regardless, but commentators consider their leaders not attending in-person as a sign of lacking enthusiasm for a green climate agenda. This is especially pertinent given China’s current status as the world’s greatest emitter of carbon dioxide, contributing 28% of emissions in 2019.

What will be agreed?

Brand new commitments are expected from the summit, potentially including: targets to limit deforestation; investment in new renewable energy resources; and policies to combat the existing threats of climate change, such as rising sea levels.

In addition, countries will be setting out their specific plans for how they intend to reduce carbon emissions.

The University at COP26

More than 50 staff, students and alumni from the University of Edinburgh will be attending COP26. Some academics, including Prof. Dave Reay and Dr. Sian Henley, are taking part in events to present their research in the critical Blue Zone: the UN-managed space in which the negotiations will take place. Around 10 Edinburgh alumni will be taking part in events and negotiations representing other nations at COP26.

In an internal university document passed to The Student, senior staff declare the Glasgow event as an opportunity to “reflect on current standing in research, teaching and operations." Climate awareness and sustainability are due to be embedded in the teaching curriculum as part of ‘The Edinburgh Experience’ and announcements of innovation schemes are expected.

One such scheme is the university’s new pledge to sequester its CO2 emissions that are considered to be ‘unavoidable’. Over an initial 50-year period, 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be removed from the atmosphere via the restoration of peatlands and the planting of trees throughout Scotland: a significant pledge that will play a role in the university’s strategy to be net zero carbon by 2040.

Separately, the university intends to move toward low carbon technology, indicated by its building of a solar farm at the Easter Bush campus in 2020 – from which the energy produced is expected to match that needed to supply 500 typical homes for a year.

Regardless, senior university officials have encountered criticism in recent years for the institution’s involvement in funding the fossil fuel industry. Notably, in February 2021 Vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson confirmed that “the university has completed its divestment from fossil fuels”.

However, The University of Edinburgh’s July 2021 investment asset statement suggests this divestment does not apply to indirect
financial investment.

The university continues to hold over £39 million worth of assets in BlackRock, a financial services company that has established shares in companies that build coal power plants.

Whilst the university has indeed removed “direct and pooled investments in companies involved in the extraction and production of fossil fuels”, this continued indirect investment contradicts the broad policy pledge to divest.

A spokesperson for The University of Edinburgh' Social Responsibility and Sustainability department told The Student:

“As of February 2021, our direct and pooled investment in fossil fuels is zero”. They added, addressing concerns about the continued indirect investment in BlackRock, that “we continue to monitor the likelihood of indirect investment” – refusing to contradict official financial statements.

Students' view

A recent global survey found that around 60% of young people are worried or extremely worried about the climate crisis.

Speaking to The Student, Rosie Nankivell of Edinburgh’s People and Planet society highlighted the hopes and fears of students for COP26 and the role of The University of Edinburgh.

“There is not a huge amount of hope for the conference itself. Pledges, such as those made in Paris in 2015, don’t always result in action.”

People and Planet – which is the UK’s largest student network that campaigns for environmental justice – hopes that COP26 creates a “mass movement for climate justice, involving activists from all around the world in the same place at the same time”.

The society representative emphasised the importance for people to have an “emotional connection” with the need for radical climate policies.

“In the media we assume that it is on the politicians to make changes, but actually, it’s on everyone”. Asked about leaders taking carbon-consuming flights to Glasgow for COP26 rather than keeping negotiations virtual, Rosie believes it is key to get “representatives from every country around the table”, not only the most high-profile leaders from developed nations.

Asked to respond to university’s progress on climate policy, Rosie agreed that it was considered a “leader in sustainability”. However, in line with the most recent financial statement, the student group is concerned that the university is “heavily connected to the fossil fuel industry” – despite the termination of direct investment in the sector.

“I went to the careers fair last week – over half of the companies being promoted for careers in engineering were connected to fossil fuels in some way”. Rosie highlighted the disparity between such occurrences and the university’s goal to be carbon-zero by 2040.

Students from Edinburgh, including representatives from People and Planet, will be heading to Glasgow throughout COP26.

November 6th will see a major protest march, the goal of which is to “put pressure on representatives to achieve the right goals and build a movement of people who care about the planet”.

Image: COP26 logo, UK Government