Shauna Sylvester: COP26 Day 3—beyond fences

There are a lot of cops in the streets at COP26 but there is also a great deal taking place inside the venues

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      By Shauna Sylvester

      Being in Glasgow has its advantages. Although I’m missing my walks in Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains, I’m exceeding my weekly step count!

      The site for COP-related events spans the city, and blockades lined with police in yellow vests can add a few extra kilometers (and time) to anyone’s commute. The international leaders are gone now and I’m hopeful that the residents of Glasgow won’t be as inconvenienced as they have been. 

      Still the sheer number of police is a little overwhelming. I’ve never seen a protest before that proceeded down the street completely framed by police—which made one sign particularly apt: “How Many COPs to Arrest Climate Chaos?”.

      We have been hosting daily briefings in what is called the Blue Zone at COP. The Blue Zone is where “accredited” delegates, observers and media go. Countries and international groups have open-style pavilions that host panel discussions, profile new innovations or simply provide a place for people to meet or watch the odd video.

      Further along the Giant Armadillo is where the negotiators and sub-working groups meet. This is the heart of the “formal negotiations” and close by is the media area, which is typically filled with journalists filing stories or just catching up on the latest new developments. There is also an Action Zone that includes a number of large tents and teepees where nonprofit organizations and Indigenous groups host events.

      To access all of these spaces, you need to have applied to the UN for accreditation. My colleague, a former diplomat, had the foresight to do that several years ago so that SFU could access these spaces now.

      But the Blue Zone is only one piece of the puzzle, and the real action takes place in other areas of the city—like the Green Zone, which is where many parallel civil society events are hosted. There are also events hosted by others like the New York Times, Bloomberg and the City of Glasgow, as well as regular protests and actions led by young people, cyclists, and artists that seem to pop up randomly across the city. 

      This morning, I was invited to have breakfast with mayors from around the world hosted by C40 Cities—a global network of large cities committed to climate action. It was held in an opulent banquet room of Glasgow’s City Hall, complete with frescos and gilded columns. It was a little surreal, especially when I think of the eating space at Burnaby City Hall—a stark cafeteria in the basement of the building.

      The session featured John Kerry, the U.S.’s first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, in dialogue with Norman Foster, a much beloved British modernist architect. As I listened to Kerry, I was struck by the positive picture he painted.

      He was excited about this COP—he said it had the most energy of any global climate conference he had ever attended and he was optimistic that it would deliver real action that would uphold the Paris Agreement. I wondered if he really believed that or if it was spin, targeted at a public that is growing cynical of empty climate pledges. 

      Foster was a little more circumspect. He talked about how cities historically have “bounced back better” following an emergency and suggested that COVID and climate change have shifted how we need to think about urban design by focusing more on health, livability, social connections, and resilience. 

      One of the highlights of this session was hearing from the mayor of Bogota, Claudia López, a small woman with a mighty voice whose closing comments actually lifted my spirits. She reported that 1,049 cities, representing 722 million people worldwide, had signed on to the Race to Zero.

      This includes 20 Canadian cities that have committed to being net-zero by 2050. Most of the signatories are trying to move faster than 2050 and reach their 50 percent reductions by 2030 with real action plans.  

      As I returned to the Blue Zone for meetings, I was struck again by the vans filled with police forces waiting at the ready. They were there, slightly hidden but closely watching the small protest that had gathered outside the fencing.

      As I slid past other police in yellow vests and young people with their arms outstretched with cameras, I saw a small Indigenous man with feathers circling his head talking about the deforestation of his lands. He gave an impassioned speech through a shaky translator.  

      His message of hope amid devastation struck me. If he can make the effort to come to COP, face burly officers in yellow vests and share his story, perhaps there really is hope. John Kerry thinks so...and to quote another older American male I saw in the hall today:

      “The more noise you make, the more accountability you demand from your leaders, the more our world will change for the better.” (Al Gore, former U.S. vice president)

      Shauna Sylvster is executive director of the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and lead convenor of Canadian Cities + COP26. She's writing a regular blog profiling some of the people, initiatives and ideas that she's seeing in Glasgow from November 1 to 12. With her SFU and other city colleagues she's cohosting a daily briefing at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time (this week) 10:30 a.m. (next week) by Zoom. You can find the link at