Welcome to Cop26 – ‘it’s a bit like a circus’ but with a ‘corporate feeling’

‘The negotiation is a competition about what your country needs, and everyone is selling how good they are at saving the world’

It's Tuesday at the delegate pavilions of Cop26. At the Co-creative Reflection and Dialogue Space, facilitator Marika Virah-Sawmy is in deep conversation with Luciano Frontelle from Plant for the Planet.

With 30,000 people rushing around to negotiations and talks, it’s easy to be overwhelmed, but they’re both thoughtful and calm.

They’re talking about their Cop experiences over the years. Frontelle now perceives a problematic atmosphere of busy attention-seeking and competition. “If you don’t really listen to people you cannot understand where they’re coming from… You can see the scientific papers but you cannot really understand it.”

Virah-Sawmy and her organisation, the Institute of Advance Sustainability Studies, are exploring “a different Cop culture”, one that’s more open-minded and open-hearted.


“Coming back to this space it feels like a competition…The negotiation is a competition about what your country needs and everyone is selling how good they are at saving the world. But we know we’re not doing it well enough. We’re in a serious crisis and yet there’s this corporate feeling here…

“What I love about Greta [Thunberg] is she was the first person who said, ‘this scientific information is breaking me down’. Yet here there are these people with the scientific information and they continue as usual. There is huge cognitive dissonance.”

Small farmers

We’re joined by Kodjo Ossah, who comes from a village called Notse in Togo. He shows me it on his phone. He co-founded a sustainable development organisation called Ojedd International which helps small farmers mitigate the effects of climate change. Some 60 per cent of Togolese people are small farmers, “We try to help them understand what they are living through.”

For the people in his village climate change is not an abstract thing. They suffer drought and flooding.

“It’s very difficult to be seated with relatives and hear them crying, facing the impact... At same moment rich industrialised countries are trying now to modify the IPCC report because they want to pollute more.

“Countries like Argentina and Australia, they tried to modify the IPCC report to their advantage [as recently revealed in a leaked report]... For young Africans it makes us very protective. I don’t have strength to beat them but I’m trying with my ideas, my projects and my voice.”

Around the corner Angus Taylor, the Australian minister for energy and emission reduction, is outlining their climate commitments to a flurry of cameras. “We will achieve net zero the Australian Way,” declares the screen he’s standing beside.

At the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) pavilion the Honduran prime minister is signing a partnership agreement. Amath Pathe Sene of IFAD has just flown from Cote d’Ivoire and is a bit tired. The rural farmers he works with are already dealing with climate change, living in countries that bear no historic responsibility for climate change.

He talks about regions he visits where the rainy season as shifted or where the crops they’ve planted for years no longer grow. So what happens?

“If you don’t have resources you will be either joining some terrorist group or trying to take a boat into Europe because you cannot cope. We witness it… The Paris Agreement in 2015 said if we want to reverse the trend of global warming we need to invest in adaptation and mitigation [in poorer countries]. The amount was estimated at $100 billion per year. We are far away from those promises.”

Kaingang people

Kretã Kaingang from the Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil is wearing the feathered headdress worn by leaders of the Kaingang people. He is, when we meet, “trying to understand the new deforestation agreement [in which Cop26 leaders agreed to end deforestation by 2030]. And trying to understand how this financing is going to work because none of the indigenous peoples’ leadership organisations were consulted,” he says.

“The Brazilian government endorses every agreement, but it doesn’t apply it... It doesn’t matter having a new goal if past ones were not reached.”

I look at his ID card and write down the name printed there. He gently takes my notebook and crosses out those words and says another name. “[In the past] they were forbidden from registering indigenous names,” explains his translator. “That is not his real name. It’s not how he recognises himself.”

A crowd gathers around a door at the UN climate change pavilion. “Leonardo Di Caprio is in there,” says a man called Frank Helbig.

I think he’s joking so ask about Helbig’s business. It’s called My Climate and it helps individuals and companies reduce their carbon footprints. Suddenly Leonardo DiCaprio appears.

“He’s a climate change ambassador,” explains Helbig. He laughs. “The one who once flew around the world to have two New Year’s celebrations in one night.”

DiCaprio rushes by us in a huddle of security and a throng of photographers chase after him.

“It’s a bit like a circus,” says Helbig.