‘It’s incredibly rainy’: Glasgow welcomes Cop26 activists amid waste crisis
Sense of chaos and trepidation, as well as excitement, permeates city ahead of opening of climate summit
It isn’t raining as Maria Azul flies into Glasgow airport from Buenos Aires, but there are so many clouds in the sky she knows it will pour down soon enough.
It is Azul’s first visit to the city, as part of a Cop26 delegation of frontline activists from Latin America and the Caribbean and she has been duly warned the late autumn weather is “incredibly windy and rainy”.
Her host, Irina Martin, from Bolivia but living in Scotland for more than 20 years, had told her over Zoom about warm and waterproof clothing she could loan to her.
Martin, who has opened her home in Giffnock, south-west of Glasgow, as part of the Cop26 Homestay Network, which pairs local hosts with visiting campaigners, scientists and non-governmental organisations struggling to find affordable accommodation during the summit.
Martin loves to cook and plans to make bolognese and Bolivian peanut soup.
“We had a budget, but the prices went up incredibly,” says Azul, who arrived on Thursday. “For a room that normally cost GBP40, they were asking GBP300 or GBP400. So we’re really thankful to our hosts but also disappointed that the presidency and organisers have allowed the market to rule and prices to skyrocket.”
The chronic accommodation shortage and price inflation in Glasgow has been well-documented – despite finding rooms for 1,360 visitors, there remain a further 3,000 on the waiting list. Earlier this week Airbnb banned one host from taking bookings during Cop26 after he attempted to bump up an agreed rental by nearly GBP1,500.
While Azul can now engage with more than 30,000 delegates from 196 countries within the UN-managed blue zone of the Scottish Events Campus, Tim Hewlett of Scientist Rebellion, a coalition of activist academics, will be far beyond the perimeter fencing. Hewlett is staying across the central belt in Edinburgh, having been “priced out of Glasgow”.
Staying in a different city “adds another layer of cost and complexity”, he says, especially as he is arriving with a detailed protest shopping list including 30 metres of chain, not the most portable of quantities. Hewlett believes non-violent civil disobedience is the only remaining option to draw attention to the extremity of the climate crisis, and Glasgow will be the focal point for protesters from Sunday onwards, with Extinction Rebellion planning “high impact disruption” and Greta Thunberg joining a school strike march next Friday.
At first minister’s questions on Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon asked those coming to the city to protest to do so peacefully, and not add to the disruption the people of Glasgow are already enduring. Public health experts have also raised concerns that protest gatherings pose a greater risk of Covid transmission than within the blue zone, with its strict testing requirements, although the main marches similarly advise mask wearing and advance tests.
Hewlett is adamant that while direct action “always wants to target those most responsible and bring onboard the people with most to lose”, the disruption caused by climate breakdown is “far in excess of anything protesters can do”.
In the meantime, he is relieved that he can catch the train to Glasgow after the RMT union called off paralysing industrial action following a last-minute pay deal on Wednesday night. With Scotrail now promising enhanced services of net zero electric trains between Glasgow and Edinburgh during the summit, earlier concerns that preparations were falling into chaos have receded to an extent – but not all disputes have been resolved.
On Friday morning, the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, met cleansing workers had been threatening to strike during the summit. Despite assurances from Glasgow’s SNP leadership that staff are working “round the clock” to ready the city, Sarwar condemned the Scottish government for “ignoring” the ongoing waste crisis, with reduced rubbish collections resulting in rat infestation and a surge in fly-tipping.
Later on Friday, it was announced the strike had been called off after the local authority umbrella body Cosla made a new pay offer to trade unions.
Meanwhile, criminal defence lawyers are threatening to boycott Scottish government plans to deal with the potential arrests of hundreds of protesters each day, amid a row over cuts to legal aid funding, with senior legal figures warning of overflowing cells.
Despite the city council’s Get Ready Glasgow campaign, the reality of extensive road closures around the summit venue, which started last weekend, has proved challenging. With the Clydeside expressway, one of the main arteries into the city centre, completely shut, traffic is already building up elsewhere, and the resulting diversion of cycle lanes has generated serious concern. Despite residents being advised to cycle rather than drive to avoid congestion, cyclists have reported the new routes as being poorly signed, chaotic and sometimes dangerous to use.
Then there are those whose enthusiasm is undented. Later on Thursday afternoon, and in direct contravention of the weather forecast, the clouds clear above the Cop26 campus, the sky resolves to a sharp blue and the sunlight dances on the River Clyde beneath the elegant Clyde Arc. At the nearby blue zone bus stop, Bob Alston is already directing visitors disembarking the dedicated summit service.
Alston, one of a thousand Glaswegian volunteers, says: “I’m retired and I thought: I can do that.” On his first shift he met a delegate from Turkmenistan: they are now Facebook friends.
As a handful of early arrivals stroll along the riverside, he admits it is hard to fathom how the city will look and feel with the anticipated tens of thousands of extra people. “It’s good that it’s happening here, my only hope is that something actually gets done.”