12 months after Glasgow hosted the COP26 climate change conference, a Scottish energy researcher and activist has issued a damning verdict on its legacy. 

Fraser Stewart, a Just Transitions Lead at non-profit centre of energy experts and research Regen, believes there has been a failure to build on the summit’s momentum, and attributes this in part to working class people not being brought into the conversation. For Stewart, who attended the conference’s Green Zone and spoke on panels, the climate crisis is inextricably linked to the cost-of-living crisis.

A passionate, eloquent and down-to-earth campaigner, Stewart is far more compelling than many of those charged with getting the message out there. With COP27 currently taking place in Egypt, he sees COP26 as something of a wasted opportunity. 

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Reflecting on last year’s conference, Stewart says: “It was supposed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. That’s the big number. We are well on course to exceed that by the end of the decade, by some distance as well. We’re going to miss that target, almost certainly, which is terrifying in terms of the impact on nature, but also we’re going to feel the impact here, especially in cities. We’ve already seen 40+ degrees, wildfires and flooding.

“It was meant to be this big opportunity to bring COP26 to Glasgow, a city with a rich working class history, a very, very diverse city, a city that prides itself on its green ambitions. It was meant to be the COP that mobilised folk who aren’t usually included in the climate change conversation, such as working-class communities in places like Glasgow. 

The Herald: Protesters move through the restricted Blue Zone area of the COP26 climate summit in GlasgowProtesters move through the restricted Blue Zone area of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow (Image: PA Images)

“We effectively shunned all of those people, pushed them to the outskirts of the city, told them they would have to wait forever if they wanted to get a bus or train or take the car anywhere, while giving delegates free public transport

“Glasgow City Council, the Scottish government and the UK all have some proportion of responsibility here. All the way through, they talked about the ‘COP legacy in Glasgow’. And they just didn’t do what they had to do to really develop that and bring the whole city along, and even bring Scotland and the UK along in that conversation. 

“That’s a big part of why - unless you’re working in media, politics or climate - you might not know that COP27 is happening right now."

Groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil are dismissed by some as middle class activists disrupting the lives of ordinary people trying to get to their workplaces. It is clear that Stewart is frustrated by a failure to bring working class people into the climate conversation, and he is adamant that the topic is not only of concern to the chattering classes. 

"People can understand the energy crisis", he insists. "They’re not daft. People understand that the reason our energy bills shot up, and that people are being forced into fuel poverty and wider poverty, is because of the international price of gas, and it’s because we rely on gas so much for our energy. 

“There’s an understanding that if we have more renewables, which are cheaper, our energy crisis comes down. The thing driving the climate crisis is the same thing driving the cost-of-living crisis and the energy crisis as well, and that’s not a middle class problem, it’s an everyone problem, but especially low-income, working class, typical disadvantaged groups in society, feeling the sharpest end of that. 

“That is maybe the watershed moment for us in terms of the understanding, not because of the movement, but in terms of the wider public understanding that, actually, climate and social issues aren’t separate. Climate and social justice issues are fundamentally inseparable. There’s a much greater understanding of that, an understanding of the opportunity of transitioning away from fossil fuels, onto renewable energy and into more efficient housing. 

“You wouldn’t want it to happen because of a crisis like energy and cost-of-living, but that’s driven this wider consciousness of how these things pull together, because folk have had to figure out how these things pull together." 

The Herald: Climate activists protesting in fake blood during the official final day of the COP26 summit in GlasgowClimate activists protesting in fake blood during the official final day of the COP26 summit in Glasgow (Image: PA Images)

Stewart’s activism has been shaped by his childhood growing up in various Forfar housing schemes. Those working class roots are fundamental to his outlook, and the manner in which he approaches the climate issue.

“Everything that I do is informed by ‘could I say this in a flat-roofed pub in Dundee?’”, he explains. “ If I can’t say it in a social club or at a Sunday League match on the sidelines, then it’s not something that matters to me. 

“If you want to break the middle class perception of climate - because it’s not a middle class issue, it’s an everyone issue, and especially those already on the margins - if you want to break that image you have to include those people in the conversation, and you have to think about how you transition away from fossil fuels to net zero in a way that’s fair and that brings everyone along for the ride. 

‘While the climate crisis is objectively the biggest problem that we currently collectively face on the planet, the social justice crisis that we face - cost-of-living, energy - here and around the world, is very much on par with it. 

“Everything that we have to do to combat the climate crisis is an opportunity to also combat poverty, to combat inequality. We need to get off gas. We can build cheap renewables that provide cheap electricity for people. We need to make houses more efficient, because that will reduce emissions, but that also reduces bills and improves health and wellbeing. 

“As you’re building a new, expansive public transport system, you can try to encourage people to leave the car at home, and reduce emissions that way. Also, you can connect communities that have been excluded or disconnected to new jobs, to new leisure opportunities, to each other as well, to build something else entirely. 

“The working class community that I come from is often thought of as not the type of people that tend to have the climate conversation, but if you look at any opinion polling from any organisation in the last 12 to 24 months, the vast majority - we’re talking over three quarters of people - in any community and any socio-economic background, is in favour of climate action. 

“They’re worried about the climate crisis, they’re thinking about it, it’s on the agenda. 

“In the media, generally, it’s ‘drive a car or glue yourself to the road and there’s no in-between’. Actually, there’s common ground across every different nook and cranny in society where most people are talking and thinking about this in some way.

“If you’re an activist like Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil, and someone who gives a s***, you have to be thinking about how you mobilise that, and how you bring those communities and harness that interest to build the big coalition that you need to ultimately make the changes happen."

Stewart does point to some positives from COP26, saying: “We hadn’t really talked about fossil fuels in any of the agreements of the previous 25 COPs. 

“The Glasgow Climate Pact is the first time we’ve really recognised that and started talking about reducing our use of fossil fuels rather than just passively reducing emissions. That’s a positive thing. 

“We also got ‘loss and damage’ onto the agenda, which is essentially wealthier countries paying for damage already caused by wealthier country emissions, whether that’s deforestation, flooding or wildfires. It’s wealthier countries trying to support the countries on the frontline of the climate crisis to rebuild their industries and communities and ecosystems. 

“We’ve actually seen the legacy of that this year. At COP27, that's the big thing right at the forefront of the agenda. Admittedly, that’s because a lot of the countries that made commitments to pay for the damage already done haven’t been meeting their commitments, but they have been paying more than they did previously, and made quite significant commitments to do so going forward. 

“It did achieve a couple of things. Where it fell flat was on everything else."

The Herald: COP26 President Alok Sharma gives a speech during the summit in Glasgow.COP26 President Alok Sharma gives a speech during the summit in Glasgow. (Image: PA)

So, what would Stewart like COP27’s legacy to be?

“We didn’t do enough to capitalise on the momentum of COP26. For COP27, I would like us to really, as far as we can, bump up the agenda the current energy promises, and make sure that we’re tying that to the social justice side of things as well. 

“The energy crisis is being driven by fossil fuels, the climate crisis is being driven by fossil fuels, and the way to bring people into that conversation is to highlight how these things connect and to do what we can to bring those things together as we try to drive solutions to the climate crisis, so that we’re not just going ‘let’s get to renewables as quick as we can’, but let’s get to renewables in a fair way and a just way, and a way that - as far as we possibly can - brings everyone into the fold as well. 

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“I would like this to be the COP where we fundamentally and definitively marry the climate and social justice together, because for me they’ve never been more obvious. 

“People everywhere do give a s*** about it, it’s just figuring out how best to harness that and to make sure that those voices get time and place in the conversation as they should. 

“It’s a huge opportunity, not just a once-in-a-generation but once-in-history opportunity I would argue, a formative moment in human history, to not just tackle climate head on, but to do so in a way that really transforms society into something cleaner but fairer and more prosperous as well."