ITA. 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 (COP26)

Executive Summary   
  • COP26 retains a singular importance to environmentalist groups across the planet, with movements such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), Fridays for Future (FFF) and Greenpeace viewing it as a make-or-break opportunity to mitigate the effects of climate change. Given the summit's importance, mass protests and disruptive activities are planned to take place across not just Glasgow but cities across the UK and Europe.
  • Activist tactics are likely to remain non-violent, with protesting, blockades, "die-ins", and general civil disobedience the most likely forms of disruption. Blockades at major intersections will likely generate the most significant knock-on disruption to Glaswegian businesses, particularly following the success of Insulate Britain's blockading of the M25 in London.
  • Government delegations will remain the primary targets for environmentalist protests during the summit, but the private sector will also remain at elevated risk of targeted direct action for the duration. These will include not only traditional heavy polluting industries, but also the financial, defence, construction, hospitality and offshore sectors, among others.
  • COP26 is likely to witness a highwater mark for environmental activism in the UK. However, if the summit is perceived to have been a failure by groups such as XR, there will be a marked risk of an escalation in activist tactics moving forward, with activists potentially seeking new ways to cause even more disruption in a bid to change government and corporate climate policies in 2022.
  • Terrorism remains a prominent threat across the UK, but Glasgow is generally at lower risk of a successful mass-casualty attack than other British cities. While significant security presence at the event will mitigate the risk of a would-be attacker successfully targeting COP26, the event's prominence as a major international event and the presence of world and business leaders from across the world mean it is conceivably a target for extremists.
  • Lastly, crime rates in Glasgow are high by UK standards, with violent crime rates well above the UK average. Organised crime groups (OCGs) remain active in Glasgow, with inter-gang violence an enduring risk in outlying areas. Strong police presence across Glasgow will mitigate the risk of violent and petty crime impacting visitors and businesses, but pickpocketing and theft around major transport hubs will remain key risks for attendees and bystanders.
Location Overview

A map showing central Glasgow and likely areas of disruption and points of interest during the summit. To access the fully interactive map that details numerous activist threats across Glasgow and the wider UK, click here.

COP 1
Timeline 

The timeline below highlights key events to note in the lead-up to and during COP26. However, this timeline should not be considered comprehensive as activist groups have not announced the majority of their actions and protests in order to minimise the chances of police and security shutting them down.

COP 2
Introduction

The United Nations' Climate Change Conference (COP26) will take place on 31 October - 12 November 2021 at the SEC Centre in Glasgow, United Kingdom.

Political Context

Following Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021, the ruling social democratic Scottish National Party (SNP) won its fourth consecutive term. While the party retains significant support, mitigating the risks to government stability in the near term, the SNP lost its majority in the election, forcing it enter into a cooperation agreement with the Scottish Green Party, which will likely heighten policy risks to carbon-intensive industries.

Scottish independence continues to dominate the domestic political agenda and thus is an enduring source of policy risk and political tension in Scotland, as the issue continues to strain relations between Holyrood and Westminster. However, it is highly unlikely to have any substantial impact on the domestic political and security situation in Scotland in the short term. Relations between the UK Conservative government of Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon's SNP are volatile, with the former's refusal to grant another referendum on independence souring relations in particular. Most recently, dissatisfaction with London increased in Scotland following a hike in National Insurance tax and cuts to universal credit, feeding anti-government sentiment which sustains the risk of protests in major Scottish cities, including Glasgow.

The issue of stationing the United Kingdom's nuclear weapons in Scotland also remains a significant source of friction as the SNP strongly supports nuclear disarmament and opposes the stationing of British nuclear weapons in Scotland. The Scottish government's stance feeds into wider anti-war sentiment in Scotland, where activists are increasingly targeting various sectors thought to be affiliated with or investing in the defence industry.

Security Environment

Sectarian tensions between Protestants and Catholics and Unionists and pro-independence groups have been historically high in Scotland, particularly in Glasgow. Frequent large-scale demonstrations, parades and processions take place, usually attracting 5,000-15,000 people. Such demonstrations often turn violent, requiring continued and enhanced police presence. However, it is unlikely that such parades would be approved during COP26 as they would severely disrupt travel and public transportation in the city.

Climate, anti-war and independence related activists are also particularly active in Scotland, with demonstrations taking place across Glasgow frequently. Robust police presence in the city during COP26 will likely mitigate the scale of disruption caused by large-scale demonstrations, though sporadic incidents and stunts are expected to occur throughout the week of the conference.

The national Terrorism Threat Level in the United Kingdom is "Substantial", meaning that attacks are likely, but the threat of extremism and terrorism is generally lower in Scotland, including in Glasgow, in comparison to other areas of the UK, most notably London. Nevertheless, the presence of politicians and delegates at such a high-profile world summit will likely remain a tempting target for extremist actors. While this underlines the enduring risk of an attack, robust counter-terrorism capabilities and police presence will likely mitigate the risk of a successful attack to a significant extent. Common and organised crime remain higher in Scotland than in the United Kingdom in general, however, with drug use and gang violence a particular issue in Glasgow.

Key Stakeholder Security Assessment

Staff

Key Risk: Environmental activism

COP26 retains a singular importance to environmentalist groups across Europe, with Extinction Rebellion (XR), Fridays for Future (FFF) and Greenpeace all seeing it as a make-or-break summit of existential significance. XR promotional material on COP26 is nevertheless already anticipating the failure of the event, with general pessimism towards the process likely to fuel activist activity. As a result, significant turnout and disruptive activity is expected across Glasgow and the wider UK for the duration of the summit.

Activist tactics are likely to remain non-violent, with protesting, blockades, "die-ins", and general civil disobedience the most likely forms of disruption. However, traditional road blockades and occupations will likely cause the most general disruption to Glasgow during the summit. Large groups and individual activists alike will sit on major roads and intersections, with the use of large objects, including boats or cars, also likely to be used to block traffic. While strong police presences will likely prevent some protests from successfully materialising, the use of "lock-on" devices and glue could prolong disruption as police try to safely remove activists, which often takes hours. The specific tactics of these groups and their likely tactical impact are assessed in detail throughout this report, including targeted direct action.

General protesting and mass marches will furthermore remain key causes of knock-on disruption to road traffic across the city. The Global Day of Action protest on 6 November will see the largest activist turnout and likely prove the most disruptive march during COP26. Activists will gather in Kelvingrove Park at 12:30 (local time) before marching through the city centre, stopping at George Square, before ending in front of the People's Palace on Glasgow Green. For the full procession route, see the interactive map.

Ultimately, however, the COP26 summit itself will likely determine the trajectory of environmental activism in 2022 and beyond, with the potential failure - or perceived failure - of the summit likely to prove a major trigger point for activist escalation. If global leaders fail to reach a consensus on combatting climate change at the summit, environmentalist groups are likely to re-evaluate their tactics and could push for more radical options.

If the summit is perceived to have failed, the decentralised nature of groups like XR will mean there will be an elevated risk of radical elements on the fringes of the organisation escalating beyond established civil disobedience tactics. We have already seen mainstream XR members use hammers to smash windows of London banks earlier this year, and so precedents already exist to indicate potential for more destructive direct actions in the future. As a result, growing activist exasperation at government and corporate failures to act will carry with it an increased risk of radicalisation, though if COP26 results in an ambitious climate strategy this risk will be significantly mitigated. Ultimately, however, many activists will consider any outcome of COP26 as not going far enough, thus sustaining the risk of escalation beyond the summit.

Potential targets

Numerous delegations, organisations and sectors will remain at particular risk of environmentalist activism for the duration of COP26. Oil and gas, heavy industry and the financial sector will naturally remain the most prominent targets of groups like XR and Greenpeace, but the high-profile nature of the event will mean high activist turnout in Glasgow will sustain the risk of a larger range of sectors being directly or indirectly impacted by activist activity.

  • High-ranking politicians from G7 countries will remain most at risk of targeted activism, given the fact that most XR and FFF activists will be from those countries, or be most familiar with their climate policies. As such, any indication that controversial or influential politicians are staying at a given hotel could trigger protests outside, or potentially more disruptive stunts. These could include activists trying to enter hotels to reach prominent guests in their rooms or in hotel communal areas. Indeed, pro-Palestinian anti-war activists recently did so at a hotel in Liverpool in order reach exhibitors ahead of the AOC Europe 2021 defence expo in October. As was the case in Liverpool, activists may book into a hotel as genuine guests before trying to cause disruption or target prominent exhibitors.
  • XR promotional material in the run up to COP26 has placed an emphasis on greenwashing, indicating the likelihood of the group targeting high-profile corporations accused of "greenwashing". Beyond the traditional fossil fuel industry, which will continue to be the primary targets of XR, Greenpeace and FFF, the financial sector is the most at risk in this respect. The ubiquity of bank branches on Glaswegian highstreets will provide ample opportunities for "Money Rebellion" to stage targeted direct actions, stunts and protests. Indeed, the recently opened Barclay's Campus Tradeston is likely to attract activist attention and opposition south of the Clyde, while XR have also planned a Money Rebellion march in London after the close of COP26 on 13 November.
  • The Scottish oil and offshore industries will also remain at elevated risk following XR's protest at an oil rig facility on the Cromarty Firth on 6 October. In addition, XR Norway's success at temporarily halting oil exports at Equinor's Sture export terminal during their August "Nordic Rebellion" underlines the likelihood of similar stunts and attempted rig occupations occurring during COP26 on the east coast of Scotland and across British waters.
  • Greenpeace will also likely attempt more sophisticated direct action against offshore assets in the North Sea. On 11 October they staged a protest in Downing Street to oppose new oil fields, in particular the Cambo field west of Shetland. As a result, companies involved in oil exploration will be at elevated risk of targeted direct action during the summit, which could involve dangerous attempts to physically disrupt oil operations. However, activists could also seek to target third-party firms and offices that they perceive to be connected to the oil industry, including insurers.
  • The recent spike in energy prices has compounded the risk of energy firms being targeted during COP26, as XR and other groups are likely to attempt to leverage growing consumer anger to attract wider public support and engagement during COP26. While Insulate Britain remain most likely to conduct indiscriminate road blockades over the issue, there remains a moderate risk that the group will target specific energy suppliers and housing developers in and around Glasgow and London...

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