"Our city was hosting the most important conversation to take place this century”

Kathleen Warden
, director of conference sales at the Scottish Event Campus, in Glasgow, looks back on COP26 and the impact it had on the city.

Glasgow stands as one of the pillars upon which an industrial revolution was built.

For decades the city was Britain’s bustling engine room, a place of industry and invention. This is where the steam engine was invented in 1775 and where a steady line of ships and locomotives flowed from yards on the River Clyde.

It is fitting now, some two centuries on, that the city has found its place at the centre of the green revolution.

The Scottish Event Campus on the banks of the river was the host venue for COP26, or Conference of the Parties, the international gathering recognised as our most vital chance to address climate change and the environmental issues which are so dramatically altering the world around us.

Running for two weeks, the conference brought more than 40,000 experts, world leaders, politicians, high level officials, non-governmental organisations, and charities to our venue. The delegates ranged from American president, Joe Biden, to climate activist, Greta Thunberg and entrepreneur and philanthropist, Bill Gates, with the profile of the guests and scale of the event further emphasising its importance.

The sheer volume of numbers gives a sense of the challenges we faced at the SEC and the scale of the planning required for COP26, which also took place against the backdrop of a pandemic.

As the event approached, after a year-long Covid-19 enforced delay, it was clear that our venue, city, and country was hosting one of the most important conversations to take place this century.

To give you an idea of the scale of the project on the ground, the Scottish Event Campus trebled in size, with the build starting nine weeks prior to the event. We watched as the site grew dramatically and temporary structures, which naturally held heat and were designed with a low carbon footprint, fanned out around the campus.

The SEC was one cog in a multi-organisation delivery process, led by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and a COP Unit, based within the Cabinet Office. This was supported by the production company, Identity, our team at the SEC and a range of other partners.

We were involved in a variety of discussions on a diverse range of issues, from the mechanics of the site build, to ensuring the conference was a carbon neutral event - one which had sustainability at its core.

This was achieved with COP26 the first Conference of the Parties to obtain PAS 2060 validation – the international standard on carbon neutrality.

We were also closely involved in event security, both cyber and physical, and were acutely aware of how even an innocent release of information could have compromised the event and safety of the delegates. Security across all fronts was a top priority.

Understandably the pandemic cast a long shadow, with the conference one of the largest global gatherings since it first began in 2019. Onsite testing facilities helped ensure a safe environment, as did a broad range of other safety measures. Covid-19 also presented other considerable challenges, for example in sourcing materials and securing and retaining staff.

One week before the opening ceremony, the UK Government took full venue occupancy ahead of the first delegates arriving two days later for the pre-sessionals. Then on October 29 the venue and surrounding footprint literally became UN sovereign territory ahead of the World Leaders Summit on November 1 and 2. This corner of Scotland truly became the world’s stage.

These moving parts, and all the challenges we faced, were only handled thanks to the strength of the relationships we built from the outset. We were determined to overcome obstacles together and shared a collective responsibility. Event delivery was achieved thanks to a masterclass in low-ego, high-performance team play and trust.

Over the course of the event and in the months that have followed, we have continued to see tangible evidence of the impact of COP26.

It has left an environmental legacy and shaped thinking, not only here at the SEC, but across Glasgow, where we have seen businesses, organisations and government re-evaluate their environmental targets.

Aside from a lasting green legacy, COP26 showed the power of face-to-face meetings as a vehicle for change. In what was a true gathering of people and cultures, voices were heard, relationships built, and problems addressed. After two years of social distancing, video calls and online meetings, COP26 answered many questions about the value of in-person events and stands as the ultimate example of a business event driving change.

Preliminary findings on the impact of COP26 on COVID-19 infections in Scotland also indicate that cases at the summit were at a significantly lower level than in the Scottish population. This only heightens confidence that in-person events can be delivered safely.

On a personal level, the experience we have gained at the SEC is immeasurable. We have strengthened existing skillsets and acquired important new ones that will shape our approach, our thinking and the events we host here.

The impact of COP26 will resonate for decades to come. The agreements sealed in the Glasgow Climate Pact, at our venue on the banks of the Clyde, in what was once an industrial heartland, will shape our future.

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