IT ALMOST didn’t happen. Last Friday’s heavy rain and floods in northern England threatened to cancel my ‘slow travel’ plans to attend the beginning of the United Nations Climate Conference, aka COP26.
On Sunday, that threat became a reality for thousands of travellers as stormy weather led to trees blocking the train-lines to Scotland. It’s the new normal: extreme weather events disrupting our lives.
Thankfully, a pocket of clear weather on Saturday allowed me to travel from Brussels to Glasgow on the ‘Rail to the COP’ train, an initiative sponsored by Youth for Sustainable Travel, a European non-profit organisation.
The first part of my climate train journey kicked off in the morning from Brussels South Station, a short stroll from my apartment.
It is a well-trodden journey for me, as I take the slow travel option by rail and ferry for a third of my travelling between Dublin and Brussels. The gas emissions saved by travelling this way is tremendous: train and ferry generates one tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions of an airline flight.
The trip also gives me time to think, avoid the crowded security queues in airports, and in this instance, enjoy great conversations with climate activists, campaigners and negotiators.
In this time-poor culture we live in, slower travel is also a luxury that few can afford. I hope the proposals for us to move to four-day working weeks can become a reality and make slow travel options more widely available.
Our train pulled out of the station and was quickly travelling at 300 km/h towards the Channel Tunnel. Several of the carriages featured climate-themed discussions, ranging from a just transition to fair taxes to climate finance.
I got chatting to Jacques Damas, CEO of Eurostar. They have exciting new routes in the works but, like many businesses here in Ireland, have experienced tough trading conditions due to the pandemic.
I also spoke with European Commission officials who are working to invest in train-line improvements, as well as simplify the red tape of European rail travel.
Our conversations prompted me to think about the travel options from Ireland to England. With planning in advance, a ‘SailRail’ ticket from anywhere in Ireland to anywhere in the UK can be bought for less than €90.
Why, then, can Ryanair offer last-minute €5 flights? Easy, they do not pay tax on their aviation fuel. Meanwhile, train companies must pay tax on the electricity or fuel they use. Clearly fairer fares are needed.
I am trying to change that at a European level. However, the airline lobby has influence, which they exploit to postpone this inevitable change. Not only is the difference in tax creating an unfair playing field, which stifles competitiveness, it is unethical. We cannot continue to pass along the true cost of aviation to our children in the form of a warming planet, disrupted lives, and tragic loss of loss.
As we approached the Eurotunnel, I was invited into the driver’s cab for the journey through the 50-km-long tunnel, which is 75 metres under the seabed of the English Channel. My five-year-old self would have been pleased! The crew were from France, Belgium, and the UK – a perfect example of European co-operation.
At lunchtime, we pulled into St Pancras Station and were met by a brass band as well as Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Hands. I caught up with Labour MP Emily Thornberry, and chatted to Zamzam Ibrahim, a student union leader who I had last met just before lockdown in March 2020.
Our Climate Train group then walked from St Pancras to Euston Station. The Climate Train organisers took us along the 1km ‘Wellness Walk’, launched in 2015, which avoids the elevated levels of traffic and pollution on the Euston Road. As someone with asthma, it was a reminder that how I travel can improve air quality, alongside my own health.
As we boarded the train from London to Glasgow, I exchanged glances with a small familiar figure also stepping on-board. It was Greta Thunberg. “Ain’t she something,” said the ticket-checker beside me. I nodded in agreement.
Greta is a climate leader who has done more to raise our collective awareness of the climate crisis than any politician.
I struck up a conversation with climate campaigners, working for Friends of the Earth. In May this year, they won their legal case against fossil fuel giant Shell. The court ruled that Shell must reduce their emissions by 45pc in the next decade. Shell is appealing against the judgment.
As the evening sun was falling, with the hills of the Lake District flashing past our train window, a young Hungarian environmentalist described to me how her Budapest university was effectively shut down by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. As the impact of the climate crisis on human lives and livelihoods crystallises, many nations are predicted to flirt with electing right-wing leaders like Orban.
America has done it already. Right-wing leaders lure their voters in with promises of a “return of the good old days”; a seduction by nostalgia.
As Christiana Figueres, the UN’s Lead Negotiator for the Paris Climate Agreement said, we must collectively ignore this pull of nostalgia, and focus on where we are going, rather than where we have been.
In the early evening, our train rumbled over the River Clyde and pulled into our final destination. The Mayor of Glasgow stepped forward to greet Greta. However, she had already slipped out a side door, protected from the media by her young travelling companions.
Ahead of us lay two weeks of negotiating, lobbying, and haggling over decisions that will have real-world impact on possibilities for ourselves, for Greta and for other young people of her generation.
That evening I attended a concert in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, where singer Patti Smith was joined on stage by young climate activists from Uganda.
Will COP26 keep the dream alive of limiting temperature increases to less than 1.5 degrees? Who knows, but as Patti Smith sang, people have the power.
Ciaran Cuffe is an Irish MEP and a member of the Green Party.