COP26: elitist summit leaves us far from climate justice
COP26 went ahead in November with little space for civil society. States and the private sector delivered an array of non-binding and voluntary agreements that promised much in the headlines but offered little in the details. The watering down of the final agreement showed the continuing influence of the fossil fuel industry and the inadequacy of climate financing for global south countries. Plans for emissions cuts did not get close to keeping global warming to the 1.5-degree rise promised by the Paris Agreement. However, a commitment to develop stronger plans by COP27 opens the door for a year of civil society pressure for pledges that come closer to matching the scale of the crisis.
‘Phase down’ is a strange phrase, rarely used, as compared to ‘phase out’. But that’s what the outcome document of the COP26 climate change summit ended up saying. A last-minute intervention by India’s delegation, backed by China, watered down what had almost been a commitment to phase out the use of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.
For many in civil society, this late dilution of what should have been a landmark commitment epitomised a summit that fell far short of the ambition needed to respond to the climate crisis. COP26, hosted in Glasgow, UK, was characterised by a barrage of headline-grabbing announcements that sounded good but disappointed in the details, and the broad exclusion of voices that should have been heard the most: the communities on the frontlines of climate impacts and the groups leading the fight for climate justice.
TOWARDS COP26: CIVIL SOCIETY VOICES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
An exclusive and elite gathering
The UK government had promised this would be the ‘most inclusive COP ever’. But this hype belied a reality of exclusion. Even before the summit began, it was clear that many would be deterred from attending by the UK’s ever-changing COVID-19 rules, lack of access to vaccines, an incredibly strict visa regime driven by the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ policy towards migrants and the sheer cost of travel and accommodation.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINES
During COP26, spaces for effective civil society participation were limited due to several factors, mainly those related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of security measures to contain the spread of the virus, civil society representatives were prevented from travelling to the UK due to long visa waiting times, mandatory quarantine times and high accommodation costs. In addition, those members of civil society who were able to attend COP26 were prevented from entering certain strategic advocacy spaces, such as the plenary rooms. Such restrictions were unprecedented and created discontent among several civil society representatives, who saw their right to effective participation violated.
Juan Auz, co-founder, Terra Mater, Ecuador
At the furthest points of the globe from Glasgow, the Pacific Islands, these were near impossible obstacles, not just for civil society but also for multiple government delegations. These are the delegations that normally push for the most ambitious commitments. Their absence meant that the voices of the people in the parts of world most affected by climate change, from countries whose very existence is at stake, would go unheard.
The UK government committed to providing vaccinations and covering the costs of those forced to quarantine on arrival, but that only applied to government delegations. For civil society, extra COVID-19 costs were a significant additional barrier. The great global vaccine inequality patterned onto climate inequality: the countries where people have most been denied access to vaccines are also the least able to handle climate change; wealthy countries that have hoarded vaccines have the most resources to cushion their citizens from the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
When the meetings began, many were still stuck outside the venue, with long queues forming at the single entrance. Israel’s energy minister, a wheelchair user, was not able to get in. People who had persevered in getting to Glasgow in the face of great costs and inconvenience were told to watch events online – although many also struggled to get the online platform to work.
By now, you've probably heard about the lines, access and representation issues at #COP26. But it's been a really awkward, strange day, so I want to lay everything out here, because if you've wondered if #COP26 is okay, I'm gonna show you that no, #COP26 is really not okay/1— Alexandria Villaseñor (@AlexandriaV2005) November 3, 2021
Even when people were able to get into the building, civil society wasn’t allowed into the key rooms. On pandemic grounds, numbers were limited. Civil society was locked out of negotiation rooms and unable to access plenary sessions, even when these were poorly attended by state representatives. As with United Nations meetings in New York, it seems that when seats are limited, it’s always civil society that misses the cut. Even groups formally recognised as part of the COP process complained about exclusion.
There were reports that young climate campaigners were being removed from events, with Black and other ethnic minority activists being singled out, suggesting racial profiling was at play. Civil society understands the climate crisis to be a social justice issue, connecting to multiple forms of inequality and exclusion. It seems the meeting organisers didn’t share this view – and didn’t want to hear about it.
In violent contrast to civil society’s exclusion, COP26 was awash with fossil fuel delegates, busily engaged in promoting greenwashing and doing their best to lobby for the fewest possible limits on their lethal business. Research by Global Witness revealed there were 503 fossil fuel delegates at COP26, far bigger than any government delegation. Fossil fuel representatives were part of 27 country delegations, including from China and Russia. Here was the source of the problem intimately involved in a summit supposed to address the harm they are doing.
This cosy relationship was in contrast to the experience of civil society in many countries: far from being invited onto government delegations, they are targeted by states. Around the world, climate protests are being criminalised and environmental rights defenders are being subjected to violence.
These were more than mere logistical issues. Who is in the room matters. An elitist summit, with an overrepresentation of middle-aged white men from wealthy countries, is hardly likely to make decisions that challenge environmental, racial, gender and social injustice and prioritise the wellbeing of future generations.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINES
I think it was a direct example of how excluding and elitist these forums actually are. We saw very little meaningful inclusion of the interest groups with direct stakes. With this I mean that they were not as much part of the roundtable negotiations. We have for the 26th time seen how our system needs transformative systemic change, and not only quick technical solutions such as those proposed. In times like these it is so important that we organise, and connect even more than ever on an individual, interpersonal, organisational level as well with our ecological systems. It means that we need to rethink and open up for knowledge types not convened before.
Jessica Dercontée, co-organiser, Collective Against Environmental Racism, Denmark
Engaging in the face of official indifference
Much of the civil society that tried to influence COP26 shared a common sentiment: not believing the meeting could result in the change required, but feeling it necessary to try to influence it regardless, because the scope of the crisis compels them to try everything. Despite the barriers, civil society tried both to engage and offer alternatives.
The COP26 Coalition of civil society groups came together to convene the People’s Summit for Climate Justice, representing people and ideas that were largely excluded from COP26. Indigenous peoples, youth groups, migrants’ rights groups and trade unions were among those participating, offering radical solutions that cut through the intentional sophistry that can surround concepts like net zero, critiquing the economic systems that fuel inequality and value extraction over conservation.
🧵THREAD: Since #COP26 began, everything we posted came from an extraordinary collaborative coverage effort, facilitated BY @midianinja. This video is a testament to how powerful we are when we work together to tell stories that corporate media often deliberately overlooks📷✍️✊ pic.twitter.com/pvcuRh3OAA— COP26 Coalition (@COP26_Coalition) November 16, 2021
Representatives from over 500 parents’ groups worked together to present a demand to end fossil fuel financing and the air pollution that harms children; they then joined 10,000 people protesting on the day dubbed Youth and Public Empowerment Day. When COP26’s day dedicated to transport focused almost exclusively on electric cars, pretended aviation isn’t an issue and ignored public transport and cycling, protesters rung cycle bells. On COP26’s final day, hundreds of people from civil society walked out, carrying red ribbons to signal the red lines the negotiations had crossed.
Global Day for Climate Justice, 6 November, saw climate justice protests held on every continent. In Glasgow, up to 100,000 people marched, led by an Indigenous group from Canada.
Protests were not always safe spaces. Twenty-one people were arrested at a bridge-blocking protest organised by the Scientist Rebellion group. Extinction Rebellion (XR) supporters reported being repeatedly followed by the police. Protesters were kettled and denied basics such as water, food and medicines. A report by Netpol, the Network for Police Monitoring, concluded that there were systematic abuses of police power during COP26, including discriminatory policing, surveillance and harassment, and attempts to cover up abuses.
The UK is currently passing a law to further restrict protests, in part in response to large-scale XR protests. Shortly after COP26 ended, nine activists from the Insulate Britain group were jailed over roadblock protests: hardly the actions of a climate leader.
Devil in the detail amid a barrage of announcements
This elitist COP must have set a record for its production of declarations. Announcement followed announcement in the early days of COP26. The intention seemed to be to set a remorselessly upbeat tone, communicating from the off that COP26 was a success. The UK government’s desperation to present itself as a post-Brexit world leader was palpable, even though UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a history of climate denial and he and other senior ministers were accused of not engaging enough in key processes ahead of the summit.
Taken together, these announcements signalled some progress, but they all contained significant omissions and loopholes, making them less ambitious than they might first have seemed.
Among the rush of announcements was a new agreement to prevent deforestation, supported by states that account for 85 per cent of the world’s forests. Among these, perhaps significantly, were Brazil, whose President Jair Bolsonaro has championed the destruction of the Amazon, and China, otherwise accused of showing little ambition: its COP26 pledges contained nothing new and its all-powerful President, Xi Jinping, like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, failed to show up at Glasgow.
But the agreement was no sooner announced than it began to unravel. Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest rain forest, signed the agreement but its environment minister quickly described it as ‘unfair’, and said that economic growth must come first.
Another announcement that hit the headlines was a private sector pledge by over 450 financial institutions in 45 countries to direct their investments towards transitions to net zero. However, campaigners were quick to point out that many of these financiers continue to fund fossil fuel projects, and among the banks involved are those that successfully pushed back against pressure from the International Energy Agency to immediately cease all financing of coal, gas and oil exploration.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINES
Once again, at COP26 states have exhibited their complete inefficiency in acting in compliance with their own decisions. I have stated on more than one occasion that 2030 was just around the corner and today we are only eight years away and we are still discussing what are the most efficient measures to achieve the goals set for that date.
Much more money is being invested in destroying the planet than in saving it. This is the result of states’ actions and decisions in favour of a wild capitalism that is destroying the planet with its extractivism that is predatory of life.
I think that as long as these forums do not discuss sanctions on states that do not comply with agreements, or that do not even sign declarations, there will be no concrete results.
Ruth Alipaz Cuqui, general coordinator, National Coordination for the Defence of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas, Bolivia
Perhaps more encouraging was an agreement by 105 countries to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. Methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas, but also the quickest to disperse, meaning action here can have rapid impact. The deal was put together by US President Joe Biden, thankfully bringing the world’s second-biggest greenhouse gas emitter back into the fold; Biden further signalled a reversal of Trump’s climate denial by re-joining the High Ambition Coalition, the group of states working to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. But missing from the methane agreement are some major emitters of the gas, including Australia, China, India and Russia.
Over 20 countries and investment banks committed to end financing for international fossil fuel projects, but China and Japan, two major such funders, did not join. Similarly, over 40 countries signed a pact to phase out coal, including some heavy users of the fuel, such as South Korea, Ukraine and Vietnam. But predictably some key names were missing, many of them repeat offenders, including Australia, China, India, South Africa and the USA.
The vague nature of the coal pledge enabled Poland, which generates 70 per cent of its electricity from coal, to sign the agreement but then class itself as a developing country and declare its intention to use coal until 2049; this is far beyond the date of 2030 by which experts say coal use must end if warming is to be limited to the 1.5 degrees set out in the Paris Agreement.
The reason for these side deals is understandable. They communicate ambition, perhaps no bad thing at the start of a summit to try to generate momentum towards the final agreement, although it’s questionable whether that worked here. They also signal a frustration with multilateral processes where agreements must be reached by consensus. These are then stymied by powerful states resistant to change. If Russia, for example, wants to block an ambitious agreement, then it makes sense to strike a deal without them, and get as many states as possible to sign up for it.
But the challenge is that these agreements are voluntary in nature and lack enforcement mechanisms. One of the reasons civil society invests energy in multilateral processes is that we want to see a rules-based international system, where states respect the commitments they have made, regularly have to report on progress and can be held to account when they do not match words with actions.
The space for civil society participation in multilateral processes is often of poor quality, as the COP26 experience shows, but there is even less space – often no space – for civil society to play an accountability role in agreements struck outside the formal multilateral system. Nor is there the space for civil society to push for agreements to be more ambitious.
In these side deals, much faith was put in the role of the business, but the private sector is famously resistant to civil society scrutiny. In many countries the private sector is a direct source of attacks on climate and environmental activists.
Anything that offers potential to limit global warming has to offer hope. But what progress will come if civil society isn’t there to provide pressure?
So much more to do
The government of India attracted opprobrium for that late insistence on ‘phase down’ rather than ‘phase out’. Before then, it had been recognised as one of the states that most shifted ground at COP26.
As part of the Paris Agreement, states were required to submit new, more ambitious plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions – nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – by COP26. Some key states – including Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Russia – breached the Paris Agreement by submitting NDCs that set no new targets. But at the start of the summit, India pledged to become net zero by 2070, making it the last major economy to commit to do so. 2070 is a late deadline but reflects the low starting point for this huge country. Encouragingly, India committed to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030, through a vast expansion of solar power. Now India’s government should face sustained civil society pressure to publish the detail of its plan and implement it.
In comparison, Australia’s offer was so weak that the country left COP26 as something of a laughing stock. Australia is one of the world’s largest per capita emitters and has the highest coal emissions, but its latest plan contains no new commitments to make improvements by the key date of 2030. Rather than phase out coal or penalise emitters, Australia’s plan is filled with questionable assumptions about unproven and hard-to-scale technology, such as carbon capture and hydrogen development. Australia’s display in the COP26 pavilion was even prominently sponsored by fossil fuel company Santos. COP26 was the moment when the Australian government’s outrageous pretence of having a serious climate plan was internationally exposed.
These examples showed one of the benefits of meetings like COP26: governments can improve their commitments because they don’t want to be embarrassed, and when they fail to do so, embarrassment duly follows, enabling domestic political pressure – at least in countries where civic space is open enough to allow people to mobilise.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINES
COP26 has taken another step to close the gap to achieve the 1.5-degree target, although that gap has not yet been closed by credible commitments parties to the Convention have made. More ambitious commitments both by industrial countries and emerging economy parties have to be made in the coming years. Including language to phase down, although not phasing out, coal in the Glasgow Declaration has been a historic, although too cautious, step to move from targets and timetables only to policies and measures. Concrete policies on other fossil fuels like oil and gas have to follow soon.
Glasgow has shown that the Paris Agreement works, but that the proof of the pudding is in implementation, which has to happen nationally, and which will need additional financial commitments, including through the Convention’s financing mechanisms.
Sascha Müller-Kraenner, executive director, Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe)
But there was still much left off the agenda or not settled at COP26. The growing issue of climate migration – movements of people in response to climate crisis – remains largely unacknowledged, pointing to a disconnect between different international agendas. Ambitious civil society proposals, such as for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty – a call for a new agreement to phase out fossil fuels, backed by many in the climate movement – were not on the table.
While COP26 finally agreed rules on carbon markets, for many activists this is hardly progress: carbon markets could well be a way of dodging responsibility, substituting fossil fuel elimination with offsetting and perpetuating the commodification of land, in ways that continue to harm Indigenous peoples and environmental defenders.
There is still a gap when it comes to climate financing – the money needed to help global south countries cut emissions and adapt to climate change. The global target figure set at COP15 to provide US$100 billion a year by 2020 was missed, even though that symbolic amount likely falls far short of what is truly needed. The latest estimate is that US$80 billion is being provided, and the US$100 billion target has been pushed back to 2023.
Having slashed aid funding, the UK government, as the summit’s leader, was hardly in a position to demand more ambition. But the failure to meet this goal was one justification India could point to for its insistence on watering down the agreement: how can global south countries be asked to be ambitious when the financing isn’t?
Where the money goes matters too. Most climate financing so far has gone towards mitigation – emissions cuts – and much of that has funded switches to renewable energy where there is potential for a return on investments. There has been much less funding for adaptation – money that enables global south countries to develop infrastructure to adapt to climate impacts such as droughts, floods and wildfires. That shifted somewhat at COP26, but not to the 50/50 split many global south countries have been calling for.
Still largely undiscussed is the matter of financing for ‘loss and damage’ – compensation for the impacts of climate change that global south countries are living with. Global south states have long demanded that compensation be part of climate financing. For global north states, this sounds dangerously close to reparations, a subject they have long refused to countenance, for fear of opening up a conversation over reparations for the devastation of colonialism. Debt cancellation to free up financing seems a similarly taboo topic. There was no progress on loss and damage, only a promise of further dialogue.
The late switch from ‘phase out’ to ‘phase down’ wasn’t the only dilution of the final agreement, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact. A commitment to accelerate the phasing-out of fossil fuel subsidies was qualified by the addition of the word ‘inefficient’, an adjective that gives states the room to do nothing, if they deem what they are doing to be efficient. A similar qualifier over the phase down of ‘unabated’ coal power offers states another escape route, allowing them to employ questionable technologies and claim they are somehow using ‘clean’ coal.
Ludicrously, at the 26th COP, even these weak clauses represented some kind of progress, because it was the first time fossil fuels have been mentioned in a COP final agreement. It’s a testament to the extraordinary lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry that it took so long.
Time for a year of action
Ultimately, COP26 was never going to be the last-gasp breakthrough it was hyped up as. The disappointment from many climate activists was genuine and understandable. Their frustration at the immense gap between this existential crisis and the slow-moving process of international diplomacy, where every word is negotiated, suggested not that climate activists need to temper their expectations, as was patronisingly observed, but that the world needs to find faster ways of responding to crisis.
Elite multilateralism that excludes those most affected by the crisis was never going to go far enough. But hope came from the millions of people around the world who are taking climate change seriously and mobilising to demand action. Polls consistently show that people believe climate change is the major issue of our times. People both young and old, even in countries where climate-denying politicians have come to the fore, support renewable energies and forest conservation. People are way ahead of governments and the private sector.
Hope comes from the intersectional movements that are connecting demands for climate action with those for women’s rights, racial justice, Indigenous rights, labour rights and migrants’ rights: from the kind of radical solidarity that was excluded from COP26 but seen on the streets of Glasgow.
Opportunity will depend on what happens next. The UK government’s tenuous claim to have kept 1.5 degrees alive rests on something else in the Glasgow Climate Pact: because the NDCs submitted for COP26 do not go far enough – current plans for emissions cuts by 2030 are likely to lead to warming of 2.4 degrees by the end of the century – by the end of 2022, NDCs should be strengthened to set plans up to 2030 consistent with a 1.5 degrees rise.
In one way, this looks like ambition has been kicked down the road for another year, to COP27 in Egypt, allowing for more time to be wasted. For warming to be limited to 1.5 degrees, everything has to go right. Past experience doesn’t support such a rosy scenario. It can be expected that, left to their own devices, states will continue taking at best half-hearted measures, funding will remain insufficient and the might of the fossil fuel industry will keep watering down even the inadequate ideas being put forward.
It’s civil society’s job to challenge that, and the run-up to COP27 opens a window. Civil society now has a year to exert every possible pressure to demand that NDCs meet the need. That won’t be easy. The many restrictions states are putting on the space for mobilisation is making the task harder. It is unlikely that civil society will be allowed to organise adequately in Egypt, a country with closed civic space, during COP27. COP processes need to take account of civic space and acknowledge that open civic space to enable climate mobilisation is an essential part of accelerating progress.
But where space allows it, governments must be shamed, embarrassed and ridiculed at their lack of ambition. They should be presented with workable solutions to the climate crisis that are backed by broad social coalitions. The lethal grip the fossil fuel industry has on the climate debate must be exposed and loosened, including through non-violent direct action, and greenwashing must be repudiated.
Between now and COP27, it’s time to fight. It’s time to mobilise like our lives depend on it. Because they do.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States should work with civil society to develop ambitious new plans to achieve lower emissions by 2030 in time for COP27.
States must enable the space for climate action, including climate protests – and the UK government, as president of the COP process up to COP27, should lead by example.
Civil society should keep building broad-based and intersectional social coalitions to demand much more ambitious climate commitments by COP27.
Cover photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images