COP26: a weak deal completely ignoring climate justice

By Nick Gutkin
Sustainability Analyst

After dominating news headlines over the past two weeks, the much hyped 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) on Climate Change has concluded in Glasgow. As the most important climate change conference since Paris in 2015, this COP represented the year that countries were supposed to tighten their commitments to decreasing emissions and announce real action to ensure that global temperatures would be limited to a maximum of 1.5°C of warming[i].

This COP also came on the heels of a particularly destructive year in terms of climate change impacts: from the first famine attributed directly to climate change in Madagascar[ii], to the first rainfall on the peak of the Greenland ice sheet in recorded history[iii], to the equivalent of months’ worth of rainfall in a single day causing massive flooding in central China[iv]. Such disasters are becoming more frequent and more intense as global emissions continue to drive climate change.

With such a backdrop, COP26 was expected to be a make-or-break moment for the climate crisis. After two weeks of debates, discussions, and deliberations, the resulting commitments can be described as lacklustre at best. The pledges made by leaders during the first days of the conference are weighed down by contradictions, lacking the strategic focus required for real change.

The pledge to stop deforestation by 2030 was quickly derailed by Indonesia’s decision to walk back their commitments two days later, and by the Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil, which has shown no intentions of reducing the breakneck pace of deforestation in the Amazon[v]. A flurry of commitments to reduce methane emissions and reach net-zero total emissions generated a quick analysis stating that announced plans would bring the world to 1.8°C of warming by 2100[vi]. However, a more detailed study showed that even with these commitments, the world was heading towards 2.4°C of warming, far above both the 1.5 and 2°C limits of the Paris Agreement[vii].

Arguably the most positive development during COP26 was a surprise deal made between the United States and China[viii]. As the world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide, the two countries pledged a “firm commitment to work together” to achieve the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement, which was received well by governments and activists alike.

The culmination of the conference, dubbed the Glasgow Climate Pact, was hailed as historic by UK representatives, but is weak in both substance and details[ix]. The Pact includes, for the first time ever, a stated goal to “phase-down” coal-fired power plants, as well as to reduce “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. These two phrases, desperately fought over by fossil fuel lobbyists and negotiators from China and India, represent a toning down of the original language, which intended to phase-out coal-fired plants completely, as well as removing all subsidies for fossil fuels. In the Pact, countries agreed to increase the frequency of ratcheting (revising their national emissions reduction commitments) from every five years to yearly, effectively postponing further discussion for another year while creating a mechanism to demand change annually.

Developing countries succeeded in getting a promise for increased financing from developed countries for both emissions cuts and adaptation, although the details surrounding this funding remain to be decided. However, the discussions stalled on “loss and damages” – the compensation owed to developing countries least responsible for the climate crisis by the developed countries most responsible. This was largely due to developed countries not wanting to bear the brunt of climate compensation or open themselves to litigation on the matter.

Despite a promise to return to the negotiating table at the next summit, this represented a key failure of COP26. It is perhaps the moment most emblematic of a core issue with this COP – an absolute lack of climate justice.

While rising emissions continue to threaten the most vulnerable and poor populations on the planet, negotiators from rich countries argued over the details of just how much death and destruction is acceptable[x]. While UK representatives extolled their efforts to build diplomatic consensus on 1.5°C, the UK was preventing thousands of campaigners and representatives from the frontlines of climate change from even attending the conference[xi]. And while Indigenous, youth, and women’s organisations were excluded from negotiating areas[xii], fossil fuel lobbyists were present in a delegation larger than that of any single country[xiii].

The fundamental inequity of climate change is visible in the results and aftermath of COP26. Despite delivering a climate deal that is uninspiring at best and highly disappointing at worst, the UK can now claim success in “keeping 1.5°C alive”. Leaders of developed countries can use their photo-ops to show constituents at home just how hard they’re working on climate change. Multinationals and corporate polluters can soothe the concerns of their stockholders with empty promises of reaching net-zero emissions at some future date[xiv]. This represents the most disheartening aspect of the conference in Glasgow: allowing corporations and rich countries to decide the fates of the most vulnerable people and celebrating those decisions afterwards.

Meanwhile, the same lukewarm commitments made at COP26 will do little to answer the pleas of Tuvalu’s foreign minister, who gave his speech knee-deep in seawater resulting from rising sea levels[xv]. They will have little impact on reducing the financial incentives taxpayers give to the fossil fuel industry through subsidies. They will bring little benefit to children suffering on the frontlines of the climate crisis[xvi]. The tragedy of incremental change in a situation where the clock is ticking is that eventually time runs out. And when it does, no amount of promises or commitments to lower emissions at a further date will matter, because the damage will have already been done.

The grim results of COP26 do not define the end of all hope for the climate movement. It is clear that grassroots organisations, activists, and those on the frontlines of the climate crisis have a renewed purpose to their actions. And although COP26 was nowhere near as game-changing as had been hoped, it still represents a step forward, however small. With a mechanism now in place to demand annual emissions decreases from countries, COP27 in Egypt will offer more opportunity for pressure and negotiations.

It is vitally important that the next COP take the weak language of the Glasgow Pact and strengthen it into actual commitments. This includes a complete phase-out of coal and other fossil fuels, as well as an unconditional end to fossil fuel subsidies. It also includes a reckoning with the climate debt and real financial compensation for loss and damages to developing countries. Indigenous, youth, and women’s organisations must not only be included in talks, but prioritised, as they are most affected by the impacts of climate change. Conversely, fossil fuel lobbyists have no more right to attend future COPs than tobacco lobbyists would have to attend a conference on lung cancer.

Above all, what will solve the climate crisis is action. Action by all parties, but most importantly developed countries, who hold both the resources and the responsibility to step up to the task. International diplomacy at Glasgow may have been a failure, but in the meantime change can, and should, be sought at more local and national scales.

[i] Gaby Flores, ‘COP26: Everything you need to know about the UN Climate Summit’, Greenpeace, October 22, 2021, https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/50130/cop26-everything-need-know-about-climate-summit/

[ii] ‘In Madagascar, pockets of famine as risks grow for children, warns WFP’, UN News, November 2, 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/11/1104652

[iii] Rachel Ramirez, ‘Rain fell at the normally snowy summit of Greenland for the first time on record’, CNN, August 19, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/19/weather/greenland-summit-rain-climate-change/index.html

[iv] ‘China floods: 12 dead in Zhengzhou train and thousands evacuated in Henan’, BBC, July 21, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57861067

[v] Kieran Mulvaney, ‘Will the COP26 global deforestation pledge save forests?’, National Geographic, November 4, 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/will-the-cop26-global-deforestation-pledge-save-forests

[vi] Fatih Birol, ‘COP26 climate pledges could help limit global warming to 1.8 °C, but implementing them will be the key’, International Energy Agency, November 4, 2021, https://www.iea.org/commentaries/cop26-climate-pledges-could-help-limit-global-warming-to-1-8-c-but-implementing-them-will-be-the-key

[vii] Fiona Harvey, ‘Cop26: world on track for disastrous heating of more than 2.4C, says key report’, The Guardian, November 9, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/09/cop26-sets-course-for-disastrous-heating-of-more-than-24c-says-key-report

[viii] Matt McGrath, ‘COP26: China and US agree to boost climate co-operation’, BBC, November 11, 2021,  https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-59238869

[ix] Fiona Harvey, ‘What are the key points of the Glasgow climate pact?’, The Guardian, November 14, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/14/what-are-the-key-points-of-the-glasgow-climate-pact-cop26

[x] Louis Mitchell, ‘A parade of greenwashing, COP26 was ultimately a betrayal’, The Sydney Morning Herald ,November 14, 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/national/a-parade-of-greenwashing-cop26-was-ultimately-a-betrayal-20211114-p598qg.html

[xi] Matthew Taylor, ‘Cop26 will be whitest and most privileged ever, warn campaigners’, The Guardian, October 30, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/30/cop26-will-be-whitest-and-most-privileged-ever-warn-campaigners

[xii] Nina Lakhani, ‘Cop26 legitimacy questioned as groups excluded from crucial talks’, The Guardian, November 8, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/08/cop26-legitimacy-questioned-as-groups-excluded-from-crucial-talks

[xiii] ‘Hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists flooding COP26 climate talks’, Global Witness, November 8, 2021, https://www.globalwitness.org/en/press-releases/hundreds-fossil-fuel-lobbyists-flooding-cop26-climate-talks/

[xiv] James Dyke, Robert Watson, and Wolfgang Knorr, ‘Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap’, The Conversation , April 22, 2021, https://theconversation.com/climate-scientists-concept-of-net-zero-is-a-dangerous-trap-157368

[xv] ‘Tuvalu’s foreign minister Simon Kofe gives COP26 speech knee-deep in the sea to show nation on frontline of climate crisis’, ABC News, November 10, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-10/tuvalu-minister-makes-cop26-speech-from-sea/100608344

[xvi] Matthew Abbott, Lim Sokchanlina and Nad E Ali, ‘Children surviving the climate crisis – in pictures’, The Guardian, November 1, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2021/nov/01/children-surviving-the-climate-crisis-in-pictures

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