As we look back on the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) we are disappointed in the failure of world leaders to rise to the urgency of the moment and in their lack of courage to address the root causes of this crisis. This year’s conference served as a forum for polluters and rich countries to promote false solutions such as blue hydrogen, carbon capture, and biofuels derived from deforestation and to escape accountability for their role in driving climate catastrophe.
COP26 was a long-awaited meeting—delayed a full year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In that time, the urgency to address the crisis has been all too apparent for communities on the frontlines—from superstorms like Hurricane Ida to massive wildfires across multiple continents. In spite of this growing urgency and vocal demands for climate justice, what world leaders delivered at the summit was lofty rhetoric and lip service, not the bold and transformative change needed in this moment.
This comes as no surprise as COP26 was also the most exclusionary COP to date. More than usual, climate activists from the Global South faced racist immigration barriers and difficulties securing visas. This situation was worsened by the COVID pandemic and inequities in vaccine distribution from rich countries to the Global South—rightfully called vaccine apartheid by advocacy organizations. Two members of our krewe from the Gambia found out they would be denied the right to travel only when they arrived at the airport for their flights to the UK. Those Global South activists who managed through sheer grit and effort to arrive in Glasgow faced massive surveillance, a heavy police presence in the streets, and often found themselves locked out of the negotiating halls themselves in the name of COVID protections.
The conference also created significant disruptions to the daily lives of Glasgow residents. Public buses were diverted away from the conference while chauffeured private cars were allowed to drive straight in, creating a perfect metaphor for the conference’s exclusivity and lack of commitment to climate solutions that benefit poor and working people. On the day that President Biden spoke, neighborhoods that were usually bustling were ghost towns. One worker even told us he wished the world leaders would have just stayed at home.
And while activists’ entry was blocked—whether at the border crossing or by building security - representatives of the fossil fuel industry filled the halls. More than 500 representatives of the fossil fuel industry attended, making industry the single largest delegation at the conference. Their influence on the negotiations and the emerging narratives was obvious with so much talk about blue hydrogen and carbon capture, despite studies showing that blue hydrogen is worse than coal.
The inequities of how the COP was held are reflected in what it produced. While some nations have made new commitments to reduce emissions, the world is still on track for significant warming. We are already living with the realities of climate catastrophe with our current 1.1°C of planetary warming. Current pledges—if they’re fully enacted—would allow for 2.4°C of warming. This amounts to mass murder of frontline communities.
No Loss and Damage financing mechanism
In 2013, the UNFCCC adopted the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM), which confirmed the need to address adverse impacts from climate change (called “Loss and Damage”). But even with the inclusion of the need to address Loss and Damage in Article 8 of the 2015 Paris Agreement, rich countries have sidestepped the critical issue of who pays for climate damages. All eyes were on COP26 to deliver commitments and a concrete mechanism for paying money to Global South countries.
Despite strong demands from Global South nations and advocacy groups including GCCLP, the U.S. and rich countries blocked any mention of finance to address loss and damage. Instead, they watered down language in the final agreement to call for a “dialogue” on the topic in future meetings. Only one territory (Scotland) has pledged money (approximately $3 million) to support Global South nations in dealing with climate change impacts. While this pledge is historic, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the mounting toll of climate damages that frontline communities here and globally are dealing with right now.
Clearing the way for carbon offsets
Over the last few years, Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which addresses international cooperation, has proved one of the most contentious and unresolved elements of the Paris rulebook. This article has been overrun by Big Polluters and the fossil fuel industry. For example, over 100 of the 500+ fossil fuel industry delegates were from one industry lobbying group called the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) which has been advocating a market-based response to the climate crisis for more than two decades. Ahead of COP26, IETA claimed that adopting rules for Article 6 could unlock more than $1 trillion in financial flows by 2050. It should come as no surprise then that this entity is not just a mouthpiece for fossil fuel interests but was actually set up by them: it was co-founded in 1999 by oil and mining giants BP and Rio Tinto and counts polluters like Chevron and Shell as its members.
From a frontline perspective, Article 6 itself is a travesty engineered by rich countries as a favor for fossil fuel polluters. The carbon trading and offsetting systems it outlines commodify our lands, forests, and atmosphere and have been rearing their head in one form or another since 1992 but under various other names such as “cap and trade.” Carbon trading creates massive and unjust loopholes that allow rich countries, fossil fuel polluters, and big banks to continue burning fossil fuels when they should instead be leading a managed decline of fossil fuel production and a just transition for workers and communities. In short, carbon trading at its core is climate colonialism—allowing the rich to continue polluting and leaving the rest of us to deal with the consequences.
While the Glasgow Climate Pact moved towards opening carbon markets, fierce resistance from indigenous, frontline, and Global South activists and developing countries ensured that some safeguards to protect human rights, the rights of indigenous people, and better accounting of emissions reductions were incorporated into the Paris rulebook. While by no means ideal, these do create some foothold to continue to challenge and confront the many injustices we will surely see in a forthcoming rollout of carbon markets, and to ensure it is not simply another way for extractive corporations to greenwash their environmental injustices.
Over-reliance on the private sector and voluntary initiatives
A much-celebrated announcement that private banks will pour $130 trillion into green technology shows that governments are still relying on the people that got us into this mess to get us out of it. Not only are there serious questions about whether the math actually checks out, but there was also no pledge from finance to stop bankrolling fossil fuel projects. Because banks tend to favor large industrial projects and corporations, we should expect huge money to flow into false solutions like blue hydrogen and carbon capture.
Similarly, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and the Gates Foundation announced a new effort to double down on industrial farming. Using the misleading phrase “climate-smart agriculture,” these wealthy nations plan to increase small farmers’ reliance on technology and patented seeds. In other words, the Global North wants to expand its failed agricultural system across the Global South to make technology companies, like Bill Gates’s Microsoft, even richer. The announcement earned the United States the dishonor of being the “Fossil of the Day” from the Climate Action Network.
Demonizing the Global South
Coming out of COP26 it was rich countries including the U.S. wagging their fingers at developing economies like India and China for resisting a sole focus on coal for a fossil fuel phaseout in the final agreement. As residents of the Gulf South, we were keenly aware that the Biden administration had already broken a campaign promise by opening up the largest oil and gas lease sale in the nation’s history on 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico right after the conference ended.
The United States pointing the finger at India and China here is entirely hypocritical. After all, it was the United States delegation with the support of the French COP presidency who made a last-minute edit to the Paris Agreement that made it non-binding. Furthermore, a sole focus on coal in this language is a backhanded way for rich countries to deflect attention from their responsibility for the climate crisis and to maintain poorer nations in the Global South as customers for their oil and gas exports. If the United States was serious about climate change, it would focus on eliminating extraction at home as quickly as possible.