From world leaders tossing a coin for good luck to 100,000 people rallying at Glasgow for climate justice; from the fossil fuel industry having the biggest delegation to hearing alternative, radical visions from outside the walls of the conference centre, COP26 has been a rollercoaster of emotions. Here’s what’s happened in the first week of the conference that’s been hailed (problematically) as our “last chance”.
In the days before COP26…
If you were following the sentiments of activists who were packing their bags to head to COP26, you’d have known that there wasn’t very much buzz. Understandably so. Despite the ever-mounting climate crisis, and a worldwide pandemic to boot, world leaders hadn’t mobilised sufficiently in response, nor rose to the challenge in any meaningful way. And if they weren’t doing anything in the months before COP26, what could activists reasonably expect from them during COP26? If time and time again the powerful ones in power demonstrate that they don’t take climate action seriously, activists knew better than to put their hopes in their elite hands.
Many activists, then, didn’t look forward to COP26 expecting ambition from the top down. They were looking forward to for action from the ground up. And they were right to assume this. Because from the get-go of COP26, world leaders disappointed immediately. One of their first actions, tossing a coin at the world-famous Trevi Fountain “for luck”, showed a complete inability to read the room at best, and a sheer abdication of responsibility at worst.
World leaders toss a coin at Trevi for good luck fighting the climate emergency pic.twitter.com/zFIDPJnVf7
— Bruno Maçães (@MacaesBruno) October 31, 2021
Some would argue that we shouldn’t read too deeply into this gesture. But the fate of billions depends on their decisions. And the climate crisis isn’t something to take lightly. As Gravel Institute quote-tweeted: “You literally run the world”. We’d like to remind them the same.
It’s worth talking about the extent of the involvement of the fossil fuel industry at COP26. Thankfully, there’s been scrutiny on the industry and its actions this year. And as there should be. The fossil fuel industry is a key driver, historically and presently, of the climate crisis.
Unfortunately, however, all we’ve heard isn’t anything to celebrate at all. You’d think that the very polluters we’re working against wouldn’t be able to weasel their way into international climate negotiations. But they walked right through a door that the hosts of the climate conference themselves opened. Courtesy of course, of the UK government, and even the President of COP26, Alok Sharma. Even though just before COP26 kicked off, there were reports that fossil fuel firms were “given no official role” in the summit, because their “net zero plans [did] not stack up”, they still had outsized influence.
As Ayisha Siddiqa, the founder of Polluters Out, an international coalition demanding the removal of polluters from all UN resolutions, reported for the Slow Factory, the UK and Sharma “already had multiple closed door meetings with fossil fuel executives- Scottish Power, Shell, BP and Exxon, the world’s 4th, 6th, and 7th greatest polluters”. Did it matter that they didn’t have an “official role”? “The corruption is almost mind boggling”, Siddiqa added. She noted that in “[al]most every policy that has come out of COP, including the Paris Climate Agreements, there have been edits made by the fossil fuel industry”.
“Because of this influence, the words like “oil” and “fossil fuel” have been completely omitted from the Paris Climate agreement.” Sharma, of all people, shouldn’t be entertaining such harmful polluters—perhaps the more accurate phrasing would be “climate criminals”—and yet, he’s shown where he stands on the matter.
IMAGE: via Stop Cambo | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A poster on a street in the UK. The text on the poster reads: “The UK government know that new fossil fuel extraction will kill millions. Yet, still, they are forcing the Cambo oilfield through parliament.”
When confronted about the glaring issue of the Cambo oil and gas field (the UK government’s plan to build a new field that would have the capacity to emit as much carbon pollution as 18 coal-fired power plants), Sharma declined to give a proper response. “I’m not going to go into that particular issue,” he said. (By the way, Sharma’s personally received donations from a billionaire fossil fuel investor tied to ExxonMobil. Such conflict of interests hasn’t been addressed.)
Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is that since local activists confronted Shell about this oil and gas field three weeks ago, the campaign against the issue has gained much traction, bringing to the fore the hypocrisy of the UK government, as they try to insist, as the host of COP26, that they are taking climate action seriously. It’s clear that, with the new oil and coal projects the government is proposing, the UK, as the second-largest oil and gas producer in Europe, really isn’t doing its part. Cambo is only one of the proposed projects, and the truth has been coming to light.
But that’s where the silver lining ends. Aside from directly paying polluters to pollute, apparently, the UK will even allow Big Oil to fund COP26, plaster their names everywhere, and let them into high-profile conversations. According to reporting from VICE World News, COP26’s sponsors include SSE, “an energy company which also happens to be the single biggest polluter in Scotland”. (Other sponsors? Unilever, whose “pollution footprint amounts to 70,000 tonnes a year”, and Microsoft, which needs no further introduction.) Sponsors, of course, get to have their names everywhere, to presumably remind attendees that these corporations are “part of the change”.
IMAGE: via Guardian Design | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: An illustration of a yellow gasoline tank with handcuffs cuffed to its handle. Smoke is coming out of the tank, and the tank sits in front of a grey background. It sits on an illustrated oil spill.
And according to reporting from openDemocracy, “oil industry bigwigs” have been sneakily given a platform at COP26. Representatives from Big Oil “have been allowed into the conference under the umbrella of a trade association that has a stall at the heart of COP26.” This trade association, the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), hosted the chief executive of BP, who would be taking part in a “high level dialogue on business, human rights and the just transition”. (The same BP that co-opted “carbon footprint” to turn the responsibility of the climate crisis back on us, individuals.) The IETA has also listed as its partners: oil company Chevron, mining firm Rio Tinto, Norwegian oil company Equinor and more.
On this, Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland said: “The so-called business hub, the route by which BP, Chevron, Equinor, Rio Tinto and many other mega polluters have snuck into COP26, is really just a front for dodgy emission trading and offsetting schemes.”
Speaking of offsets…
Big Oil loves insisting that it’s taking on climate change seriously, and will point to its carbon offset schemes as proof. This is greenwashing, of course. And it’s incredibly disingenuous that they’re trying to hype this climate solution up at COP26. Which is why activists interrupted a panel at COP26 about carbon offsets. Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, has said that the worst outcome from COP26 “would be giving the green light to carbon offsetting”. This would be, however, the best outcome for Big Oil.
For them, it’s a way to continue business-as-usual while pretending that they’re doing something about climate change. (Because offsets mean that they can say that they’re working towards net zero, through polluting, and retroactively planting trees or “capturing” carbon through technology.) While COP26 is blatantly allowing for the industry to propose such greenwashing “solutions”, Indigenous communities have spoken out against it. One leader, Tom Goldtooth from the Indigenous Environmental Network, has even denounced it entirely. He told The Independent that it’s “part of a system that privatizes the air that we breathe”. “It allows polluters to buy and sell permits to pollute instead of cutting emissions at the source”.
“In our traditional knowledge we know that we cannot own the sky, we cannot trade Mother Earth in a market system,” he shared. Not only are carbon offsets problematic because of the way they commodify nature, but they are also problematic because the schemes often perpetuate theft of Indigenous land and territories. This has been ongoing since reports came out in the early 2010s. “Carbon offsets are a new form of colonialism”, Goldtooth said.
The fossil fuel industry has the largest delegation at COP26
One last word on the industry’s involvement in COP26, and on the way the conference organisers have exposed their alliances plain for all to see. According to Global Witness, there are more delegates at COP26 associated with the fossil fuel industry than from any single country. Analysing a participant list published by the UN, the NGO found that there were 503 people who had links to fossil fuel interests. Among them were members from some 27 country delegations, whom the NGO defined as “lobbyists”, if they were either part of a delegation of a trade association or a member of a group that represents the interests of oil and gas companies.
Notably, this “fossil fuel delegation” is bigger than the combined total of the eight delegations from the countries worst affected by climate change in the past 20 years. And, as the BBC noted, these “lobbyists dwarf the UNFCCC’s official indigenous constituency by about two to one”. One could argue that in the fight against the climate crisis, if big corporations like these fossil fuel companies wanted to “do their part”, we should let them. But these corporations aren’t well-meaning. They have known about the climate crisis for decades, and have continued to play a pivotal role in climate destruction. And they continue to want to greenwash us while doing the bare minimum now?
The most horrifying part about all of this is that COP26, being a major international climate conference, allowing them to do this, is reputation laundering.
So what’s actually going on within the walls of COP26?
All of that was setting the backdrop for official discussions at COP26. And if that was the backdrop, you can imagine what the main stage looked like.
First, we should point out that some big polluters were missing in action. Including China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. (Many of them who did come, we should say, came in via private jets.) You’ve probably also seen the meme-like photo of Boris Johnson (and Joe Biden) falling asleep. But it wasn’t that some world leaders were MIA, it appears the ambition from most world leaders was MIA too. In terms of emissions pledges, before COP26, the current pledges were set to lead the world into heating of 2.7C. Only one country, The Gambia, has aligned with Paris Agreement targets. It looks to remain the same.
The best news that came out in this regard? India announced that it intends to “generate half its electricity from renewables by 2030 and achieve net zero emission status by 2070”. As The Guardian commented, even though this probably won’t happen, it’s still better than commitments from Saudi Arabia and Russia, who are big polluters. “Much,” it said, “in short, remains to be done.”
IMAGE: via Greenpeace | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Jennifer Morgan of Greenpeace and Teresa Anderson of Action Aid disrupted an event on offsetting at Cop26 when Mark Carney started speaking. Three women are holding up signs that together read “your task force is a scam”, at the back of a room. Many are sitting in front of them, while they stand, presumably listening to what Carney has to say. A man in a suit stands behind them, his arms crossed, looking unimpressed.
Another major topic from the first week was deforestation. Which, as we know, contributes to climate change because it devastates our carbon sinks. Accordingly, companies and governments are clearing forests at a rate of 30 football pitches every minute. So when countries reached an agreement to halt the levels of deforestation, analysts considered it “a high point” of COP26. Over 100 world leaders agreed to reverse deforestation by 2030. And Brazil, which The Guardian noted “has cut down huge stretches of the Amazon rainforest in recent years”, was among the signatories. But before you get your hopes up, “observers have pointed out that a previous international agreement, in 2014, failed to slow deforestation in any way”.
Finally, in the conference centre, world leaders also prided themselves on coming to a stand on coal. Sharma said: “I think we can say the end of coal is in sight”. This was regarding an agreement to phase out existing coal-fuelled power plants and stop building new ones. While it is great that countries agree on dropping coal, we can palpably feel the absences. Australia, India, the US and China, as The Guardian reported, didn’t sign the agreement. According to Jamie Peters, director of campaigns at Friends of the Earth: “The key point in this underwhelming announcement is that coal is basically allowed to continue as normal for years yet”.
Why the lack of ambition and urgency?
How has the first week of the conference gone so wrong? One obvious reason is that capitalism, at the heart of the climate crisis, is a system that sticks. It’s not only the corporations that have business interests in mind, it’s governments too. And doing things the way they’ve always been done has always been the easier option. What makes perpetuating business-as-usual easy is the fact that those at the table don’t feel the effects of the climate crisis. As many have pointed out, the Global South are not in attendance.
As researcher and activist Dr. Camila Moreno explained: “Very few countries actually can pay to have a body of diplomats, trained in a perfect understanding of English” attend COP26. “All of the negotiations and the drafting happen in English. So if you’re not a native speaker, you’re already behind. Then, imagine all the African countries and small island states. They don’t have the money to fly in to then pay for hotels, overpriced food, etc.” (Host of the Green Dreamer Podcast Kamea Chayne added that the few government officials that are able to attend “are typically among their elites—many of whom are influenced by mega-corporations… They do not speak for the most marginalized communities within their borders, who have been facing injustices perpetrated by their own governments.”)
If the ones in the room making all these decisions have never felt the brunt of the crisis, it’s no wonder that even keeping warming to 1.5C is “ambitious”. As Indian climate activist Disha Ravi said: “If all climate conferences happened in a heated room, up to the temperatures we’ve experienced, and with the air quality that we’ve breathed, then we can revisit whether this is ambitious or not.” Perhaps we ought to do just that.
Where are the Global South activists and frontline communities?
It was difficult for Global South activists and frontline communities to even get to Glasgow. Between the vaccine apartheid and the administrative blunders (COP26 has apparently been the worst-organised COP ever), those who need to be there aren’t. And even those who do make it there were continually sidelined. Activists have been literally denied entry into some spaces. Sonam Gordhan, a climate law PhD candidate from the UK, told The RAG: “While there have been big political announcements each day, the detail and implications of these decisions is a mystery to many of us.”
A very emotional update after one week at COP26.
We're so tired. Marginalised people are tired. We're being excluded and ignored and forced to watch them not care.
— Rae wants to burn the system to the ground (@raeesahnm) November 7, 2021
Indigenous communities too, share similar sentiments. Ita Mendoza, an Indigenous land defender from Mexico, told The Guardian: “The Cop is a big business, a continuation of colonialism where people come not to listen to us, but to make money from our land and natural resources”. The Guardian noted that Indigenous peoples have had a formal constituency at COP, since 2001. And that the Paris Agreement did recognise the role of traditional knowledge. But, “little has changed inside the UN-led negotiations”.
Eriel Deranger, executive director of Indigenous Climate Action said that increased visibility didn’t mean much. Indigenous people, according to Deranger, “are romanticized and tokenized”. “They’re trying to collect and preserve indigenous knowledge while continuing to leave us out of the actual decision-making and positions of power.” This, of course, just shows how diversity and inclusion, at a superficial level, does more harm than good.
And perhaps playing inclusivity politics isn’t the way to go. Especially if that means that the violence against them continues, while privileging only some figures. As Chayne asked: “What might we lose in the process of fighting for a seat at the table, for the mic, to be included, to be seen?”
Finding hope outside the walls of COP26
Unsurprisingly, then, the general sentiment that has emerged is that we can find hope outside the walls of COP26. Frontline communities and activists from the Global South certainly are there, at least. And there, they’re speaking truth to power, saying the words that those within the walls of COP26 are too afraid to say.
As Chief Ninawa Inu Huni Kui, president of the Huni Kui People’s Federation of the Brazilian Amazon told The Guardian: “Our vision is very different to those who make the decisions at Cop. We have ancestral connections to the environment and Mother Earth.” And these communities are articulating these visions… on the streets. From “marches to strikes, and occupations to roadblocks”. On Saturday, the Global Day of Climate Justice, 200,000 people participated in protests at Glasgow. The photos convey the electrifying atmosphere: the hope, indeed, is in spaces like these.
Here’s what it felt like to be there, according to reporting from gal-dem. “Setting the tone for the demonstration, a white van with a banner that reads “climate justice without racial justice is the new colonialism”, blaring out ‘Kill The Police Bill’ by Ranking Ann, leads the way. A wall of people in hi-vis jackets link arms to protect the indigenous groups at the front of the march, while the Scottish and Palestinian flags fly high in unison. The sound of chanting, singing and drumming reverberates through the city, and cries of “DE-DE-DECOLONISE!” bounce off the tenements.”
IMAGE: Diyora Shadijanova via gal-dem | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Protestors standing behind a red banner. The banner reads: “colonialism caused climate change”. Another banner isn’t visible, but it seems to say “stop carbon colonialism”. People with masks are holding the banner, and holding their fists up. They have stern, serious expressions on their faces. They are standing on the streets of Glasgow.
Climate justice activist Mikaela Loach was among the activists who spoke at a rally on that day. To a cheering audience, Loach stood in a signature pink jumpsuit, and spoke emphatically. “Last week my heart was broken inside that COP building. By the “world leaders” who steal our sacred words, and use them to defend and uphold the oppressive systems of capitalism and white supremacy. Who tell us that action needed to prevent sea level rise engulfing my ancestral home in Jamaica is “impossible” or “not practical”. In this heartbreak, fear and despair, I felt weak. But I will allow myself the space for my heart to break. So that the gold of community can be poured into those cracks. And make it stronger, make it bigger. Because every time my heart breaks, it is made stronger.”
Loach went on to demand: an end to capitalism and white supremacy, Black liberation, abolition of prisons and the police, and the “total liberation for all of us because that is climate justice.”
Radical visions and truth-telling won’t come from inside COP26
It’s crucial to point out that what Loach spoke are words the world leaders inside COP26 didn’t say. And in the spaces outside of the conference centre, speakers and activists from all over the world were telling the truth. They diagnosed the problem differently, of course. To them, it’s not about cutting emissions, nor deforestation. Nor is it even necessarily about coal. It’s about the system, and its violent structures. And if it’s diagnosed as a system problem, the solutions too won’t just be as simple as a green industrial revolution.
As Colette Pichon Battle, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, shared, at COP26 Coalition’s event (not an official COP26 event), of the Red Black Green New Deal: it’s not just about renewable energy. It’s about “justly-sourced renewable energy”. “We cannot be the movement that is pushing solar panels and windmills without understanding that where these raw materials are coming from is fuelling war in Africa and in South America and in other places.” It’s not about ending deforestation. It’s about freeing the land: giving it back to its real stewards. So it’s about Land Back, and Indigenous sovereignty. And it’s not about green jobs. “We have to reimagine labour… redefine and revalue work, including care work, feminine work…”
Again, as she said herself: “None of this is coming from on high, it’s coming from the ground up, it’s coming from the people who are dealing with these problems right now.”
All of that being said, we go into the second week of COP26. Does this mean that we look away from whatever happens within official negotiations? No. Because even though the solutions and the people who should be heard are on the streets, on the ground? We still need to hold those in power to account. This just means that we have to engage in a delicate balancing act. We have to continue demanding for world leaders to be responsible, while building power away from these traditional structures and conferences.
According to The Guardian, the second week focuses on negotiating how countries measure and report emissions, carbon trading, and loss and damage. We have to keep the pressure on world leaders to navigate these justly. This would mean getting them to account for indirect emissions. Getting them to move away from carbon colonialism. And getting them to negotiate an actual loss and damage mechanism to support climate-vulnerable nations. But while doing all of these, we also need to listen to and support movements that are already on the ground, doing the work, and amassing power—a different kind—there.
That means rallying behind Indigenous communities and supporting them. Being a part of mutual aid networks and migrant justice organisations. And whatever else you can think of that is bringing climate justice to live beyond COP26. Because whether or not COP26 succeeds, the movement must continue.
FEATURED IMAGE: via COP26 Coalition | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of many protestors, some wearing masks, on a street in Glasgow. The protestors are raising various flags, and holding up different signs. The signs read: “We need NATURE needs us”. “1 ONE 1 ONE 1 EARTH ACT NOW”. Protestors wearing winter clothing, and they fill the entire street, as far as the eye can see. There is a palpable sense of solidarity and collectivity conveyed through the photo.
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