Reflections on COP26

By Kumi Naidoo1)

We find ourselves in the most consequential decade in the history of humanity. The choices we make now will determine what kind of future we'll have, or whether we will have a future at all.

Reflecting on being in Glasgow recently, I think the first point is that the outcome of this COP was another reminder that our present governments and the systems they represent will not be able to deliver us from the climate crisis with the urgency and solidarity for which the situation calls for.

The second point is that we now need mobilisation on a scale never before seen, both in terms of putting pressure on governments to do the right thing, and also in building practical alternatives within our limited, though not inconsiderable, capabilities.

Thirdly, the question of ‘who is in the room’, and the need for transparency on the part of the UNFCCC, really matters. The fact that the fossil fuel industry sent the largest delegation to Glasgow is strange to say the least, but illustrates the extent of their influence. It’s as if Alcoholics Anonymous were having a global conference and the largest delegation by far was the alcohol industry. As Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, put it, COP26 was “pale, male and stale.”

However, just having all the right people in the room does not necessarily mean you get the right outcomes, because in reality when it comes to negotiations, some countries are more equal than others.  In the end, rather than the phase out of coal, what we saw was a commitment to phase down coal. This language was adopted in the last moments of the conference, when India pushed the compromise forward, with the support of China, and a few others. Other countries were put in a situation where they were forced to agree, or allow everything else that had been negotiated to fall apart. The Glasgow Climate Pactalso noted ‘with deep regret’ that rich nations had also failed to provide the $100 billion they promised over a decade ago to help deal with mitigation and adaptation of the climate crisis.

It was not all bad news though. The Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a gathering of the most vulnerable countries in the world, succeeded in pushing for an annual review process. This means countries will have to update their climate plans every year between now and 2025, as opposed to every five years as required by the Paris agreement, which creates the opportunity for countries to ramp up their level of ambition to move us closer towards limiting global warming to a 1.5 degrees celsius target, rather than the pathetic 2.7 degrees celsius negotiated. In some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, the slogan has shifted from ‘1.5C to stay alive’ to ‘1.5C we might survive!’ Bearing in mind that at 1.1C we are already seeing extensive devastation in so many places, it is clear that limiting global warming to 1.5C will be inadequate for many small island states and least developed climate vulnerable countries.

The most important problem I see is that the core system that brought us to this point of climate catastrophe is seemingly to be kept intact. There's a high level of denial and cognitive dissonance displayed by political leaders, which has not shifted that much, even though extreme weather events have visited more of their own doorsteps in the past year. According to Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the IMF, their staff estimates that, “global fossil fuel subsidies amount[ed] to around $6 trillion in 2020.” This figure means that if you count what each government in the world gave to fossil fuel companies, it amounts to almost 11 million dollars every minute. The wording of the Glasgow Climate Pact talks about phasing out inefficient subsidies, rather than moving to scrap all fossil fuel subsidies. When we say ‘subsidies’ it's just a nice way of saying that this is taxpayer money given to the fossil fuel companies because it's ‘in the national interest’, in energy provision, building pipelines and such like. Yet major infrastructure and research projects tend to be paid for by our governments, not by the fossil fuel companies, so when our governments talk about the scale of the climate challenge and not having resources to make the shift to renewable and clean energy, I’d say a good place to find that money is to redirect the fossil fuel subsidies.

We have to ask the question, what channels do the most vulnerable people and communities have for survival? What can we do to reverse the situation? At this COP, I participated in two sessions regarding carbon dioxide removal, which I did with some measure of trepidation. In these sessions, I was reminded that it's not as if carbon removal is not already happening; it's happening, and we need to try to see how it can be conducted in a transparent, accountable and productive manner. However, how we go about making that happen, and how quickly, is open to question. I believe we need to pursue science-based strategies that give people of the small island states and other vulnerable countries a fighting chance against runaway climate change.

Furthermore, whether we pursue natural or technological solutions for carbon removal, having these independently verified by recognised scientific bodies should help ensure that we are not being sold exaggerated claims for approaches that fail to deliver as promised. The Global Carbon Removal Partnership that was launched at COP includes the following five principles:

  1. Durability - Carbon removal solutions must be highly durable (be able to sequester carbon) with low risk of reversal over centuries to millennia. A monitoring framework should be established for any carbon releases.
  2. The performance of carbon removal systems matter - A carbon removal project’s emissions must be measured through transparent emissions accounting, and carbon removal credit given only for net climate benefit.
  3. There must be equity - Carbon removal solutions must be implemented in a socially and environmentally responsible manner considering land and resource sovereignty, prior and informed consent from ‘impacted’ communities and, protecting existing natural carbon resources and biodiversity.
  4. We must ensure the best possible transparency - Measurement, reporting and verification standards must be adopted and implemented to foster transparency and accountability thereby increasing credibility, trustworthiness.
  5. Inclusivity is key - Carbon removal needs global cooperation inclusive of perspectives from and benefits to the Global South in carbon removal solutions.

Many civil society actors, myself included, have hitherto voiced scepticism about this sort of approach. But circumstances have changed in that there is now much wider acknowledgement that climate change demands urgent action, and greater momentum behind bringing the fossil fuel era to an end. We need to recognise that the carbon removal train has already left the station, and hundreds of millions of dollars, a lot of it badly spent, are being invested in this space already. We also need to recognise that even if we were magically able to switch off all emissions tomorrow, we would still be stuck with legacy carbon in the atmosphere. For these reasons, it will be important for civil society to engage with these processes.

If this COP has taught me anything, it is that unless we have leadership from below, there is no possibility that those at the top will of their own accord affect the changes we need and have been demanding for decades. The People’s Pathways to Climate Justice Framework draws on observations I’ve made from years of activism efforts around the world. People are already exercising their agency, drawing inspiration from that; sharing that around the world would be a good thing to do. Mobilisation has to be different. It needs to be on a scale not seen before, and a lot more powerful than in the past. There is a huge gap between what the science is telling us, and what we are witnessing in extreme weather events, on one hand, and where political leaders and economic thinking are on the other. We absolutely have to find an accelerated change strategy:

We must follow the money - We need to look at the different manifestations of the financial system, from pension funds to central banks, and put pressure on them to develop climate friendly regulatory policies which could redirect bad climate financial investments to climate protecting investments.

We can start to speak plainly - Young people said it loud and clear in Glasgow: ‘no more blah, blah, blah.’ Too often the climate struggle is talked about in technical or scientific terms that can be alienating for non-experts. We need clear, simple language that talks about climate change in terms of how it affects our soil, air and water, and how it affects the very things we need to survive. This is happening more now, but there is considerable room for improvement.

We need to see potential where we have always seen problems - Notwithstanding all that people have been through, and all the marginalisation, exclusion, displacement and other impacts of climate change, people still have resilience, capability, and agency. We need to build on this.

We often say that the current system is broken, but some now correctly say, no, it is not broken; it was designed to do exactly what it's doing. We need to ensure the post-COVID recovery does not repeat the error after the global financial crisis when those in power responded with system recovery, system maintenance, and system protection. What was needed then, and more urgently now, is system innovation, system redesign and system transformation. Given that, how do we move from where we are to where we need to be? We clearly need to imagine a very different, more just, inclusive, and sustainable economic system, but we have to move from where we are to get there. This transition is clearly going to be a very difficult and challenging process, and trying to figure out how we do not lose more public resources and time in the process will be tricky. While campaigners are securing very important wins in individual battles with fossil fuel companies, often against tremendous odds, we really do not have enough time to go after every polluter or deforester, because there are simply too many of them, and it will take too long when time is against us. While these struggles must continue, we also need to be smart by focusing our efforts on stemming the flow of resources to polluting industries at source. Instead, we need to push for those resources to be invested in sustainable economic activities that help us pull back from the climate cliff edge.

In short, the outcomes of COP26 reflect the world’s current power structure and relations . The limited progress that was made would not have been made had it not been for the voices of people within civil society, especially young voices. Notwithstanding COVID-19, this COP saw a deepening of participation from citizens and campaigners who came together from diverse backgrounds to make alliances for struggles ahead. There were musicians, visual artists, writers, and others from the artistic community organising events, and bringing the world of arts and culture and the world of activism together. Overall, there was a much more intersectional approach to campaigning, and less of the logo-obsessed large NGO-type organising.

We've seen evidence of this rising power and we can be proud of that. The major lesson I’m taking away from COP26 is that we have to intensify building power from below. Civil society mobilisation needs to intensify and we need to encourage and support a diversity of people’s pathways towards climate justice for all.

Kumi Naidoo is a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy and was most recently a Special Advisor to the Green Economy Coalition.