Tough talk, empty promises?
‘COP is really the last opportunity for the planet’, bragged the plummy-mouthed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the eve of the climate summit last week.
His comment is just one example of the cognitive dissonance currently pervading COP26, the latest UN summit on climate change that kicked off in Glasgow this weekend – the gulf between words and action, between the reality of ever more common ‘natural’ disasters and harm from climate change and the reluctance of the powerful to depart from business as usual.
The country is planning to continue allowing sales of some new fossil-fuel-powered cars until 2035, while just days before his government had dug out a measly £3.9bn (a fraction of its manifesto commitment and what is needed) to support more efficient home heating.
So, with his government playing host for this latest round of discussions as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, what can we expect from COP26 – and will it provide the action we need?
Ignoring Southern voices
The UK ‘is on course to deliver the most exclusionary COP ever’, according to campaigner Dipti Bhatnagar, the Climate Justice & Energy coordinator for Friends of the Earth International who is staying in Mozambique as she has been unable to travel to Glasgow.
She added that the UK had pushed ‘ahead with the summit while Covid-19 still ravages and so many in the Global South can’t get a vaccine or visa. It is hard to see how COP26’s outcomes could be considered fair and legitimate with those on the frontlines of climate impacts unable to make their voices heard in the streets of Glasgow and in the halls of the COP.’
Other sources agreed, pointing to the UK’s role in vaccine ‘apartheid’ by hoarding Covid vaccines, and to the limited and mismanaged support made available to delegates. For example, the UK set up a vaccination programme for delegates in countries where vaccines were not available, but only gave them two weeks to register. In many cases jabs were ultimately not given.
Meanwhile travel rules for Covid ‘red list’ countries were changed two weeks before the conference, with the UK government then withdrawing additional support for delegates who had already booked flights and quarantine hotels – arguing these were no longer needed, although in many cases it was too late to change plans.
All this is for a conference billed as creating the rulebook for the 2015 Paris Accords, which set a global goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile countries are supposed to have ratcheted up their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in advance of the summit – these are goals set by individual governments for how much they will reduce CO2, after they refused to agree to having targets set with reference to an overall target, climate justice or scientific advice.
The NDCs chalked up after the Paris Accords of 2015 would result in global warming of over 3 degrees Celsius. Even after newer targets promised by governments this year they fall far short of what is required – setting a course for a 16 per cent increase in emissions to 2030, which UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said would create 2.7 degrees of warming.
Meanwhile the UK has set the stage for there to be all talk and little action when it comes to providing financial support for developing countries – a key climate justice issue and a major stumbling block in previous negotiations.
In recent weeks Boris Johnson has bemoaned the failure of governments to reach a supposed £100bn target set in 2020. But even that target – a tiny sum that one campaigner described to New Internationalist as a figure ‘Hillary Clinton pulled out of her ass’ – has not been achieved. Of what little has been provided, much has been given in loans (the UK has stumped up an extra £1bn, but is also cutting aid and redesignating it as climate finance).
By contrast, a report by Nairobi-based thinktank Power Shift Africa, which was backed by several Global South countries, has outlined that rich countries should at least halve their collective emissions this decade in order to do their fair share.
The US, in particular, should cut domestic emissions by 95 per cent from its 2005 emissions by 2030, and provide around $80 billion per year in support for developing countries. The EU and UK should cut greenhouse gas production by 65 per cent and 75 per cent from 1990 levels, and provide $36 billion and $46 billion annually in support, respectively.
The report, and Guterres, have both called for climate finance to be split evenly between mitigation (emissions reductions) and adaptation to the changing climate.
‘Developing countries are disproportionately harmed by this loss and damage [caused by climate change]; developed countries are disproportionately responsible for it,’ the thinktank said.
Pushing false solutions
Meanwhile, instead of tackling their own emissions, all the signs are that leaders of rich countries will use the summit to push for climate markets and so-called ‘nature-based solutions’.
These are basically the discredited ideas of ‘carbon offsetting’, in different guises. They create more opportunities for profit, as well as for passing the buck. At best carbon markets are ineffective – one of the largest, the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme, reduced emissions by less than four per cent over eight years. As for nature-based solutions, they have been implicated in the dispossession of indigenous people and peasants from their land, and seek to make protecting nature an alternative to tackling the problem at source.
Responding to Tuesday’s declaration on ending deforestation by 2030, Souparna Lahiri of the Global Forest Coalition, an umbrella group for NGOs and Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations, told New Internationalist: ‘This Declaration is one of those oft-repeated attempts to make us believe that deforestation can be stopped and forests can be conserved by pushing billions of dollars into the land and territories of the Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC).
‘More money means more land grabs, violation of the rights of the IPLCs and women, and more corporate incursion into forests.’
He added that efforts to halt deforestation need to take as their starting point the recognition of the rights of indigenous people.
Mary Church, Head of Campaigns for Friends of the Earth Scotland, argues that for the summit to be a success, the UK COP presidency ‘must urgently step up and show real leadership by cutting emissions as close to real zero as possible over the next decade’. Instead, she says, it is way off meeting its inadequate targets, has cut overseas development aid and is poised to greenlight drilling the Cambo oil field and new coal mining in Cumbria, England.
Pressure from the grassroots
Outside the summit, campaigners are fighting back. Although months of strikes by train conductors have been called off after the rail operator caved to their demands just before the summit, garbage collection workers will be continuing with their walkout – a neat illustration of the power of industrial action to take back control over the climate crisis.
It also shows the potential for solidarity between workers and climate activists – just as school strikers have turbo-charged the debate around urgent climate action.
Outside the summit itself a kaleidoscope of protests and direct action will be taking place – while a parallel People’s Summit commencing both in person and virtually gives an opportunity for campaigners to come together, discuss, strategize and raise their own demands.
The COP26 Coalition is calling for there to be no new fossil fuel investments or infrastructure, and the cancellation of all Global South debts with reparations for loss and damage already underway.
ALBA, the alternative trade treaty organization with members including Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and a number of Caribbean nations reported last week that the impact of unilateral sanctions have prevented its member states from accessing technologies and loans needed for substantive climate mitigation.
Speaking from the summit, War on Want’s executive director Asad Rehman conveyed his disappointment: ‘Tough talk but empty promises doesn’t change the science or uproot the rigged economic system that has taken humanity to the brink of climate catastrophe.
‘Only concrete, real zero targets by 2030, with rich Global North countries doing their fair share of effort, will turn a COP26 climate summit careering towards 3°C global heating to the 1.5°C limit we need to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown.
‘After setting fire to the planet, the richest countries must meet their broken promises on urgent climate finance. These billions are just a down payment – ramping up reparations to undo the systems of injustice is the only way we can ensure a just transition that guarantees everyone the right to live a dignified life.
‘Global leaders must heed the call for a Global Green New Deal which delivers real climate justice for people and planet.’
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