COP26: Another world (im)possible?

Sara Löwgren | 29 November 2021

A photo of a cartoon that shows two people in front of the COP26-conference venue. One person is showing the following breaking news: “COP26 moves from blah, blah, blah, to yes, yes, yes.” On his phone. The other person responds: “They better not take another 26 years to act, act, act.”
Inside the COP26 venue, multiple art installations, including this board of cartoons, sought to encourage the delegates to take bold climate action. Photo by the author.

During the first two weeks of November, I changed one rainy city for another when I attended COP26 in Glasgow. The conference was a time of both rain and sunshine–exclusion and inclusion, inaction and urgency, empty promises and big words, injustice and solidarity–that left me feeling both disillusioned and revitalized. Here, I offer some brief reflections on the unequal access, net-zero discourse, corporate interests, climate injustice, and immense “people power” that characterized COP26.

The management of COVID-19 has deepened global inequalities, resulting in vaccine apartheid and increasing the gaps in both income and health. For these reasons, the climate justice community called for COP26 to be postponed another year. They worried about hosting a meeting to determine the future of humanity when only a small and privileged minority could attend. Although the issue of unequal access to the UNFCCC COPs was in no way unique to COP26, the COVID-19 pandemic had further skewed the playing field.

As the UK presidency persisted in following through with the COP26 this year—citing the urgency of addressing the climate crisis—it became clear that these concerns were warranted. Access was very limited even for observers like myself, who, while allowed into the blue zone, were kept out of all negotiations. Although the UK worked hard to present COP26 as a success, the conference failed in delivering climate action, much less climate justice. Some of the major problems were the dominant net-zero discourse, the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists, and the stubborn unwillingness of rich countries to recognize their historical contributions to climate change and deliver climate finance.

Net zero smoke and mirrors

The message “Let’s do net zero” was pasted all over Glasgow during COP26. The net-zero narrative appeared on not only venue signs and pamphlets, but also on bus stations, face masks, and billboards, with everything from insurance companies to brands of scotch whiskey advertising their commitments.

The net-zero slogan enraged the climate justice community because net-zero targets for greenhouse gases do not require emission reductions, only emission offsets. However, these offsets, which include setting aside forest areas, are deeply problematic. One problem is the limited capacity of short-term carbon cycles (for example, for a tree to grow) to reliably store carbon that has been taken out of a long-term carbon cycle (for example, through the burning of fossil fuels that were created over millions of years). A second problem is that even if offsetting worked, it would require vast amounts of land. This leads to a third problem: the risk of carbon offsetting driving forced displacement of people and other human rights violations.

At its core, net zero outsources the responsibility of mitigating climate change to market mechanisms. Even if there could be very particular instances where net zero mechanisms are appropriate, touting net zero as the solution to the climate crisis is a deeply flawed and dangerous approach. Net zero is a show of smoke and mirrors that risks distracting world leaders from the most reliable way of limiting the climate crisis: stop burning fossil fuels.

Despite the scientific consensus, not everybody at COP26 agreed on the need to phase out fossil fuels. During the conference, the fossil fuel industry had more delegates at COP26 than any country. This immediate presence, and various entanglements with governments, allowed big-polluter industries to significantly influence the outcome of COP26. For example, the agreement only mentions a need to phase down (not phase out) coal (not all fossil fuels), and the many qualifiers—such as, phase down of unabated coal or ending inefficient fossil fuel subsidies—in the text make it very unclear what exactly the signatories have agreed on.

Where is the finance?

COP26 also disappointed low-income countries and the climate justice community in terms of climate finance. While the final text contains some acknowledgment of the richer countries’ failure to deliver the $100bn that were originally promised, there is very little specificity regarding how and when the finance for climate change mitigation—and even less, adaptation and loss and damage—will be delivered. Again, from a climate justice perspective, this is troubling.

While climate justice certainly cannot be reduced to money, the communities who have contributed the least to climate change are already suffering most from its consequences, and they need funding to adapt. There are also losses and damages—harms that no adaptation can prevent—for which the affected countries are asking for compensation. When the richer countries, who have contributed the most to the current climate crisis, refuse to provide adequate finance for the harms they have done, it demonstrates an unwillingness to recognize their historical responsibility and to pay their climate debt. There are certainly questions about capacity and the best ways to deliver such finance, but these questions do not justify the richer countries’ reluctance to fulfill their promises.

Change from the outside

Altogether, the outcome of COP26 does not correspond to the urgency and scale of the climate crisis. Instead of binding commitments and action, we mostly got press releases. The text results from an exclusionary process, corporate interests, and rich countries ignoring their historical responsibility. But everything was not terrible in Glasgow. Inside the blue zone, some encouraging developments occurred. including progress in discussing loss and damage and the Danish-Costa Rican diplomatic initiative Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA). Additionally, 20+ countries made an exciting announcement (but why, oh why, not a binding agreement?) about their plan to end investments in new fossil fuel projects abroad. The announcement needs to be sharpened further but still represents a step in the right direction. However, even though I have mostly written about the official UNFCCC outcomes, the real energy, hope, and progress came from outside the blue zone.

Despite the challenges of access, civil society engagement at COP26 was spectacular. Apart from the global marches, there were countless meetings, briefings, discussions, and workshops around everything from agroecology and degrowth to Indigenous rights and activist well-being. The climate justice movement seems to grow and mature, grappling with questions of privilege and positionality, and finding new alliances. Ambitious new initiatives, such as a treaty to ban fossil fuels, are rapidly emerging. In many ways, it seemed like the change that the COP26 failed to deliver is already being created, from the outside, by the people. While we must continue to defend the UNFCCC as a democratic and multilateral space, the official COP venues are not solving the climate crisis. Another world is being born, and it is people who are bringing it forth.

Keywords: #COP26 #ClimateChange #ClimateJustice #ClimateChangeMitigation #NetZero #RealZero #BlueZone

Sara Löwgren is a master's student at the University of Gothenburg and currently doing an internship at the School of Global Studies. She holds a BA in human ecology from the College of the Atlantic, USA, and she is passionate about climate change, water, and justice.