COP26 started on 31 October 2021 in Glasgow under the worst conditions for democratic participation in the history of climate negotiations — as a result of the pandemic, the high prices in the United Kingdom, huge securitization around the event, and the privileged status of the conference’s corporate partners and sponsors.
Isadora Cardoso is an intersectional climate justice activist and expert, and currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. She has been following climate conferences since 2017 with the UNFCCC’s Women and Gender team.
Claudia Horn is a sociologist living in Belem, Brazil, currently working on a PhD on climate justice and international initiatives for Amazon conservation at the London School of Economics. She previously worked as a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office.
This article first appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil.
While expectations for reaching successful commitments were low and the resistance of the global climate justice movement was strong, COP26 was marked by narratives around market solutions, a massive presence of fossil fuel industry representatives, and sensationalism around announcements for individual action plans proposed by wealthy nations. The outcome of COP26 — or the Glasgow Climate Pact, concluded on 13 November — consolidated as a package of vague promises in which wealthy countries made no commitments on funding real solutions for the crisis and the interests of the private sector became stronger.
False Solutions and Disappointed Expectations
As for the negotiations, the goal of having 100 billion dollars per year funded by countries in the Global North to promote climate action in the Global South failed to be achieved, as more room was created for private climate funding initiatives. Civil society groups, such as the Climate Action Network, as well as many countries in the South, are demanding not only a focus on mitigation actions — in order to reduce emissions that cause climate change — but also more robust funding for adaptation, aiming to strengthen capabilities to resist the effects of climate change.
Another disappointing outcome was the lack of goals towards and easier access to funding for addressing loss and damage (which aims to compensate for what can no longer be adapted) already endured by the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change and its effects. Acknowledging the long-standing responsibility of countries from the North is key to guaranteeing effective and fair funding, and to make sure it does not become yet another neo-colonial lending channel, such as the Structural Adjustment Programs of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. But the decisions made at this COP, presided over by one of the world’s most colonizing countries, did not acknowledge this.
A key aspect among Glasgow decisions is the operationalization of voluntary cooperation mechanisms between countries (also referred to as Article 6 of the Paris Agreement), including carbon trading. Similarly, the “Race-to-Zero” campaign — that is, to net zero emissions — by 2050 was advertised in the hallways of COP26 without reservation, especially by private players and wealthy countries, as the big well-suited solution for the least catastrophic scenario, which expects an average 1.5°C global temperature rise by mid-century over pre-industrial levels.
Implementing a net-zero effort is connected to the promotion of “nature-based solutions”. In a statement released on 2 November, 257 organizations, networks, and movements from 61 countries rejected the “nature-based solutions” promoted at COP26.
These “solutions” entail financializing forests and territories to the benefit of private investors such as multinational agribusiness, facilitating a reduction — but only to net zero — of carbon emissions through technologies, reforestation, and other means instead of actually reducing emissions across supply chains. Land and forests, mostly occupied by traditional populations and Indigenous people in the Global South, then become, according to the carbon trading logic, just a marketable figure that can be sold to countries and companies that emit more than their target, thus balancing global emissions and maintaining globally agreed upon limits.
One of the problems of carbon trading mechanisms, net zero narratives, and “nature-based solutions” is the lack of focus on eliminating greenhouse gas emissions at the source and the disregard for ancestral relationships and ecosystems between the peoples and their territories affected by such offset projects. Therefore, these mechanisms not only allow the continuation of emissions and investments in fossil fuels by trading their offset, but also threaten the integrity and the rights of traditional peoples and the biodiversity of their lands. For this and other reasons, civil society groups engaged in the struggle for climate justice call these “false solutions”.
Alternative Voices for Climate Justice at COP26
Although market mechanisms and narratives consolidated in Glasgow decisions, civil society engaged in climate justice-focused political advocacy within COP26, including youth, women and gender groups, unions, and Indigenous peoples. These groups exerted intense pressure to include safeguards on human rights and reparation procedures by the end of Article 6 — an outcome partially achieved at this COP.
However, adopting such market mechanisms without undertaking procedures of free, prior, and informed consultation with the communities affected by carbon offset projects — such as traditional and forest peoples in Latin America — is a loophole that can lead to the violation of their rights and territories, undermining the principle of climate justice.
In line with the net zero discourse and under British leadership, COP26 celebrated the announcement of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use on 3 November, which aims to end deforestation by 2030. Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, and other Latin American countries signed the document. However, there is scepticism among Latin American civil society regarding the actual enforcement of the declaration, considering economic austerity and the “COVID-19 and far-right pandemics” that dramatically affect the region, as described by Rodolfo Kempf, a member of Central de Trabalhadores da Argentina (the Argentinian Workers’ Central Union, CTA), COP, and the People’s Summit.
Regardless of the rule of private interests to the detriment of civil society groups in negotiations, as well as the discouraging political situation in several Latin American countries, social movements fighting for climate justice in the region continued to occupy the space of the conference and influence official decisions. “It was only with the presence of social movements that we were able to advance in terms of ambitions in the negotiations, because these movements are looking at what the climate crisis really means”, Javiera Lacourt Palacios, executive director of the NGO CEUS Chile, told us. She argues that the climate crisis has a strong social component and, if grassroots movements are not present at climate conferences, negotiations would not get anywhere.
Climate Justice beyond the Summit
The global climate justice movement has grown significantly since the it first emerged in the early 2000s, with increasing awareness of climate change and its aggravating impacts on all levels of society and different ecosystems. Once this movement acknowledged justice as a guiding principle, other civil society groups engaged in the fight for climate justice, making it one of the most intersectional global movements today. That the movement is “intersectional” means that diverse social groups (e.g., anti-deportation movements, movements for food justice, etc.) are increasingly reflecting on climate issues within their specific agendas, which, in turn, reflects the growing integration and inter-relationship between diverse demands and political groups that fight for justice in the global climate justice movement.
One example of this growing mobilization is the climate strike and the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march, which was organized during COP26 and brought together thousands of people from different social movements on the streets of Glasgow. As Raul de Lima put it, “understanding that last Friday’s [5 November] climate strike with 25,000 people was led by Indigenous people and that Saturday’s [6 November] 100,000-strong march had anti-racist and feminist segments means pondering about how necessary intersectionality is for climate justice. It will never happen if Black and Indigenous people are merely invited to panels, but never to decision-making processes, or if they do not receive funding to preserve their lands”. De Lima, who took part in the grassroots marches in Glasgow, is a member of the CLIMATE CLOCK movement, which displays important climate metrics, such as the lands that are protected by Indigenous communities, the amount of global energy that comes from renewable sources, and how much time we have, considering current carbon emissions, until we reach the 1.5°C warming threshold.
The concept of climate justice comprehends climate change as a social, economic, and environmental phenomenon that unequally affects communities and ecosystems due to inequalities that already exist in society. Issues such as income, gender, race, age, and sexuality, as well as health conditions, mental or physical disabilities, and region where people live around the globe make them more or less vulnerable to the impacts of the climate.
Moreover, the concept acknowledges historical responsibilities, as those mostly causing climate change — countries of the North and extractivist multinationals — are also the ones least experiencing its impacts, so they should bear a greater responsibility in fighting climate change. Therefore, incorporating climate justice views into climate commitments and policies is necessary to prevent them from aggravating inequalities, rather than ending them — which strikingly has not happened at COP26.
The global climate justice movement has organized joint efforts not only by taking part in climate conferences in recent years, but also by promoting more accessible alternative spaces in which building and strengthening movements and transnational networks happens by resisting against the current capitalist system.
At Glasgow’s COP, groups of activists, workers, and NGOs from the United Kingdom that work toward climate justice mobilized their international networks around the COP26 Coalition, which organizes the People’s Summit for Climate Justice. The summit took place concurrently with the COP26 negotiations in locations spread across the city, including churches, museums, and cinemas. With an international programme including more than 150 events held in more than 14 languages, the summit introduced a well-organized structure that was open to the public, offering simultaneous interpreting, an online programme, grassroots assemblies where the status of the negotiations was reported on a daily basis, and accounts shared by the audience and guests aiming at continuous movement building.
The People’s Summit aimed to promote open and horizontal spaces where participants could express themselves and propose alternatives to the challenges posed by the climate based on grassroots experiences and solutions. A topic that was largely discussed, for example, was regarding just transition — a key matter in the British context, given how powerful the union movement is in the United Kingdom.
The privatization of industries in the UK, including the energy and transportation industries in the 1980s, has leveraged the union movement towards fighting for just transition. Organized workers have demanded healthy and decent work conditions, with the purpose of transitioning to regulated economies based on sustainable sources. Four decades later, the fossil fuel industry continues to expand around the world, accounting for roughly 70 percent of global carbon emissions. As this happened, the just transition movement has expanded across the globe and across groups beyond workers’ unions.
Alliances and Pathways towards Climate Justice in Latin America
In Latin America, the grassroots debate around energy transition is not obvious and remains limited to a few sectors. To encourage a regional debate, Javiera Lacourt Palacios coordinates the Just Transition in Latin Americaproject, which discusses what just transition means in the region with different sectors, starting from the understanding that energy transition is a territory-based process that differs from region to region. New approaches to just transition have emerged from the contributions of social movements. These perspectives advocate not only for renewable energy, but also decentralized, publicly regulated energy systems that can create decent jobs within a care-centred economy.
“Even though it is acknowledged that transitioning to a low carbon emission model is a pressing matter, the growing demand for energy demonstrates that there must be a broader discussion about it”, argues Daniel Gaio, the Environment secretary of Brazil’s Central Única dos Trabalhadores (Unified Workers’ Central, CUT) and a member of the People’s Summit. His views on the challenges posed by just transition in Brazil and Latin America include the relevance of intersectional perspectives and alliances: “Not only the type of energy model, we must fight over what energy will be used for, what means will be used to produce it, by whom it will be consumed, and at which cost. This is a pressing task: to incorporate the integrated approaches of eco-socialism, ecological economics, and feminist and anti-racist economics into our elaborations, as they indicate the necessary tools to overcome the current ways the economy is organized.”
The work conducted by local collectives and their engagement with regional and global networks — such as the Plataforma Latinoamericana y del Caribe por la Justicia Climática (Latin American and Caribbean Platform for Climate Justice) and Demand Climate Justice, respectively — are the key to challenge the neo-colonial system of extractivism and financialization of ecosystems that governments and polluting industries continue to promote at climate conferences.
“Alliances between groups of people who have been most affected by the climate crisis, such as poor people, women, and Black and Indigenous people, are fundamental to move forward in the struggle for climate justice”, argues Vivi Reis, a federal congresswoman from the Brazilian state of Pará, with the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Socialism and Freedom Party, PSOL), who took part in COP26 and the People’s Summit. “Solidarity networks from the global south are also a priority, as this is also a battle against the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. We also expect European and US movements, organizations, and members of parliaments who are committed to this struggle to pressure their governments to pay the bill for this crisis, which is also a matter of historical reparation. International solidarity networks are especially pressing for Brazil — our country has the world’s largest number of murders of environment and human rights defenders.”
The impacts of decisions made at COP26 will become real in all corners of the planet, hence the importance of the climate justice movement to continue to influence the official negotiation process. Latin America will severely feel these impacts, as the region has seen widespread promotion of false solutions and green capitalism by far-right governments.
Nevertheless, the region has several innovative initiatives and collectives dedicated to fighting climate injustice and promoting ecosystem solutions, such as Indigenous women’s platforms, or regional projects for just transition and food sovereignty. Strengthening regional networks for climate justice and countering the growing violation of territories and rights of minoritized peoples is one of the current challenges of the global movement. Equally important is that the movement must continue to mobilize and expand its alliances beyond the official spaces of politics, integrating movements that fight for social, economic, and environmental justice in the global struggle for climate justice.