News | Socio-ecological Transformation - COP26 - Climate Justice An Exercise in Smoke and Mirrors?

A climate justice perspective on the outcomes of COP26


COP26 Sheffield Climate March on 6 November 21. 4,000 people marched to a rally outside City Hall demanding greater action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  CC BY-NC 2.0, Photo: Flickr / Tim Dennell

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) took place in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 13 November 2021, aiming, as it proclaimed, to bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Postponed from last year, it was the first COP to take place during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising additional questions of safety and accessibility due to global vaccine inequality.

There was an extreme urgency for the conference to deliver meaningful outcomes that respond to the climate crisis, especially given the latest scientific warnings that without immediate, rapid, and significant emission reductions, it will be too late to limit global warming to 1.5°C or even 2°C. After more than two weeks of negotiations, the conference came to a close on 13 November, with all parties agreeing on the Glasgow Climate Pact, finalizing the rulebook of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and setting the framework of international climate policy for the coming years.

While some observers considered the international community to have taken some steps in the right direction, albeit slowly, representatives of developing countries and civil society, however, showed their disappointment at the continued failure to act on the urgency of the climate crisis and deliver real and fair solutions to the climate crisis for both people and planet.

Climate Inaction Bedazzled

COP26 was framed as the “last chance” to agree on climate action and keep global warming under 1.5 °C when compared with pre-industrial levels, reflecting the goal agreed upon in Paris in 2015 of keeping any global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees”. Under the slogan “coal, cars, cash, trees”, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and COP President Alok Sharma promised to “keep 1.5 alive”.

The conference closed with all parties accepting the final agreement, the Glasgow Climate Pact. The document mentioned coal in its final section which was considered important as previous COPs have avoided reference to fossil fuels, the biggest driver of global warming. However, there have been more promises made at COP26 than concrete actions decided on and immediate, strong, and robust emission reductions necessary to keep global warming under 1.5 °C are nowhere in sight.

To be able to keep global warming below 1.5 °C, the Glasgow Climate Pact stresses the need to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 45 percent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. However, the political measures announced by participating countries would still result in a 16 percent overall emissions increase which would lead to a warming of by the end of the century. This would spell catastrophe for many communities, particularly those in the Global South who are already severely impacted by a 1 °C rise in global temperatures.

Governments have also agreed that the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the climate action plans each country has to submit on a regular basis, have to be updated and reported on yearly instead of every five years as previously agreed. As the formulation of and reporting on NDCs is a time and resource intensive procedure, the Global North should provide financial assistance and capacity building in this regard to countries lacking the necessary resources. Many countries have not submitted NDCs and for almost all countries, the concrete NDCs are well beyond the respective country’s stated “net-zero” targets meaning concrete action is again deferred.

Despite this, the UK’s Presidency has celebrated that more countries and companies have promised to reach net-zero by 2050. Under the pretence of impressive climate ambition, the term “net-zero” is used to offset responsibilities and disguise climate inaction by many polluting governments and corporations. The net-zero approach does not actually equate to zero emissions. Conversely, net-zero is a dangerous distraction from the real action needed to radically and rapidly cut the emissions of the biggest historical polluters. At the core of these pledges are false solutions that propose technological solutions that capture and store emitted carbon and offset plans with carbon credits that are bought from projects in the Global South.

With the focus on net-zero, there are a range of outdated and high-risk technologies being foregrounded, many with their own risks and likelihood of creating new environmental problems, such as geo-engineering and nuclear power. The nuclear lobby was very much present at COP26, promoting a “nuclear for climate” agenda, despite the unresolved problems with nuclear waste and the inequalities and extractivist model nuclear energy is based on. The discussion around nuclear energy gained more traction shortly after the climate summit, especially in Europe. Actors like the French government promote nuclear power as a solution to energy transformation. With France holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union, nuclear energy and natural gas were classified as environmentally sustainable economic activities under the so-called taxonomy. There is now a heated debate on if and how these plans will help Europe become the “world’s first continent with net-zero emissions”.

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate processes and is highly controversial due to being high risk and the difficulties of predicting the exact outcome of geoengineering projects. Currently there is massive debate around carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) where CO2 is captured from the atmosphere after being emitted and then stored mostly underground on land or under the ocean. Many CCS projects have to be stopped due to technical problems, financial problems, or because of insecure storage conditions and the risk of leakage. CCS is compromised by the same problem as nuclear energy, the need to find secure and socially accepted facilities to store dangerous waste for thousands of years. Despite these problems, CCS is proposed by many actors, including the IPCC, as a solution or an additional strategy to lower the carbon concentration of the atmosphere while allowing both the economy and the fossil fuel industry to continue to produce emissions.

CCS is also at the heart of one of the important alliances initiated at COP26. US and China, the world’s two biggest emitters of CO2, have announced they will work together on stronger emission cuts. This came as a surprise to many, including the conference presidency, because of the political tensions between the two countries. A central point in the US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s is the intention to foster the “deployment and application of technology such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and direct air capture”. This has raised concerns and criticism, especially among civil society observers. Organizations like the ETC Group warned that these “technological fantasies” will be “used to justify further investment in fossil fuels”.

Several bilateral and multilateral agreements were made during the first week of the negotiations, as well as multiple announcements by both individual states and non-state actors which were celebrated by the media as some of the most important outcomes of the COP. However, when looked at closely these can be seen as neither far reaching enough nor are they binding. One example is the Global Methane Pledge, aiming at reducing methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 when compared with 2020, that only applies to methane leakage and does not refer to a gas phase-out. The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, supported by state and non-state actors as well as private companies, promises to end deforestation by 2030.

Civil society organizations criticized the declaration for allowing 10 more years of deforestation and remarked that similar initiatives, like the New York Forest Declaration from 2014, had no effect on slowing deforestation at all. The Zero Emission Vehicle Pledge, that Germany refused to sign, plans to put an end to production of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035. While it can indeed be interpreted as a first sign of phasing out internal combustion vehicles, it is not a change in transportation policy built on a general traffic reduction and the expansion of train, bus, bike, and pedestrian resources.

Where’s the Financing?

As not enough is being undertaken to keep global warming levels in line with the Paris Agreement, the crucial question of financing for adaptation and climate-induced losses and damages is even more important. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest assessment shows clearly that while the worst impacts of climate change can still be averted with radical climate action, there are some which are unavoidable and some which are already occurring.

The target of industrialized countries to mobilize 100 billion US dollars every year from 2020 to 2025 for mitigation and adaptation in the Global South has not been met. COP26 did not reach its goal to close this financial gap or increase needs-based financial commitments. While there were expectations that the threshold might be passed in 2023, the final version of the Glasgow Climate Pact included very noncommittal language, only noting “with deep regret” that the goal had not been met and “urging” developed countries “to fully deliver on the USD 100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025”.

The industrialized countries have not only missed the opportunity to make good on their obligation to provide adequate financial support but more importantly, most of the climate finance delivered so far has been in the form of loans and investments instead of grants, thus raising the debt burden of the recipient countries. Additionally, in the years 2018 and 2019, about 25 percent of the funding was used for adaptation and most funding went to mitigation projects that are more attractive as investments for industrialized countries. The group of least developed countries (LDCs), with the support of other countries of the Global South and civil society organizations, are calling for establishing balance, asking that at least 50 percent of funding goes into adaptation because this is where finance is most urgently needed.

The Glasgow Climate Pact pledges to at least double adaptation financing. This would still not be enough to fund the adaptation measures necessary to protect communities and livelihoods in many of the most affected countries. Furthermore, it is unclear whether this money will be additional or recycled from other insufficient sources, such as development and humanitarian aid. The development of a new collective goal on long-term climate finance, to kick in beginning in 2025, was only vaguely formulated by the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Loss and Damage

The issue of climate-induced losses and damages played a prominent role at COP26, despite the fact it was not on the official agenda. It is clear that even in the case of ambitious climate action and adaptation efforts, not all adverse effects of climate change can be avoided. There will be irrevocable damages and definite losses of livelihoods, landscapes, national territories, and cultures.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has been raising this issue since the beginning of the climate negotiations, even drawing attention to the potential disappearance of Tuvalu and Kiribati as a result of climate change lead sea level rises over the next two decades. Civil society and affected countries from the Global South have pushed for the recognition of Loss and Damage distinct from adaptation. Due to this pressure, Loss and Damage was included in the Paris Agreement, although rich countries have not only made sure that it does not serve as a basis for legal demands but have also worked since then to hinder any formal institutionalization of the concept.

The Loss and Damage discussions are crucial because developing countries urgently need support to address losses and damages from the impacts of climate change. Rich countries are up in arms opposing the link between greenhouse gasses and climate-induced Loss and Damage because of issues of liability and compensation. This explains why the topic causes heated debate and tends to amplify the divide between developed and developing countries.

This was also apparent in the Glasgow negotiations when the G77 and China, which represents more than 130 countries from the Global South, proposed the creation of a dedicated Glasgow discussion on Loss and Damage. Strong opposition from the EU, the US and UK successfully blocked the proposal, and the final text refers only to “dialogue” and the discussion of “arrangements”. The Glasgow Climate Pact shows slight progress was made on defining the functions and funding of the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage which was created in 2019, to provide technical support to countries dealing with climate disasters.

Amidst the resistance of industrialized countries to provide dedicated funding for losses and damages, Scotland stepped forward with a 1-million euro pledge to support countries experiencing the worst impacts of the climate crisis. The hope that other countries might follow their example has not materialized, with the exception of Wallonia, who pledged another 1 million. Germany announced its pledge of 10 million euro for the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage but stressed that this funding is meant for technical assistance and not for compensation of climate related damages or losses.

As the official negotiations failed on advancing a dedicated facility, private philanthropies have stepped in and announced they will finance a Loss and Damage facility. While this may be helpful in the short term, it is not a solution to the general problem of responsibility for climate damages and should not let historical polluters ignore their responsibilities or avoid paying their fair share towards the provision of financial support to developing countries suffering from the impacts of climate change.

When countries of the Global North were asked in side-events and meetings with their delegations for financing for Loss & Damage, they often referred to development aid as a way of providing funding. However, this is highly problematic, as those are often projects that come with conditions and lead to higher dependencies. Additionally, the risk is high that countries see Loss and Damage finance as part of humanitarian aid which is often given for a short period of time and where immediate action is required such as after a climate change disaster.

Neither development aid nor humanitarian aid are sustainable sources of funding that would support permanent solutions and provide cover for losses caused by the climate crisis. Representatives of civil society exemplified this when they criticized the use of the word “donor” in reference to rich industrialized countries by negotiators and journalists. Climate expert Salemuul Huq from Bangladesh suggested “don’t call them donors” because they “are polluters! They owe this money”.

Article 6: Carbon Markets Triumph at COP26

One of the most hotly debated issues in Glasgow at COP26 was Article 6 of the Paris Agreement which deals with market and non-market mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The inclusion of Article 6 in the Paris Agreement and thus, the possibility of trading emissions, was controversial from the beginning. The market mechanisms included in the Kyoto Protocol, the climate treaty before the Paris Agreement, are generally considered to have failed, they have weakened the whole treaty and prevented the agreement from being able to push for a real emission reduction.

Therefore, there were fears that Article 6 might have the same effect: that it might open loopholes and undermine ambitious climate action by allowing, for example, the double counting of emissions or the takeover of bad certificates from the Kyoto Protocol, certificates that are not related to a reduction of emissions but might serve as an excuse for polluters to continue to emit. While most issues that needed to be solved in Glasgow for the Paris Agreement to finally enter into operation were thoroughly discussed before the conference, many crucial questions around Article 6 were still to be decided when the negotiators met in November, making it one of the conference’s decisive issues.

Some of the most problematic issues of Article 6 could be prevented in the end, for instance the double-counting of emission reductions, by joint mitigation projects from two countries. However, even if these emission credits are correctly transferred between the host party and the party investing in the project, this is merely a zero-sum game for the global climate.

Therefore, the newly introduced solution of distributing emissions credits proportionally to both parties provides a basis for additional mitigation outcomes. Those in favour of more ambitious climate action have also pointed to the need to cancel part of the certificates every year, suggesting their loss in value over time might encourage further mitigation efforts. The rules agreed on in Glasgow, however, propose only the cancellation of two percent of the emission certificates in the mechanism registry, which is insufficient to have a significant effect.

Additionally, the decisions from Glasgow allow the transfer of a part of existing, unused, and highly problematic old certificates from the era of the Kyoto protocol. Many of these certificates do not contain any additional emissions reductions. According to the calculations of the Öko-Institut, this could undercut efforts to protect the climate by several billion tons of CO2. However, it is still unclear if there is any interest in buying these “bad” certificates. Many states, among them those from the European Union, have already excluded the use of such credits from their emission markets.

Other aspects in the outcome on Article 6 were disappointing. Reference to human rights, while not completely excluded as some had feared, was kept to the final text and the language remained weak. The principle of “free, prior and informed consent”, as recognized by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), is not mentioned. It is a small achievement that Article 6.4, dealing with the project-based carbon market, mentions the installation of an independent grievance mechanism to be applied by local or indigenous communities in cases of mistreatment by climate projects.

Additionally, the language on safeguards in Article 6.4 is more robust than expected, calling for the application of “robust, social and environmental safeguards”. These still have to be clearly defined under Article 6.8, the part dealing with the wide field of non-market mechanisms. The next step, according to the agreement, would be to “establish guidelines, procedures and safeguards to facilitate” for these non-market approaches”.

Action and Unstable Justice

The outcomes of COP26 show that, due to both the pressure of civil society and social movements from all over the globe and also the inherent contradictions increasingly apparent in the current economic system, world leaders are realizing that they cannot close their eyes to the climate crisis.

In Glasgow, they announced the first steps in the right direction, for example by including fossil fuels for the first time in the conference documentation and by issuing calls to phase out the use of internal combustion engines. The actions proposed, however, are not ambitious enough by far and in no way reflect the historic responsibilities of especially the most important emitters to both take measures to prevent a further acceleration of global warming and to help those most affected to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis.

This again reinforces global climate injustices and is a huge disappointment after 27 years of negotiations. Furthermore, it is unclear if the promises made at COP26 are going to be kept. The focus on net-zero and on instruments to offset or capture emissions suggest instead, that the most powerful will try to continue their harmful but profitable practices for as long as possible.

Instead of these “false solutions” it will be necessary for organizations and social movements to push further, inside and beyond international climate negotiations, to create real change aimed at emission reductions and a globally and socially fair transformation that will only be possible through structural changes to both the economic system and current ways of life. The upcoming COP27 in Egypt, in a region where the impacts of the climate crisis have cost the livelihoods of many, has to make a difference to climate negotiations. The painful questions have to be asked about historic responsibilities, financing for Loss and Damage, adaptation, and a real cut on global emissions.