COP26: Success or Failure?

By Alberto Parise, MCCJ

The final agreement of the UN Climate Change Conference left all parties in Glasgow uneasy. The US negotiator, John Kerry, commented that this discomfort is a sign of good negotiation, in which everyone’s voice was heard and partially accommodated. In the wake of the conclusions, many questions whether or not COP26 was a failure. There is a consensus that there is still a long way to go. However, some believe there were important breakthroughs: The agreement to review emissions reduction ambitions every year (rather than every five) to accelerate climate action; 90% of the world’s economies committing to achieving zero emissions around mid-century; stopping deforestation in 90% of the world’s forests by 2030; the fact that, after 6 years, the rules for full implementation of the Paris Agreement have finally been completed; the endorsement of calls for a reduction in the use of coal and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, as well as a 30% reduction in methane emissions by 2030 by over 100 countries. On the values side, there was the endorsement of the concept of climate justice and the admissibility of claims for climate-related devastation (“Loss and Damage”). As far as financing for mitigation and adaptation to the climate crisis is concerned, considerable private capital has been mobilized even if the rich countries have not yet fulfilled their commitments.

Others, however, highlight the contradictions contained in the Glasgow Climate Pact: the fraud of carbon credits, which will allow the continued emission of greenhouse gases instead of reducing them; the fact that emissions instead of being globally reduced will continue to grow until 2030; the lack of accountability of large mining companies; the lack of deadlines for the end of subsidies to fossil fuels and coal. The results of the negotiations are not consistent with the guidance coming from climate science and climate justice. The slow progress is still a long way from the minimum necessary, a rapid and equitable phase-out of fossil fuels. And there has not been the solidarity and response needed to the suffering of the most affected and vulnerable nations.

But, above all, it is the issues of human rights and ecosystems that concern civil society. The energy transition often comes at the expense of local communities and indigenous peoples, who suffer the impacts of extracting the minerals needed for the supply chain or losing their vital land and environment to construct renewable energy plants. And in the end, it is not the communities that benefit from the energy produced, but rather large industries or, in the case of mineral extraction, the economies of the global North once again. More broadly, we challenge the narrative that new technologies offer the solutions to the climate problem and that simply expanding their use on a large scale will achieve the goal of containing global warming. These are often false solutions, solving one aspect of the problem and creating others.

In light of the above, it is clear that the fundamental issue behind the negotiations is the model of development that is to be followed. Even though governments of the global North and South compete, claiming different priorities, in reality, they are very often on the same “side,” that of the model of economic growth, of the profits and interests of large industrial and financial groups, of the perpetuation of the current dominant market form.

But there is also another vision of development, represented by the various groups of civil society – indigenous peoples, young people, women, environmental organizations, etc… – which propose paths of ecological, social, and economic sustainability based on scientific evidence and human rights, on the knowledge and wisdom of indigenous peoples and local communities, which are rooted in the close material and spiritual connection with the territory and the earth, with its natural resources. This means putting people and the planet first, not profits.

Whether or not there was a success in Glasgow, and to what extent, finds different answers depending on the point of view. One can indeed speak of success from the free-market perspective, as confirmed by the enthusiastic adhesion of large financial and industrial groups pushing for innovation and ecological transition. But from the point of view of those suffering and disappearing from the face of the earth because of global warming, those who are on the front line of environmental impacts, human rights, and people, it was undoubtedly another great disappointment.

Nevertheless, the COP remains an indispensable space for dialogue and meeting different perspectives. It is the only place where grassroots organizations can meet and compare themselves with the world’s bigwigs and advocate an idea of development and genuinely sustainable practices. So far, only a few general principles and some practical suggestions have been passed on, still little to influence the system. If we want to solve the climate crisis, we will have to adopt a new development paradigm.