Can climate justice really be achieved at an unjust and ineffective event?
In my last blog, I explained the origins of COPs and what tends to be involved with these events. To briefly recap, COP stands for Conference of the Parties, with each Party being a member state to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). So, a COP is a large event where the countries who signed up to the UNFCCC come together to discuss the ideas, innovations, and requirements necessary for tackling the climate crisis.
In my last blog I also touched on some of the issues with COP (in particular, how slow and ineffective they have been so far). Here, I’ll go into more detail describing the problems at COP, with the aim of helping people manage their expectations with COP26.
Some view the COP as the very best means of achieving climate justice; others simply see it as merely a necessary step that can lead to better change agents; but for many, it earns a much more scathing review. Naomi Klein has described it as “less like a form for serious negotiation than a very costly and high-carbon group therapy session, a place for the representatives of the most vulnerable countries in the world to vent their grief and rage while low-level representatives of the nations largely responsible for their tragedies stare at their shoes”¹. To many, it is coming across as nothing but a waste of time.
COP is perhaps most famous for producing the Paris Agreement (PA) – a pledge to limit global temperature rise to 2˚C, but preferably to keep it below 1.5˚C (compared to pre-industrial levels).However, this landmark achievement is riddled with snags. For starters, it is non-binding and does not require countries to meet their goals. It relies upon a naming-and-shaming approach to motivate countries to do better, but all that is happening is countries are arguing that there is no need to do better than other countries – sticking us all in a stagnant stalemate, where nobody wins.
Countries are simply able to pick and choose what they want to do to fight climate change – through something called their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC’s). Alarmingly, a study has found that even if every country meets their INDCs, global temperatures will stills rise by 2.7-3.5˚C – a catastrophic amount, that will undoubtedly create suffering on a scale unlike any other in human history².
On the flipside, though, this means that COP26 could very well be the last chance to stick to the 1.5˚C target, and ensure a safe future for people.
Whilst countries are supposed to raise their climate ambitions over time, there is no guarantee of this, especially as climate change impacts hit home (for example, hotter temperatures increases needs for air-conditioning, leading to higher emissions). The amount of time we have left to prevent civilisation-collapsing levels of climate change is rapidly shrinking, and right now our governments are providing little more than empty words.
We are already seeing the harrowing impacts of a climate breakdown, as certain parts of the globe are becoming uninhabitable to humans. Loss and Damage (LAD) and adaptation are going to be major players in COPs going forward, yet, few efforts have been made to support displaced people, and there have been major issues with LAD.
Back at the 2009 COP, developed countries agreed to pledge $100 billion a year to help poorer nations cope with LAD. However, these funds are not nearly enough. Furthermore, developed nations have found disgusting ways to try to back out of their pledges – by claiming that the money should be given through loans, forcing poorer nations to “pay back” the very countries who have caused the problems in the first place³.
There are also arguments to be made for the case that the PA should be focusing on per capita emissions, not absolute emissions. Countries like India shouldn’t be penalised for having a larger population.
Additionally, there is a push for an Article 6 – implementing carbon markets – to be added to the PA. This must not happen. Why? Because carbon markets have been found to be ineffective, anti-democratic, and allows the rich to continue, business as usual⁴.
Lastly, the Paris Agreement makes no mention of the very industries causing the climate disaster – “oil”, “coal”, and “natural gas” appear nowhere in the Agreement. Despite the fact that the International Energy Agency has found that no more new oil and gas fields can be developed if the world is to stay within “safe limits of global heating”. This has given the fossil fuel industry a leniency that they have exploited to try to keep committing atrocities against humanity⁵.
We need concrete, drastic plans to combat this, and we need to see radical change that happens rapidly. The Paris Agreement is not giving us this.
Currently, COP is a reflection of the outside world – a world that is patriarchal, racist, colonialist, ablest, and capitalist. Unfortunately, these dangerous and unjust societal systems are embedded into everything, and COP is no exception. Only recently were structural changes made to ensure that COP is a safe space for women (i.e. where women could attend without the risk of sexual assault). And even now, the UK’s COP team is majorly male-dominated, despite the fact the women will bear a far greater brunt of climate change⁶.
COP needs to become a safer space for all marginalized groups, including disabled people, people of colour, and indigenous communities, as well as women. The unequal power structures present in society cannot be replicated at COPs if they are to be at all successful.
This grossly unjust capitalist structure is also being seen through the way corporations are gaining access to the COPs. Heavily polluting industries have been finding ways to infiltrate COPs and influence the outcomes to suit themselves, through: lobbying; negotiators with hidden agendas; or sponsorships that allow inside access⁷.
And it looks as though this is set to continue through COP26, with every panel having a big polluter, plastic company, or a bank present on it. Every single one.
How can we expect COPs to act in the best interests of the people, as long as governments are immediately under pressure from corrupt industries. When did this event turn into another capitalism-fuelled corporate conference, instead of an event designed for governments and experts to serve the public?
In defence of the PA, some claim that it was never designed to be the ultimate solution to the climate crisis, but that it is still necessary for achieving global climate action. Supporters argue that it is merely a foundation for greater ambition to grow from. But right now, COP and the PA are failing. Dramatically. And we do not have the time for this.
It’s pretty overwhelming to realise that the “solution” or chance to fight against climate change is itself corrupt and ineffective. The climate crisis is building, and causing more and more destruction every year, leaving young people at a hopeless loss with what to do. And those who are hopeless are lucky, because we aren’t yet directly impacted – unlike those who are losing their livelihoods, their homes, their lives.
However, this fear and worry will not stop me from acting. I couldn’t live with myself, knowing that people are suffering, and I’m willingly and carelessly contributing to that. Due to the pandemic, high-profile activism fighting for climate justice (e.g. marches and road-blockings) were put on pause. This is likely to have majorly eased the pressure governments feel to act responsibly. Combining this with what I’ve written in this post, and I highly doubt that COP26 will result in anything worthwhile.
Nonetheless, it will present an opportunity to raise the stakes, and engage in much more meaningful activism – at the very least, it could be what makes COP27 a more successful event. As such, I’ll be writing my next blog in this series about the ways in which COP can improve, and we can progress. I can only hope that with this promise, I haven’t ended on too much of a depressing and nihilistic view of the climate.
1. Naomi Kleins “This Changes Everything
2. Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2 °C | Nature
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