Professor Lena Dominelli, Professor of Social Work, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling
In her final instalment on COP26, Lena Dominelli reflects on the outcomes of the conference and the prospects for the months ahead.
Another COP has come and gone, and so I am doing some stock-taking. The optimism, excitement and hope that marked the beginning, is now tinged with sadness and disappointment; and not for the first time. Both emotions have featured strongly in previous COPs.
So, what is similar between COP26 and the others I have attended, and what is innovative, or at least different? Let’s begin with the fine rhetoric, a feature of all COPs. Wonderful promises of working together to tackle climate change and reduce emissions have featured in all of them to a greater or lesser extent. But action on their implementation has been slow in coming. Meanwhile, the Small Island Developing Nations (SIDS) and low-lying countries like Bangladesh have been facing the destructive onslaught of existing climate change, or climate breakdown as some speakers at COP26 have preferred to call the present climate crisis. I don’t see it as a climate breakdown, though. I see it as a social breakdown – the lack of empathy that is not followed by action to put matters right; the lack of global solidarity and the promotion of the national self-interests, especially among the world’s largest polluters. Much of the West has been overtaken by other countries in the polluting stakes, and we can no longer focus on ‘historical’ debts alone, although putting these right has to remain high on any COP agenda. We must acknowledge that even in the West, not every individual has contributed the same amount to the consumption of fossil fuels, e.g. poor disadvantaged people, and homeless people, have very low individual usage, like many individuals in the Global South.
I personally do not buy the argument that coal-fired energy is the only way to take people out of poverty or to industrialise. For me, the issue is about making freely available existing renewable energy sources to all of the earth’s inhabitants. This is a social issue, as is the funding of scientific research and development, preferably in transdisciplinary, transnational teams engaging in coproduction endeavours involving the residents of communities most affected by climate change in finding innovative solutions by ‘doing science differently’. This approach didn’t even reach the main COP26 agenda. And it is doubtful to make it to the COP27 agenda next year, although I desperately hope I am proven wrong, because with enough grassroots pressure, this could happen.
That brings me to my next point; young people. The most impressive groups – young people, traditionally not there in significant numbers, were inside and outside the COP26 meeting. They articulated their dreams and demands most eloquently. YONGO, the last group to speak before the gavel came down to end this marathon, after 23:00 on 13 November were the most impressive speakers of the final plenaries. They offered a trenchant critique of the issues that had not been resolved through commitments to action now and suggested that if the Parties don’t know what to do and cannot lead, they should follow the young people who do!
While I do not wish to disparage the many efforts made by others, particularly the Climate Action Champions (Gonzalo Muñoz and Nigel Topping), the Mayors of key cities including Saddiq Khan of London, young people, speakers and delegates from the countries whose people are currently dying from the deleterious effects of climate change, I also wish to acknowledge the statements from many smaller delegations including those from Antiqua and Barbuda, and others like Kenya, whose impassioned calls to action still ring in my ears. And, I wish they had been given more than three minutes to speak! The march of time and bureaucracy was in plentiful evidence, and the Conference President sought to curtail dialogue (including observers and Parties) in the interests of ‘getting through the Agenda’ and with scarcely a second between one item and the next, bringing the gavel down saying that there was no further opposition to the motion, so it was ‘agreed’ and moved on. I struggled to interpret the proceedings in this light since all the speakers to that point had politely, if only a few put it passionately, said that they did not agree with, for example, ‘phasing down’ rather than ‘phasing out’ the use of fossil fuels, and complained that they had been excluded from those discussions even though they had agreed the ‘phasing out’ terminology earlier so that the meeting could be finished sooner rather than later (This was a good thing because when Alok Sharma handed the gavel to the other President, many delegates left the room with him).
China and India were the only two countries mentioned in that significant word change, so it seems that size is power, and can be used to over-ride an earlier consensus in which they had been involved in reaching. Of course, the smaller nations knew when they had been over-ridden, and so they graciously accepted the result without agreeing to it and vowing to fight another day under their own auspices and bring this issue to the next COP. Also disappointing for them (and me), was the rich countries’ lack of commitment to actually paying the $100 billion which has been on the table since 2009. They also complained about the small number of countries that signed up to the ‘loss and damage’ payments because this would have helped immensely in their struggle to pay for the mitigation and adaptation measures that they have to put in place simply to survive. There is much about diplomacy to tease out in this ‘dance of the minuet’ as I term such exchanges. Of course, the big countries did not have to defend their stance in this setting and so did not speak. To those that have power, more shall be added? At the same time, I do not wish to detract from the thanks many delegates gave to the COP26 President and the many administrative staff who facilitated a COP26 that successfully went from one Agenda item to another and covered them all, albeit without fulfilling the high ambitions set for COP26.
Other innovations in this COP, aside from acknowledging formally the right of young people to be involved in these deliberations, were at least placing on the table, damage and loss considerations, the commitment to substantially reducing methane emissions, keeping the flame of sticking to 1.5˚C flickering until the next COP meeting. It also involved the commercial for-profit-sector including the banks in larger numbers than previously. This achievement can be a two-faced Janus, because on the one hand, banks and businesses hold more of the earth’s resources and global finances between them than many nation-states combined and could make these available for human-induced climate change to be eliminated. On the other hand, they have also contributed to creating the problems. This is by promoting forms of industrial development and agribusinesses that prioritise unacceptable models of production that rely exclusively on fossil fuels and built-in obsolescence, and consumerist lifestyle wherein people are encouraged to spend for the sake of spending including throw-away clothes, one-use plastics, space tourism for rich people, and outsourcing carbon usage to low-income countries desperate to earn foreign exchange.
We cannot afford to continue with such inhuman approaches to other people’s basic human right to live and have their basic needs met, nor can we afford to disregard the beauty and bounty of our planet which is here for everyone, not just the few. Nor can we accept structural, socially-induced forms of inequality and disregard for the diversity of human populations. We have a duty to care for each other and our planet. That is why I, like those indigenous peoples, poor and marginalised people throughout the world, will continue the struggle to end human-induced climate change as long as I can until this goal is reached. And when I ‘cross the bar’, I shall continue to contribute to the chain of life, as a molecule in the soil. Thanks to the people of Glasgow, the people of Scotland, and the students at the Alva Academy for sharing with me their insights into creating a more egalitarian, peaceful world, and for continuing to hold those undermining this alternative vision of the world accountable.