When the final gavel went down on COP26, the British government minister Alok Sharma had tears in his eyes. “I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry,” he said.
Sharma was right to apologize, even if he gave the wrong reasons for it. The Glasgow Climate Change Conference has already been described as the “most exclusive” climate summit in history. Before the conference had even started, campaigners predicted that it would be the “whitest and most privileged ever,” with thousands of people from the Global South unable to attend.
Sadly, their prediction came true. Thousands of people were stranded without proof of vaccination. Thousands more were priced out of the city. In the end, more fossil fuel lobbyists attended the summit than delegates from any single country, and the final result was an obvious reflection of that.
State of Emergency
Climate-vulnerable countries called for real ambition at the summit. They wanted rich nations to make good on their broken promises and to agree to reparations payments for the loss and damage that is happening right now. Their document was called the “Glasgow Climate Emergency Pact.”
After two weeks of arduous negotiations, the UK government presented its own document, the “Glasgow Climate Pact.” The word “emergency” was conspicuously absent. The demands on loss and damage had also disappeared.
Developing nations are used to such disappearances. Words go missing. Activists vanish. Islands disappear underwater. These disappearances are not inexplicable. They are vanishing acts, performed by richer nations and their industry friends.
Surangel Whipps Jr, the president of the Pacific island state of Palau, appeared at one point to lose his patience with the process:
Our future is being robbed from us. There is no dignity to a slow and painful death. You might as well bomb our islands instead of making us suffer.
In 2009, rich nations promised to raise a $100 billion annual fund to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change. Twelve years later, they have still not fulfilled that promise. Rich nations say that developing countries will now have to wait another two years to receive the money that was promised to them, with much of the funding to come in the form of inadequate and unjust loans. The UK has still not paid the amount it owes. Similarly, the United States has paid less than 20 percent of the money it owes.
Developing countries are angry. Without the promised funding, they will struggle to protect their people against climate and ecological breakdown. The world has changed in twelve years, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) now estimates that $6.9 trillion a year is required in funding by 2030. But the small and insubstantial amount that was promised has, nonetheless, become a sticking point. This is about a broken promise. More than that, it is about justice.
Loss and Damage
At Glasgow, developing countries coalesced around a clear demand for the establishment of a facility on “loss and damage.” More than a hundred seventy developing countries, representing over six billion people, supported this demand at the summit.
The first call to address loss and damage came over thirty years ago, when small island states first pushed to create a mechanism for compensation. They wanted the world to acknowledge the destruction that was already happening and provide funding to deal with the consequences of climate change. For them, climate change is not some theoretical catastrophe playing out in an unknown future. It is a real and present threat.
Rich countries, responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, have been opposed to loss and damage financing from the very beginning. Many fear it would lead to legal liability for historic greenhouse gas emissions and vast compensation claims. Thus, the United States, the UK, and the European Union have repeatedly resisted calls from developing countries to create a facility providing financial support for loss and damage.
Developed countries lobbied against an equitable phaseout of fossil fuels and tried to change the rule on climate finance. Tasneem Essop, the director of the Climate Action Network, said that the final deal was “a clear betrayal by rich nations — the United States, the EU and the UK — of vulnerable communities in poor countries.”
The only country to have given any money to the loss and damage fund is Scotland, which has contributed a small but symbolic £2 million. Developing countries tried to use this as a negotiating point. Publicly, the EU even appeared to support the proposals. Yet behind closed doors, EU officials sided with the United States.
For its part, the UK government ensured that neither the broken promise of $100 billion nor the demand for loss and damage would be discussed on the conference floor. Richer nations did everything they could to kill the proposals, and they won. In the end, all that was left was the promise of a future “dialogue” on loss and damage.
Delegates from developing nations, representing the vast majority of the global population, were outraged. A small cabal of powerful nations had stymied any progress on their most important demand. On the floor of the conference, delegates took turns to express their feelings.
Antigua and Barbuda said they were “extremely disappointed” by the lack of action on loss and damage. Fiji said they were making a compromise on loss and damage “for the sake of collective action.” Bhutan said it was “not what we were expecting.” Bolivia pointed out that developed countries were repeating the mistakes of the past:
We refuse to get trapped in carbon colonialism. Developed countries will continue using the carbon budget that belongs to the developing world, and this is not fair.
The United States and the EU then began to berate developing countries for voicing their dissent. US representative John Kerry told the conference that it should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good: “If it’s a good negotiation, everyone is uncomfortable, and this was a good negotiation.” There is a difference, of course, between what the United States had been uncomfortable about — namely, paying their debts — and what, for example, the delegate from Gabon was uncomfortable about, which was “a matter of life and death.”
EU officials struck a similar tone. “We are only at the beginning of what we need to do on loss and damage.” said Frans Timmermans, slamming his fist on the table, “but, for heaven’s sake, don’t kill this moment by asking for more text.” How dare developing nations ask for concrete proposals on loss and damage, he insisted, as opposed to the meaningless dialogue they were promised.
Timmermans was followed by Shauna Aminath, the delegate from the Maldives, who reminded him that “what seems balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time.” While Timmermans spoke of future generations, Aminath said, “for us, this is a matter of survival now.”
This is a depressingly familiar routine. In fact, most of these summits follow a very similar script. First, there is a flurry of headline-grabbing announcements from world leaders. Most of these are quite pointless, but at least the media are very complimentary about it all.
Then, the developed nations and the developing nations set out their conflicting priorities. The press generally ignores the latter. Usually, there is then a big protest outside the conference. Some journalists bother to turn up, but most try their best to overlook it.
Halfway through the conference, a billionaire might appear and promise to give away a fraction of the money he avoids in tax. The media will get very excited about that, and they will dutifully forget the protests.
Toward the end of the conference, the talks will always descend into chaos, before the developed nations inevitably emerge victorious, with the developing nations forced to “take the compromise.” Finally, the developed nations find a scapegoat. The media reports whatever they are told, and everyone goes away happy. Well, everyone who matters.
At COP26, the rich countries pinned the blame on China and India. As the negotiations drew to a close, India tabled a new amendment, attempting to change the wording on a coal “phase out” to a coal “phase down.” This was, to be clear, the wrong thing to do.
But the scandal that surrounded it was also completely manufactured. The day before, India had announced its intentions to make this change. It was not, as the media reported, a complete surprise to everyone involved.
The UK had focused on coal during the summit — a fuel upon which many developing countries are still reliant. At first, the British government wanted to call on parties to “accelerate the phasing out of coal, and subsidies for fossil fuels.” India suggested a change to “all fossil fuels to be phased down, particularly by the developed countries.”
British government officials rejected the proposed alteration. They did not want to include language on oil and gas, or on equity. An equitable fossil fuel phaseout would have placed the burden for emissions reductions on the United States and other rich countries, which their negotiators deemed unacceptable.
A Broken System
Were India and China the biggest problem at this conference? Hours after the conference finished, Australia reneged on one of the key commitments in the deal, refusing to take another look at their 2030 target. The United States, meanwhile, refused to join an alliance of governments with plans to end oil and gas production.
In fact, days after the climate summit, Joe Biden is now preparing to hold the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in US history. For its part, the UK has plans for a new oilfield in the North Sea, and is still considering opening its first new coal mine in thirty years. Yet we are still being encouraged to place the blame with India and China.
Western media outlets are only too happy to go along with this dangerous charade. On the first day of the summit, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun told us the plan in advance: “If COP26 fails to bring change then China, Russia and India should be blamed.” Of course, Murdoch himself has been one of the most active proponents of climate denial on several continents. This week, another Murdoch title, the Sunday Times, followed the line laid down in advance: “India and China dilute pledge.”
The day after the summit, Boris Johnson hosted a press conference in Downing Street. Journalists repeatedly asked Johnson about the moment “phase out” was changed to “phase down.” One even asked: “Do you think China and India have let down the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries?” Yet nobody mentioned the actual demands of those countries or the refusal of governments like Johnson’s to accept them. There was nothing on loss and damage and nothing on climate finance, but nobody seemed to care about the real failures of this conference.
But what does all of this matter? We are still on course for catastrophic climate breakdown. The pledges made in Glasgow for the next ten years represent less than 25 percent of the ambition required. Instead of 1.5 degrees Celsius, they put us on track for a catastrophic 2.4 degrees Celsius of warming. Only a fifth of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists expect the world to meet the Paris Agreement. Just 4 percent think 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible.
If there is one thing to come out of this conference that should fill us with hope, it is the hundreds of thousands of people who marched through the streets of Glasgow. Trade unionists joined hands with Indigenous leaders and climate activists marched alongside conference delegates.
To avoid disaster, we need to build an alternative to the broken system of global capitalism. As Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a twelve-year-old from the Sliammon First Nation said: “COP26 is a performance, an illusion constructed to salvage capitalist economies. I didn’t come here to fix the agenda. I came here to disrupt it.”