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COP26 Was a Flop, but the Climate Justice Movement Is Still Growing

The COP26 summit in Glasgow this month ended with a set of vague and inadequate pledges that won’t tackle the climate crisis. Real hope lies not with corporate-sponsored elite gatherings but with the popular movements linking climate action to social justice.

Protesters rally during the COP26 summit on November 5 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images)

The COP26 conference held in Scotland this year had the worst conditions for democratic participation in the history of climate negotiations, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, high prices of travel and accommodation in the UK, securitization around the event, and the privileged status of corporate sponsors. There were low expectations that it would reach any successful commitments.

Indeed, the dominant features of COP26 were a discourse favoring market-based and technical solutions, the massive presence of fossil fuel lobbyists, and spectacular announcements from wealthy nations that didn’t live up to the hype. The Glasgow Climate Pact, finalized on November 13, is a package of vague promises that strengthens private-sector interests and lacks sufficient financial commitments from rich countries to support mitigation, loss, and damage in developing countries.

Failures and False Solutions

Despite their historical responsibility for climate change, rich countries again didn’t deliver the annual finance goal of $100 billion for climate action in the Global South, leaving more space for private climate finance initiatives. Developed countries and civil society groups, such as the Climate Action Network, have demanded that the North also provide additional funding for climate adaptation and loss and damages separate from finance for climate mitigation to reduce emissions. Some of the world’s poorest regions are already facing floods, droughts, and fires caused by the climate crisis.

However, Glasgow did not deliver targets or a separate facility to compensate for these losses and damages. Leaders increasingly refer to the Paris Agreement of 2015 instead of the founding principles of COP, including the recognition of historical responsibilities on the part of the world’s richest states and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. This year, under the leadership of the British government, finance continues to be yet another neocolonial lending channel.

A central issue for negotiators in Glasgow was the conclusion of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which concerns carbon offset markets. Offsets mean that developed countries can compensate for their excess emissions by financing or buying credits from conservation and reforestation projects in developing countries — so-called nature-based solutions. Private-sector and developed country representatives proclaimed the “Race to Net Zero” by 2050 through the conference corridors as if it was the only solution to reach the least catastrophic scenario — an average temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century compared to preindustrial levels.

Nature-based solutions put a financial value on forests and territories, and offer profits for private investors such as multinational agribusiness. As opposed to absolute zero, the net zero loophole incentivizes offsetting through dubious technologies and the planting of trees instead of reducing emissions along supply chains. Through the market logic, territories and forests occupied by traditional and indigenous peoples become an abstract commodity that countries and companies emitting carbon above their allowances can buy. In a statement released on November 2, 257 civil society organizations, networks, and movements from sixty-one countries denounced nature-based solutions as a false solution that gives the fossil fuel sector a green light to carry on with its activities.

Most importantly, carbon markets, net zero goals, and nature-based solutions sidetrack us from bringing greenhouse gas emissions to zero at their source while ignoring the ancestral and ecosystem-based relationships between peoples and territories that are affected by offset projects. Market mechanisms thus threaten the integrity of the climate governance system, global biodiversity, and the rights of forest peoples.

Climate Justice Advocacy

Against the corporate agenda in Glasgow, climate justice activists pushed for the inclusion of human rights and redress mechanisms in the final text of Article 6, which was a partial success. Still, the adoption of such market mechanisms without the observation of free prior and informed consent procedures to protect the communities that will be affected by carbon offset projects from human rights violations undermines the principle of climate justice.

COP26 started with the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which seeks to end deforestation by 2030. Latin American countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru were among the signatories. However, civil society groups from these countries view this as little more than a distraction stunt in the absence of mechanisms that safeguard forest people and territories in Latin America.

Despite the dominance of private interests over civil society within the negotiations, social and climate justice movements have continued to occupy the conference space and weigh in on official decisions. “Only social movement engagement achieved higher ambition in the negotiations, because the movements have a vision of what the climate crisis means,” said Javiera Lacourt Palacios, executive director of the NGO CEUS Chile.

The global climate justice movement has grown significantly since the early 2000s, as the intensifying effects of climate change on all levels of society and ecosystems have become more apparent. Many different social groups, from movements against deportations to those calling for food justice, have embraced the call for climate justice and integrated climate issues into their agendas.

In turn, the global climate justice movement has taken up other social justice issues. The climate strike on November 5 and the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march the following day were examples of such broad mobilization. They gathered thousands of people from different social movements and groups in the streets of Glasgow.

Raul de Lima of the Climate Clock organization argues that “the presence of the anti-racist and feminist blocs in the popular demonstrations shows the importance of an intersectional fight for climate justice. Climate justice will never happen if black and indigenous peoples are only invited to the panels but never to make decisions or receive funding for land preservation.” The Climate Clock collective visualizes important climate metrics, such as how much land indigenous peoples protect, how much global energy comes from renewable sources, and how long we have, with current carbon emissions, until we reach 1.5 degrees Celsius warming.

The climate justice concept understands climate change as a social, economic, and ecological phenomenon that affects communities and ecosystems unequally due to existing social inequalities such as income, gender, race, age, sexuality, or mental and physical disabilities. The concept recognizes the historical responsibilities of Northern countries and extractive multinational companies as the biggest drivers of climate change, which should thus pay up the most for climate action globally. For climate agreements and policies to end inequalities rather than reinforce them, they need to incorporate a vision of climate justice. This did not happen at COP26.

Alternative Spaces to COP26

The global climate justice movement has not only been participating in climate conferences over the past years. It has also organized more democratic alternative spaces that seek to build and strengthen transnational movements and networks against the capitalist system.

In Glasgow, climate justice activists, workers, and NGOs engaged their international networks through the COP26 Coalition, which hosted the People’s Summit for Climate Justice. The summit took place during the negotiations in venues across the city. With an international program of over 150 events in at least fourteen languages, the summit had a solid structure that was open to the public, with simultaneous translation, an online program, and popular daily assemblies.

One of the best examples of such alternative spaces is Britain’s Just Transition movement, which has a strong trade union base. The privatization of major industries such as energy and transport since the 1980s has driven the trade union movement to call for a just transition. Organized workers demand safe and decent working conditions and a transition toward a regulated economy based on sustainable energy sources.

In Latin America, the debate on energy transition is still restricted to a few sectors. Javiera Lacourt Palacios coordinates the project Just Transition in Latin America, which promotes regional discussions with different sectors, understanding that energy transition is a distinct process in each region. In addition, new approaches to just transition have emerged from within social movements. These perspectives call for renewable and decentralized energy systems that will be publicly regulated and generate decent jobs within a care-centered economy.

“Despite the recognition of the urgency for the transition to a low-carbon model, the growing demand for energy points us to the need for a larger discussion,” argues Daniel Gaio, secretary of environment of the Brazilian union Central Única dos Trabalhadores of Brazil.

Beyond a specific energy model, we need to dispute what the energy will be used for, how it will be produced, by whom it will be consumed, and at what cost. We have the urgent task to incorporate in our claims and actions the integrated approaches of ecosocialism, ecological economics, feminist and anti-racist economics. These provide the tools needed to overcome the current forms of economic organization.

The work of local collectives and their engagement with regional and global networks, such as the Plataforma Latinoamericana y del Caribe por la Justicia Climática and Demand Climate Justice, are crucial to countering the neocolonial system of extraction and financialization of ecosystems that governments and polluting industries continue to promote at climate conferences. As Vivi Reis, a member of Brazil’s federal parliament representing Pará state, puts it:

Alliances between the groups of people most affected by the climate crisis, such as the poor, women, black and indigenous people, are fundamental to fighting for climate justice. Solidarity networks in the Global South are also a priority since this is also a battle against the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. We expect movements, organizations, and parliamentarians in Europe and the United States committed to this struggle to put pressure on their governments to pay the bill for this crisis.

Reis also notes the vital importance of international solidarity networks for human rights and climate justice in Brazil and Latin America, as land and environmental defenders face rampant violence in the region.

The decisions taken at COP26 will affect people in every corner of the planet, which is why it is so important that the climate justice movement keeps on influencing the official negotiation process. The impacts will be felt especially severely in Latin America, where extreme right-wing governments like Brazil’s promote false solutions to the climate crisis and notions of “green capitalism.”

But there are also many regional collectives and initiatives fighting for climate justice, such as platforms of indigenous women, as well as many regional projects for just transition and food sovereignty. The strengthening of regional climate justice networks is one of the global movement’s current challenges. That movement must continue expanding beyond official policy spaces and integrating movements that fight for social and economic justice in the struggle for climate action.