Of black clouds and silver linings?

Stephen Smellie argues COP26 delivered on the low expectations of it but progress was made in building a bigger and more powerful environmental movement

COP26 was Glasgow’s fortnight in the international spotlight as the nations of the world gathered to discuss the challenge of the climate crisis facing the planet, its governments, and its people. Some 25,000 people attended the vast complex including the Scottish Exhibition Centre (SEC), the Hydro, Armadillo, several hotels and a vast temporary structure housing two conference halls, meeting rooms, press offices, canteens and coffee bars. A routine of showing evidence of that day’s Lateral Flow Test and compulsory wearing of masks throughout the site prevented the international circus turning into the Covid super-spreader event that was predicted.

We approached COP26 much like the Tartan Army approached the Euros earlier in the year. We were at the big event, hoped for the best but were realistic about chances of success. The analogy continues. Although we got to stay to the end of COP26 rather than being sent home after the first round, there was a similar sense of disappointments at the end, with the failure to achieve much, tempered by a battling draw against England and small improvements in the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact (GCP) keeping open the possibility of progress in future.

There was talk about this being the last chance to save the planet and this being the most important event ever held in Scotland, the UK or even the world, depending on the scale of hyperbole that was being sought. There had been 25 COPs before, all of which had failed to find the solutions to the problem they were designed to address, namely, global warming due to human activity leading to climate change. None of the preceding COP agreements had mentioned the cause of the crisis or the emissions created by burning fossil fuels. Low expectations were entirely justified and COP26 did not disappoint in this respect. Greta Thunberg captured the mood of cynicism towards COP with her description of it as more ‘Blah, blah, blah’ and there was certainly a lot of that.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) brings together the governments of the world (the parties) to seek agreements on steps to be taken. It is a multilateral process that requires every party to agree to an outcome, that is, an agreement. Developing countries argued in Glasgow for swifter action to halt climate change. The Prime Minister of Barbados described a rise in global temperatures of two degrees as ‘a death sentence’. Developing countries argued for financing to adapt to the existing climate change that they are experiencing and for recognition that the damage already done to their countries has been caused by the carbon burning industries of the rich nations with the consequence that they should be compensated for the ‘Loss and Damage’ that they have experienced and will continue to experience. The rich nations argued for slowly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, offsetting their carbon use against the trees of the global south, without it impacting on the profits of the businesses they represent or the living standards of the voters they need to remain in office.

The Parties are joined by teams of officially sanctioned observers from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). These are grouped into Women, Indigenous Peoples, Farmers, Global Justice campaigners, BINGO (Business), RINGO (Researchers), YUNGO (Young people), and TUNGO (trade unions). Then, there are the corporate business interests. Most numerous amongst them were the fossil fuel companies and their lobbyists. This is like having the tobacco companies at the conference to discuss cancer or the arms companies at the disarmament talks. Joining them are those business interests who claim to offer technological, and profitable, solutions, the advocates of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
In private meetings, corridor discussions and open plenary sessions the objective is to produce an agreement that all can sign up to before getting the carbon-zero bus home. This involves demands, commitments, alliances, horse-trading and the bribing and bullying of the poorer nations by the rich nations. Observers and lobbyists attempt to persuade the governments, so their interests are reflected in the final texts. Indigenous Peoples lobby for the rights of the people who have lived in the forests for centuries. Women argue for the impact on women to be recognised. Human rights organisations lobby for all agreements to include commitments to internationally recognised human rights while unions lobby for workers’ rights and for the maintenance and implementation of commitments to ‘a Just Transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities’. Fossil fuel companies lobby for actions not to impact on their business models, allow them to continue the extraction and the burning of fossil fuels and to protect their profits. The outcome of all this activity was revealed on the final, extra, day with the product of all these discussions and lobbying contained in the wording of GCP.

The GCP fails to commit governments to take actions to achieve the ambition of the Paris Agreement to keep the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees and no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Paris had required each government to produce Nationally Defined Contributions (NDCs) towards achieving these targets. The combined result of the NDCs is the planet heading towards a temperature rise of 2.7 degrees, way above the ‘death sentence’ referred to by the Barbadian Prime Minister. The GCP merely requests that these NDCs are revisited for COP27.

The GCP does commit to reduce emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. It specifically agrees to ‘the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’ and ‘the need to support towards a just transition’.

The inclusion of Just Transition is a victory for the union movement and should give greater strength to their argument for social dialogue and jobs creating industrial policies to address the decline of the carbon industries. However, the use of ‘phasedown’ of coal, at the insistence of India and China, instead of the stronger ‘phase-out’ of the original draft, indicates that even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence the COP was unable to commit to stopping the burning of the worst form of fossil fuels. The inclusion of ‘unabated coal power,’ a reference to the, so far, unproven technology of CCS, demonstrates the success of the fossil fuel lobbyists in protecting their profits in alliance with the large coal producing and burning countries. Whilst India and China fronted up this weakening of the text, it was agreed with the USA and the EU, in behind-closed-door discussions which were then presented to the developing nations as a fait accompli.

The main agenda item of COP26 was to complete the Rule Book on how to execute the Paris Agreement. This was achieved with agreements on the transparency of reporting on emissions every two years, common time frames for reviewing actions and co-operative mechanisms. Co-operative mechanisms allow countries, amongst other things, to engage in carbon trading such as off-setting ongoing carbon emissions in a rich country by funding protecting forests or not building coal fired power stations in developing countries. This does not reduce emissions in the rich or developing country and is clearly a false solution but a success for the industry lobbyists, and governments like the UK, who are still addicted to greenhouse gas emitting technologies.

The failure to fully include human and labour rights in the Rule Book is of concern. It was reported that China insisted that human rights have nothing to do with actions on the climate crisis and therefore it is missing. The $100bn promised to developing countries to be delivered by 2020 is still a promise that has not been fulfilled and ‘Loss and Damage’ demands are still only to be discussed in future.

Whilst the outcomes of COP26 were disappointing, the mobilisation of a broad climate justice movement was much more successful. Around 150,000 people marched in Glasgow on 6 November with further decentralised mobilisations across Britain (like Cardiff, Manchester and London). Without doubt these were the largest climate justice demonstrations ever seen in Britain. The day before saw 20,000 mostly young people on the ‘Fridays for Future’s demo. In addition, hundreds of meetings, seminars, conferences, and protest actions took place in Glasgow with nightly rallies to reflect on the negotiations ‘inside’ and actions and discussions ‘outside’ the COP. Unions, churches, community organisations, environmentalists, youth and community groups, including Glaswegians, Europeans, indigenous peoples from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australia, and more, were actively meeting, discussing, planning and organising, creating wider and deeper networks and alliances.

UNISON launched its report into the de-carbonisation of public services calling for £135bn of investment up to 2035. Rail unions launched their rail charter emphasising the critical role of publicly owned rail services in a green economy. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, hosted by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), published their report on the need for public energy companies. At the People’s Assembly, and Just Transition Hub, hundreds of activists discussed the key issues. Campaigners called for the cancellation of the Cambo oilfield. There were other initiatives as civil society sought to contribute to the issues that COP26 was supposed to be delivering on.

The demos and many of the events were planned, organised, co-ordinated and built by the COP26 Coalition, the broadest coalition ever seen in Britain, of global justice, climate change, faith organisations with, crucially a significant trade union engagement including several national unions and the STUC. The Coalition not only organised Covid safe meetings and actions but co-ordinated accommodation for visitors without local authority assistance, helped to secure visas from hostile UK Immigration authorities, arranged for legal observers at all activities, ran a daily online news channel covering events and linked up with activists throughout the world, ensuring the activism of Glasgow was reported globally.

The landscape of the climate justice movement has changed due the Coalition’s efforts. To use the words of STUC General Secretary, Roz Foyer, unions are greener, and environmentalists are redder. It is also true that the Climate Change movement is now more focussed on Climate Justice than it was before. Union demands for Just Transition, the voices of the developing nations for ‘Loss and Damage’, the demands of Indigenous People for land rights, the issues about gender, human rights, disability, and more have fused together with the environmental movement to create the potential for a mass Climate Justice movement that recognises that saving the climate requires action to transform economies, shift power from the rich corporate world, and enshrine human rights in all actions to address climate change. This is just the kind of ‘deep dialogue’ that Eurig Scandrett called for in his recent paper, ‘Beyond ‘Just Transition’’, for the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

The key issue now is how that movement can be built into a force able to mobilise at local, national, and international levels the millions of people needed to effect change and address the real problems. The COP26 Coalition Co-ordinating Committee, its very successful Trade Union Caucus, and its many local organising hubs are reflecting, discussing, and trying to resolve that issue.

COP26 presented opportunities for increasing profiles, highlighting issues and, in the case of unions, enhancing bargaining and the effectiveness of threatened industrial actions. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, kept away from any official UK government activities, used the stage provided to raise her and her government’s profile on an international stage.

The previously mentioned nuclear power lobby staged events during COP from polished seminars with high profile industry and government speakers to an enthusiastic group of young people who staged flash-mob style actions both within the COP26 complex and during the 6 November demonstration. The falseness of this ‘Youth for Nuclear’ group was demonstrated when at the stroke of 3pm they suddenly departed from the demo as their paid-for time was up. Colour photograph

Ahead of COP, it looked like strike action on rail, buses and council services would go ahead causing major disruption to the COP delegates, as well as the people of Glasgow and Scotland. The COP26 Coalition Trade Union Caucus organised an online rally shortly before COP bringing these disputes and others across the UK together helping to build solidarity and developing a greater understanding that industrial disputes are increasingly climate justice disputes and part of this wider movement.

In the face of these threats the RMT were able to secure an improved offer, UNITE made progress on behalf of bus workers and council workers’ unions received an improved offer on pay. Only the GMB cleansing members finally took strike action for the first 8 days of COP over local issues. The GMB has never been an ally of the climate change movement and actively discouraged branches and regions from supporting the Coalition. However, their picket lines were joined by climate change activists, from indigenous peoples to Greta Thunberg. In return, GMB strikers with banners and placards attended both the ‘Fridays for Future’ and 6 November demonstrations. It is hoped that this will lead to a more open and supportive role by the GMB in future Just Transition and Climate Justice activities.

The UK retains the Presidency of the COP up to COP27 in 2022 which will be held in the military dictatorship of Egypt. Alok Sharma MP will continue his role as COP President in trying to promote the GCP and ensuring that progress is made in advance. Sharma was seen to shed a tear at COP as China and India moved their amendment, in relation to the ‘phasedown’ of coal, weakening the GCP he had negotiated, whilst some no doubt shed a tear at the predicted death of Barbados and other island nations. His continued role gives a responsibility to the strengthened climate justice movement in the Britain to keep pressure on the Westminster government. That would seem like one role for a reconstituted COP26 Coalition to mobilise for.

In relation to COP, the NDCs, including Britain’s, need to be reviewed and rewritten to match the 1.5o Celsius ambitions and to include the commitments to Just Transition. Pressure needs to be put on governments to deliver on their promises to deliver the $100bn to the developing world and to address the need for funds to address the Loss and Damage issue.

In Britain, greater actions are needed to achieve the target of Net-Zero by 2050 and 2045 in Scotland. The science demonstrates that these require to be delivered before 2030 or the 2050 target will melt like the glaciers in Greenland, gone forever. These include the investments called for by UNISON to de-carbonise the public sector, the cancelling of licenses for new oil and gas extraction in the North Sea (and not just Cambo), massive retrofitting of homes, expansion of public transport and manifest commitment to the industrial policies needed to deliver a Just Transition to a green economy with job creation policies at the centre of that. The current crisis of sky-rocketing gas prices and energy companies going bust help to demonstrate the need for publicly-owned energy that will secure affordable supply for everyone but work to reduce energy use through efficiency measures. Glasgow TUC’s campaign for Free Public Transport, provided across Scotland for the COP26 delegates, and the STUC’s for publicly owned bus companies, needs to be supported.

Within the wider climate justice movement, the debate around so-called ‘false solutions’ needs to be taken more seriously. The TUC policy of calling for more nuclear power stations, CCS, the development of both blue and green hydrogen, the expansion of airports and air travel, are all controversial and questioned by both climate scientists and climate economists. It is argued that these are ‘business-as-usual’ policies that don’t address the fundamental issues of the destructiveness of extractive industries or the urgency of directing investments to real proven technologies that can deliver emission reductions now, not decades in the future. On the other hand, union concerns for jobs, now and in the future, make investments in construction and maintaining existing infra-structure attractive. The concept of Net-Zero itself is questioned by many who argue the target has to be Zero Carbon.

Critical actions for the unions and the left in the climate movement are to build further upon the alliances that were developed, to learn from each other, from the direct-action tactics of XR to the negotiating strengths of the unions, and to understanding and building upon the science and the enthusiasm of young people for a better and more sustainable future. There is no place for a ‘left’ that wishes to pretend that they have all the answers and does not seek to build the widest and deepest alliance possible.

It is clear from the failure of COP26 and the success of the mobilisations around it that saving the climate needs a transformation of society, economics, and power structures, and only a broad democratic, international movement will be able to achieve that.

Stephen Smellie is Depute Convenor of UNISON Scotland and a member of UNISON’s NEC. He was part of the ITUC delegation to COP26.