Calling out the climate emergency: creating concrete outcomes at COP26

Mary Church and Niamh McNulty lay out what the conference needs to do and what will be done in Glasgow to push it toward that.

Glasgow is to play host to COP26 – otherwise known as the 26th conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – at a critical moment for the international climate emergency response. While there is relatively little in terms of major outcomes to be reached in the negotiations themselves (for example, compared to the Copenhagen and Paris talks), the summit takes place as the devastating impact of global 1℃ increased warming is becoming the ‘new normal’, as public support for climate action is at an all-time high, and as governments’ abject failure to respond to the crisis and implement the Paris Agreement is increasingly apparent. As such it is a litmus test for the global climate regime. Moreover, what is on the negotiation table has the potential to fatally undermine the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the global heating increase to well below 2℃ and pursuing efforts to hold it at 1.5℃.

Scheduled to take place as the world continues to battle the covid-19 pandemic, and with vaccine apartheid raising major challenges in hosting a fair, accessible and transparent summit, it also brings into sharp focus the multiple crises and deeply entrenched injustices interconnected with the climate emergency, and the calls for a global green recovery. Little, if any, progress was made at the recent virtual intersessional talks, while attempting to hold complex multilateral negotiations online with power cuts and poor connectivity hampering discussions demonstrated why an in-person summit (when safe to do so) is necessary.

The 2015 Paris Agreement represented an important step forward in terms of enshrining the critical 1.5℃ threshold. But the price of securing almost universal ratification was a voluntary pledge-and-review approach to bringing down emissions rather than a science-based cap, with the remaining carbon budget allocated equitably between states. Countries were supposed to submit updated and enhanced pledges for action under the agreement by the end of 2020. Few met this, with the latest UN synthesis report showing that pledges submitted to date put the world on track for a 3-4oC increase in warming. New research shows more recent targets announced by parties (including the US) would limit increased warming to 2.4℃ though the policies to deliver them – assuming they were implemented – would fall short of that inadequate goal and take us to a 2.9℃ increase.

COP26 will, therefore, see a reckoning of the Paris regime which is failing to deliver the urgency and ambition needed, with the science showing that, at present, emissions rates for the remaining carbon budget of an 1.5℃ increase will be used up in as little as five years.

Most of the issues arising at COP centre around questions of equity, historic responsibility and capability to act – principles that are enshrined in the UN Climate Convention and that are at the heart of climate justice. Long-term tensions between the rich historical polluters of the global North and the poorer countries of the global South – who have done least to cause the climate crisis – focus on these questions which are key to unlocking essential global cooperation. These questions are present across numerous negotiation tracks.

Drawing on these principles, international civil society organisations have come together as the Civil Society Review to publish a series of reports assessing global climate action under the Paris Agreement through a ‘Fair Shares’ lens. This work shows rich historical polluters are not taking anywhere near their fair share of climate action, in terms of emissions reductions and climate finance, while many global South countries are committed to taking up their fair share – or more – of action. The fair shares model is increasingly cited by global South parties in the UN talks.

Analysis based on this methodology shows how bringing emissions to real-zero in Britain is barely half the story when it comes to doing our fair share of climate action. We need to make substantial emissions cuts happen internationally to fulfil the other part of our fair share. Climate finance and other forms of support (including, for example, technology transfer) for global south countries are central to this. If Britain was to reduce its own emissions to real-zero by 2030 (the current target is net-zero by 2050), it would still be responsible for an estimated £1trillion equivalent in support for developing countries, with Scotland being responsible for a portion of this in terms of mitigation and finance.

At Copenhagen in 2009, global North countries promised $100bn pa by 2020 to support global South countries mitigation and adaptation efforts. This nice round figure was plucked from thin air rather than based on any robust analysis, such as the fair shares methodology, of what was needed or owed. Progress towards even this inadequate goal has been painfully slow. The OECD put climate finance at $70bn pa in 2017, however only a fraction of this is grant-funding, the majority being in the form of interest-accruing loans or private finance. Oxfam analysis demonstrates even these figures are grossly inflated, based on significant over-reporting, and that climate finance is taking a growing share of overseas development assistance. Climate finance – and the lack of anything like the sums needed on the table – is always a hugely contentious issue at COP. This year’s summit will see discussions on a new long-term finance goal begin. Success will be judged on whether progress is made towards ensuring the new long-term finance goal is based on science and the needs of global South countries, unlike the current unfulfilled goal.

As the reality of climate change at only 1℃ warming starts to hit home, adaptation to impacts and support for loss and damage are becoming ever more pressing. The Paris Agreement requires action on adaptation, including financial support for global South countries, but action to date is hugely inadequate. COP26 needs to secure progress towards a new global goal for adaptation, including ensuring that 50% of climate finance goes towards adaptation.

Loss and damage addresses what happens when countries can no longer adapt to the impacts of climate change, encompassing both economic and non-economic losses. Ultimately, it is about identifying liability for causing climate impacts and providing compensation to those at the sharp end. Key to global South countries’ demands is that additional resources for loss and damage are required – otherwise the risk is of the finance cake simply being cut into smaller slices. A key COP26 test will be whether it ensures the rapid and effective operationalisation of the Santiago Network, the purpose of which is to catalyse technical assistance on loss and damage, in line with global South needs.

One of the main issues on which a concrete outcome is sought in Glasgow is under the Paris Agreement’s Article 6 which deals with voluntary cooperation between parties to help achieve emissions reductions. This may sound positive, but it is the part of the Paris Agreement that Shell boasted it wrote. It opens the door to global carbon markets that would allow polluters to continue emitting greenhouse gases, for a price, either through trading or offsetting. It is the last part of the Paris Agreement on which more detailed rules need to be established. Both the 2018 Katowice talks and 2019 Madrid talks failed to agree here, and there will be huge pressure on COP26 to secure an outcome, with the success or failure of the UK Presidency being assessed in no small part on it.

Carbon markets have no role to play in responding to the climate emergency. Given the carbon budget for 1.5℃ runs out in a few years, there is no time left to trade emissions anymore. All countries need to reduce emissions to zero urgently. Even if time wasn’t an issue, there is no evidence that carbon markets are effective, with both the EU emissions trading scheme and the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism failing to reduce emissions. Crucially, the Paris Agreement fails to set the science-based cap necessary for ensuring carbon trading could work, even theoretically. On top of this, offsetting and trading schemes are associated with serious human rights abuses and land grabs, particularly impacting Indigenous peoples. Because of the pressure to secure an outcome on Article 6, the danger is of bad rules getting through, like those developed in Madrid which would have seen huge amounts of ‘hot air’ carbon credits being carried forward, busting an impossibly large hole in remaining carbon budgets. Opposing carbon markets will be a major focus for climate justice groups at COP26.

For progress to be made at COP26, Britain needs to show leadership by acknowledging and taking steps towards delivering its fair share is key to this. But it is a distant prospect under the current Government, with its focus on loophole riddled net-zero targets, and inadequate climate finance further undermined by hypocritical support for fossil fuel expansion and cuts to overseas development aid. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government is adept in the language of climate justice and just transition – the latter of which will be a major theme for its work around COP26 – but neither ambition nor action yet live up to the rhetoric. That’s why climate justice groups will be using the summit to pressure both governments to do their fair share of climate action: by reducing emissions to real zero, by paying their carbon debt, by ending support for oil and gas expansion and by moving beyond the rhetoric to deliver a just transition.

Glasgow hosting COP26 presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for building the climate justice movement here in Scotland. Activists and organisations have come together under the umbrella of the COP26 Coalition to organise around the summit in a way that centres transformation and climate justice, and to create space for hope.

The COP26 Coalition includes unions, direct action groups, students and youth, migrant and racial justice groups, NGOs, faith groups, and grassroots and international climate justice networks. We have established an International Committee to ensure we are accountable to international climate movements. Our aim is to use the summit as a moment to strengthen the climate justice movement to build power for system change. We also seek to use the COP as leverage to advance climate justice at the domestic level, including by securing wins from the Scottish and UK Governments, and to exert pressure on the UN process itself to ensure the best outcome possible.

Furthermore, we are coming together to deepen our understanding of the root causes of, and the common solutions to, the multiple inter-connected crises of climate and nature emergency, poverty and hunger, racism and neo-colonialism, sexism and gender violence to name but a few. In doing so, we seek to grow, strengthen and connect justice movements for the struggle that will continue long after COP26 has left town.

COP26 will see powerful decentralised mobilisations, with a focus on Glasgow, as part of a global call to action (5-6 November), and a hybrid in-person/virtual Peoples’ counter-summit (7-10 November) taking place as the focal point of the climate justice movements activities. Our mobilisations and events will connect to, hear from and exert pressure on what’s going on inside the talks. An important part of our work is centring the voices of those most impacted by the climate crisis including frontline and Indigenous communities in the global South. This involves practical action like creating spaces and providing platforms as well as support for visas and travel. It is also an important moment to connect global struggles to local issues, building support for local campaigns such as Free our City and Glasgow Calls out Polluters to put pressure on the local, Scottish and UK Governments to move past the rhetoric and towards concrete action on climate emergency and just transition.

Find out more about how you can get involved in our ongoing work for climate justice at:

Mary Church is Head of Campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland and Niamh McNulty is co-founder of Climate Camp Scotland.