Everything Is Going Fine at UN Climate Talks, Why Would You Ask? [Chuckles Nervously]

Everything Is Going Fine at UN Climate Talks, Why Would You Ask? [Chuckles Nervously]
Protesters move through restricted Blue Zone area of COP26 climate summit. (Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell, Getty Images)

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — In Glasgow, negotiators are trying to hammer out a long-awaited climate deal that is crucial to keeping the world from warming to a catastrophic degree as the conference enters its final day.

But a large group of activists and observers attending the conference have already called bullshit on the process, and they showed it by storming out of the conference centre on Friday. In a series of fiery speeches and a subsequent walkout, representatives from some of the most vulnerable groups around the world called out problems that have plagued the UN process and how they’ve played out during this meeting. Speaker after speaker blasted negotiators for putting in far too little effort too late into a process now in its 26th year.

Those Private Pledges Don’t Mean Anything

The flurry of emissions promises and net zero announcements rolled out last week may have sounded impressive. Billions of dollars and promises to cut certain types of emissions all made it seem like progress is being made, but there’s nothing of value there unless there are actually measures in place to enforce accountability.

“Throughout the existence of the UNFCCC, governments have moved from policy to press releases and proclamations, made outside of the negotiation process that means they cannot be held to account for failing to meet them,” said Mary Church, a representative with Friends of the Earth Scotland.

This fight has become particularly pitched around net zero goals, which a growing number of major economies and corporations have announced with fanfare and little substance. Activists have also called into question the idea of net zero, which could involve accounting tricks, rather than just reaching zero emissions.

“Net zero pledges, without concrete plans to achieve real zero emissions, without adequate, legally binding commitments to protect the rights are simply greenwashing, a smokescreen hiding the intent to continue polluting and digging the grave for our present and future generations,” Church said.

Poorer Countries Are ‘Locked Out’ of the Process

Many small, developing nations have long said that they’ve been locked out of crucial conversations at UN meetings while larger economies — who are overwhelmingly historically responsible for causing climate change — get together in private to call the shots. This is especially the case when it comes to issues like the long-overdue money promised by big economies to smaller ones.

“The UNFCCC is built on a principle of agreed decisions that can be publicly scrutinised and that countries can be held publicly accountable to,” said Mohamed Adow of PowerShift Africa. During this process, Adow said, all countries should “get a chance to sit at the table to deliver what the world needs. But we haven’t had that chance in Glasgow. We’ve been actively locked out of the process.”

The big countries have been agonizingly slow to deliver aid, and the fight over finances has heated up at these talks. That’s especially true over loss and damage, a mechanism for poor countries to receive climate reparations for the damage wrought by rich ones who used fossil fuels to grow their economy.

Big Polluters Keep Creating Loopholes

Another sticking point from past climate talks that’s still an open wound is the role of carbon markets. Those markets would allow wealthy countries and polluting industries to buy offsets, which are often found in poor countries through things like forestry and ecosystem restoration projects.

It sounds nice on paper. But many of these projects have often already been claimed as carbon credits on the country where they’re located’s balance sheet, creating a process known as “double-counting.” In the UN’s current maths, that’s allowed. By the atmosphere’s maths, that doesn’t add up.

“Stop your profit-making games,” said Soumya Dutta of the South Asian Peoples Action on Climate Crisis. “Stop games of carbon markets, of offsets, of playing with people’s lives. Mother Nature doesn’t play games like this.”

Those projects have also often resulted in displacing Indigenous people, adding another layer of injustice that remains unresolved in the current negotiations.

Polluters and Colonizers Are Running the Show

Even when portions of the talks may seem like a progressive step forward, wealthy countries still find ways to make room for polluters. The first draft of the potential agreement contained a provision calling for countries to “accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuel.” That was changed Friday morning.

Now, it reads the focus is on “accelerating the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.” Those wiggle words allow for coal and subsidies to continue, a stark contrast to a new alliance launched yesterday that includes 12 forward-looking countries and states. Saudi Arabia, Russia, and India, meanwhile, are reportedly trying to kill the entire sentence, which could set up a major fight.

We Know the Science — Why Are We Still Here?

Before the speeches on Friday, a group of young people took the mic in the plenary hall one-by-one to read sections from this year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to hammer home the message to delegates that the science shows the path the world needs to take, now it’s on representatives to deliver. A young person who identified herself only as Abby from Malaysia took the mic, looked at her dry block of scientific text, and paused.

“The longer I read the report the longer you’re going to sleep,” she told the audience, to laughs and applause. “Basically, we’re all here in this room because we know how urgent it is.”

She’s right. It seems incredible that the science has made it very plain and clear what’s in store, and yet, we’re somehow at the 26th iteration of these meetings and the world still has made such little progress on issues that are getting more urgent each day. For some, the time has come to explore other options.

“COP26 is a performance,” said activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, who is a member of the Tla A’min Nation in British Columbia. “It’s an illusion constructed to sell capitalist economies, rooted in resource extraction and colonialism. I didn’t come here to fix the agenda, I came here to disrupt it.”