Rather than raising binding commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions to a new and higher level, COP26 increased the massive inequality gap between the countries of the Global North and South.
According to an assessment made by the Indian Center for Science and Environment (CSE), of the eight topics on the Glasgow agenda – climate justice, dealing with China, net zero targets, climate finance, market mechanisms and nature-based solutions, loss and damage, the adaptation goal and the issue of coal – two failed completely, in the case of four the status quo was maintained and in only two cases was slight progress made.
CSE Director-General Sunita Narain said: „The Pact’s fundamental and fatal flaw is in the very first page, where it says, rather dismissively, that “it notes the importance for some of the concept of climate justice”. We cannot erase the fact that certain countries – the United States, European Union-27, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan and Russia and joined now by China – have consumed roughly 70 per cent of the carbon budget, the space in the atmosphere that is available to keep the world below the 1.5°C temperature rise. The challenge is that the world has run out of carbon budget, but some 70 per cent of the world’s people still need the right to development.”
False agendas, false solutions
But how did it happen that some of the mission-critical topics to be addressed with regard to the climate crisis never made it to the agenda of the negotiations until COP26?
« Never underestimate the power of the human mind to rationalize its way out of reality, » Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said in an interview with CNN.
Take, for instance, the Global Methane Pledge, signed by 105 countries in Glasgow, which was the outcome of the first event ever dedicated to methane in the context of a COP. National cuts of at least 30% by 2030 would mean a 40 percent cut in global methane emissions – a big step forward – but it is non-binding for the signatories. And the three biggest emitters – China, Russia, and India – did not even sign the pledge.
Despite the fact that loss and damage (L & D) caused by climate change is already a reality in the Global South, the issue was not to be found on COP26’s official agenda, nor has the question of ensuring compensation for those who have already lost their livelihoods due to the consequences of climate change been scheduled for coming COPs . Establishing a dialogue on loss and damage finance between stakeholders, relevant organisations and parties „to support efforts to avert, minimise and address loss and damage associated with climate change“ was the meagre outcome of COP26 on loss and damage. And where is the space for indigenous movements, grassroot organisations and civil socety in this dialogue?
Just like the adaptation goal, the topic has been moved to a work programme beyond COP – it is difficult to find a formulation that says less. The two pledges made by Scotland and the Walloon regional government of Belgium to compensate developing countries for the damage and losses caused by climate change have recently been topped up by five philanthropies and Denmark. Denmark’s Minister for Development recently confirmed that his government intends to increase funds to L&D, but the amount is not yet known. However what already seems to be clear is that the funds will not be “new and additional”. They will be taken from Denmark’s already allocated adaptation funds, including a contribution to the Santiago Network and calling for innovative sources of financing for L&D in the Glasgow Dialogue. Neither the EU nor the global community show serious intentions of supporting the long overdue demand of vulnerable countries to set up a fund to finance loss and damage and to deliver on their commitments.
Significant conflicts of interest
And then there is the fact that the term „fossil energies“ made its way for the first time ever into a final COP declaration. The legitimacy of COP26 is compromised not only by the aforementioned unequal access of representatives from the South, but also by the significant conflicts of interest among participants that threaten to undermine climate action. For years, greenhouse gas producers have spent billions of dollars lobbying against climate action, watering down climate policy and preventing meaningful progress. With over 500 representatives accredited, the number of oil and gas industry lobbyists in Glasgow was more extensive than the largest national delegation. Representatives of the same corporations were present in several official delegations in order to secure their own economic interests in global climate policy. Transparency International already publicised bilateral meetings of UK ministers with major fossil fuel companies in the run-up to the COP, who later participated in the climate negotiations.
And „despite COP26 being deeply exclusive toward frontline communities, Indigenous peoples, women, and youth attended in full force, organizing for climate justice and against the fossil fuel industry’s corporate greenwash that dominated COP26.“
It’s not a polar bear problem
Like most humans, we are literally paying the price für our own poor evaluation of climate risk and taking preventive care to avoid the worst.
Even from an economic point of view, deliberately ignoring our climate change-promoting lifestyles no longer makes sense: the US alone has had to pay $750 billion in the last five years to pay for damage caused by natural disasters, more than the ten-year Build Back Better package for renewable energy. This would have almost halved US carbon emissions by 2030. 
„You protect what is sustainable and important to you and your future“. Indigenous People’s Movements all over the world have been giving us this lesson throughout the COP’s history. Why is it so difficult for us to listen?
Gaurab Basu, a physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, proposes to describe the climate crisis in terms of health and equity to make people understand how significant the risk is:
« The truth is that greenhouse gas emissions are abstract, and can be perceived as not impacting people’s day-to-day lives and the people that they love, » Basu told CNN. « And so I think that our job here is to translate the science and the research and make it real for people and the things and people that they love. »
This is also the idea behind the educational video project #weCANconnect, that Climate Action Network Europe initiated during COP26. A group of young participants met a group of experienced negotiators in different role-plays to exchange views, hopes and fears with regard to the climate negotiations. This project is meant to be a hope-based communication tool to make awareness raising more powerful.
It is obviously very important to select information that is decisive for our future but humans are not able to process whatever comes to their mind, as Lisa Robinson, deputy director of Harvard University’s Center for Health Decision Science, explained in an interview with CNN: « No matter how smart we are, how well-educated we are, we all have limits to how much information we can process. We each make like a gazillion decisions every single day. If we have to think hard about every single one of them, we wouldn’t survive. » And Washington-based psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren added „When reality is distressing, our brains are wired to defend ourselves from knowing the truth. On the flip side, we have an « optimism bias » that favors pleasing information, and we tend to engage the parts of our brain that reward us“
Aaron Bernstein, director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, sums it up in a way even children would understand: « The challenge is we continue to make the mistake of talking about climate change as a polar bear problem and not a people problem ». But according to him the climate crises needs to be connected to health, race, housing and local environment to make people understand it as a risk to themselves or their families.
Decolonising climate policy
The final text of COP26 is a missed opportunity to decolonise climate policy and finally set the course for an economic system that no longer prioritises growth and extractivism. Climate justice is not a privilege of the Global North – it is high time to honour our climate debt and create a livelihood for all based on sustainability and equity.
Regulating carbon markets was supposed to help alleviate the climate burden as they must not provide a cheap and easy offset opportunity for corporations and governments. Instead, the lazy compromise agreed upon risks pushing temperatures up further instead of keeping them below +1.5°C. The United Nations Environment Programme and others have assessed that „even if the 2030 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are achieved, the world will still be on track for 2.4°C warming“.
As long as the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) continue to ask poor countries with minuscule per capita carbon footprints to constrain their development in trying to abide by the Paris Agreement, the Global North is still far from understanding the basic principles of democracy and sustainable development, no matter how many COPs will follow.
The announcement that COP27 is to be held in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt is just one more in the long series of appalling decisions that clearly reflect the disregard of fundamental social and ecological criteria and UNFCCC’s capitulating to lobbyists. But COP26 has shown one thing: to underestimate the determination of oppressed and climate-stricken people is a major mistake and it won’t take until COP27 until this becomes obvious.
Cover Story COP26: What the Glasgow Climate Pact means for the rapidly warming planet and ist people. – in: Down to Earth 16-30 November 2021, p. 28-37
Cover story COP26: Deal with it. – in: Down to Earth 16-30 November 2021, p. 38-44