COP26 is over. It’s all over. After 2 weeks of negotiations, speeches, commitments, scandal (like extractive company Santos being given centre stage at the Australian booth), protests, cries for change from some countries, and a certain level of denial of the role of fossil fuels by other countires countries, COP26 has ended with a weak Glasgow Climate Pact that has led the COP President to solemly apologise. At the end of the summit Alok Sharma said in an emotional speech,
“May I just say to all delegates I apologise for the way this process has unfolded. I also understand the deep disappointment but I think, as you have noted, it’s also vital that we protect this package.”
At the beginning of the of the summit, UN Secretary General along with many leaders called for the need to strengthen the Paris Agreement and limit warming to 1.5 degrees celcius, which some argue is already out of reach. There was also a goal to look at phasing out coal and fossil fuels. So, by these expectations alone, the outcomes of COP26 have been deemed a failure.
Earlier in the week the draft statement was released calling for Parties to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”. This text was monumental in the history of mulitlateral environmental pledges. Despite being in draft form, and a loose symbolic statement, it was somewhat of a win for envirnomental activists everywhere because it was the first time the need to phase out fossil fuels had made it into COP.
That win was short-lived when several countries which have been unnamed but we know included Australia were working to water down key proposals around the phasing out of fossil fuels. The final text agreed upon interrupted by a last minute intervention by India says that Parties should “phase down” the use of unabated coal and fossil fuel subsidies. It also left a numer of loopholes for the continued extraction of fossil fuels.
From an international legal perspective, the problem is that statments like the one made at COP are not legally binding. What matters in that respect is if and how countries pass the commitments made into their own legislation. Once there is proof of widespread state practice and opinio juris (a sense of obligation), then they become customary international law, which in theory makes them binding, but in practice it is a lot more complicated, especially in the absence of an international court for the environment.
The next problem is in the wording, which has been the bane of some of the progressive countries, as well as activists in the days before the signing of the declaration. The subtle change in wording from “phasing out” to “phasing down” is not insignificant because language matters in international law. A key component of international law and whether or not states are held to account is ‘interpretation’ of legal documents. As Odile Aman says, “[I] nterpretation is not a mere technical device, but a political matter of the utmost importance: it may eventually depend on which interpretative method is applied whether a state (or any other actor, for that matter) can be accused of an internationally wrongful act, or whether it will be regarded as having stayed faithful to its commitments.”
COP27 has been scheduled for November 2022 in Egypt. The time in between now and then is a critical moment for states to demonstrate the commitments pledged in this pact by strengthening and introducing genuine and radical policies and legislation domestically.
It will also be a critical time for activists and environmentally concerned citizens to ramp up the pressure and work at change at the grassroots level. People power is essential! For Australians with the Federal election coming up, your vote can be an important driver for change. Changing behaviours, mindsets and attitudes is as important as changing legislation and policy. One reinforces the other.
There are now many complimentary frameworks and guidelines that can help us accelerate the change towards a more sustainable planet – at both the local governmental level, and at the level of people and communities. These frameworks can work together to guide transformative change.
If you are interested in how the framework for Buen Vivir can work in either your community or your local government, check out my book and other writings on Buen Vivir and please get in touch for ways this might be implemented in your local context.
Time to change the economic system
We are in a critical climate moment. As discussed in parts I and II of this post we know that we need transformative change. We know we need all actors to play a pivotal role. We know that we need to prioritize knowledge and voices of Indigenous peoples and traditional groups, who have a deep and inherent connection to the earth. We also know that we need political buy-in and multilateral commitments for a crisis that knows no geographical boundaries. Most of all, we know that we need wholesale systemic change – social, political, and economic. Let’s discuss that last point.
As Naomi Klein puts it in her book ‘On Fire’, “debates about climate action remain trapped in a paradigm that equates quality of life with personal prosperity and wealth accumulation.” We know, however, (and by we, I am referring to not just you and I, but politicians from all ideological perspectives, as well as economists and academics) that this perverse view of economics is no longer attainable, sustainable nor desirable. As the number of rich shrink, while simultaneously growing their wealth by billions, the vast mass of people living in poverty snowballs. The current global economic system exploits the planet and its resources for the benefit of very few, while those most disadvantaged will be the worst impacted by climate change.
Klein argues that in this respect “there is much to learn from Indigenous-led movements” like Buen Vivir, which she describes as a “focus on the right to a good life as opposed to the more-and-more life of ever-escalating consumption and planned obsolescence.”
Phasing out coal, moving away from extractive policies including fossil fuels and biofuels, moving towards a needs-based approach to resource consumption, towards renewables with an emphasis on community-based and small-scale renewable energy transitions will need to be part of the solution. Moving away from fossil fuels is the bare minimum, but it is not the magic bullet to save the planet from destruction. We need to do more. It is not good enough to replace one form of large-scale extraction (fossil fuels) with another just because it is the easier option the lesser of two evils. Non-fossil fuel extraction and exploitation also has negative, irreversible impacts on the planet’s carrying capacity, if not in the short term, in generations to come. Deforestation one major extractive activity but there are others. So effective solutions start with transforming the global economic model.
Major key adjustments need to be made to the global economic system, and national economies and development policies can begin to immediately reflect a wholescale commitment to striving for rapid and radical emissions reductions, and aiming for Net Zero by 2030. The UN says that countries will have to commit to at least 45 percent emissions reductions by 2030 if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Climate Council of Australia argues that this will need to be more like a 75 percent reduction by 2030, with Net Zero by 2035 based on current risk assessments. However, a new assessment conducted by Breakthrough, the National Centre for Climate Restoration argues that there is no carbon budget for 2030 as we are already overdrawn and that based on past emissions we are already on track to reach 1.5 degrees by 2030. Net Zero by 2050 is too late, yet loose ‘targets’ made by countries like Australia are locking us into climate catastrophe.
Released in a briefing paper earlier this year, Breakthrough argues that we will need to reach Net Zero by 2030 to keep warming below 2 degrees, a fact that has been argued by many climate scientists and advocates including Greta Thunberg. It states, “The world needs to be at zero emissions by 2030 for the 2°C target, based on three assumptions: 1. Mitigation expenditure no more than 3% of GDP; 2. No geoengineering; 3. Climate sensitivity is not low (Lamontagne et al, 2019. Nature Climate Change, 9:290–294).”
Whatever the commitment, to reach Net Zero we need a complete transformation of the global economic system. The CSIRO says, “Reaching Net Zero will require a fundamental reimagining of everything we do. It will require a new energy system, new modes of transport, new fuels, new materials, new modes of financing investments, new ways for industry sectors to interact and new ways of living on a scale – and at a pace we have never come close to achieving before.” But it’s not enough to assume that we can technologically innovate our way out of this. We also need a reimagining of society to transform the way, scale and speed at which we consume. To quote journalist Sarah O’Connor,
“To this new world, let’s not go back to a past that wasn’t working anyway !”
The global capitalist system that rewards competition and the exploitation of nature for the accumulation of individual wealth can no longer be logically and ethically argued as best system for an economy bounded by social injustices and planetary restraints.
In the near future, greater, more radical changes to the global economic system will need to be made. There are many proposals that policymakers and economists can consider, for example: degrowth, the social and solidarity economy, regenerative economy, and a circular society (which not only incorporates a circular economy, but also social and environmental factors including knowledge that impinge just outcomes).
It may be that no one single alternative model will be appropriate to transition markets to Net Zero, instead, key elements of the various significant models can be incorporated into one cohesive response that can be tailored to different contexts, so as not to reinforce the economic growth approach, but to level global equity, respond to fundamental needs and eliminate extreme poverty. With the last factor, it is instrumental to evaluate multidimensional poverty (environmental, wellbeing, social cohesion, health, education, sanitation, etc), not just economic poverty.
The path to Net Zero is not a linear one. It involves all actors – civil, governmental, business and organisations -and it requires rapid, radical systemic change to transform society, industry and politics in a just manner.
Time to shift power relations
In my last post, I looked at why COP26 is important for our climate future. Nonetheless, global efforts will mean nothing if not everyone has a seat at the table. In that respect, the fourth goal of COP26 ‘Working Together’, cannot simply be an empty symbolic gesture or conflated lip service to include marginalised groups in negotiations, it will have to be followed by key historical political commitments to shift the balance of power in climate policy and action. If COP26 becomes another cog in the machine of neoliberal climate diplomacy nothing will change. The first responses must be systemic and structural. All paths forward will rely on wholesale systemic change.
More power to historically excluded groups
The reality is that G20 countries are responsible for 80 percent of all climate emissions. The neoliberal approach to climate change and sustainability has not worked so far. Historic development policies have led the world into this rabbit hole of unequal consequences that have inflamed a climatic response to emissions output, linked to the rise and domination of fossil fuels.
Global international development has been somewhat of a sheep in wolf’s clothing. On the one hand promising to bring every society to the same standards of development of the West, and on the other allowing countries in the Global North to pillage the natural resources of those in the Global South, which has resulted in more economic injustices that letting those societies ‘develop’ on their own terms.
This historic and accepted practice of richer nations raping the earth in poorer nations to augment and continue wealth accumulation in the name of ‘economic growth’ has shown to be a major (if not the worst) culprit in the climate disaster. The extraction, exploitation and exportation of natural resources – not only fossil fuels, but also large-scale water, wood, cement, sand and other natural resources – has hands down been the biggest contributor of climate change according to the science. The intention, however, is linear: take from resource rich, economically poor countries and give to economically rich countries who are resource-intense users. This has to change, but it cannot unless those who have been on the receiving end of its consequences have a privileged seat at the table.
The mainstream notion of Sustainable Development recognises that changes must be made, that we must move away from a fossil fuel economy, but the structures and systems that keep power in place are still rampant. In that respect, if real transformative change is to be achieved post-COP26, it is acceptable to ask: is this the end of Sustainable Development (as we know it)?
Genuine, transformative and effective solutions will require more voices at the table. This means that the way we have known and practiced ‘development’ around the world will need to change to become more inclusive, more equitable, and consequently less taxing on the environment.
A balance of power towards the groups that have historically been excluded (especially Indigenous, traditional communities, and women) or had their voices ‘white-washed’ in climate negotiations to include more socially and ecologically just approaches or even alternatives to Sustainable ‘Development’ will be an unequivocal factor in finding effective solutions going forward. Strengthening the trust between people and global diplomatic actions can be achieved by this inclusivity, as can maintaining an element of hope.
By decolonising knowledge and approaches to how we interact with the environment, we have the potential to find sustainable solutions and trans formatively change the way society views its role in nature from one that has a right to dominate and exploit nature for the satisfaction of human desires, to one that sees its own wellbeing as impacted by the health of the environment and as such seeks to act as a caretaker of environmental rights and wellbeing.
This decolonisation includes centring valuable intelligence from Indigenous peoples, women, and people of colour (who are generally on the margins of knowledge in policy, but who have a historical record of being at the centre of environmental impacts, otherwise called intersectional environmentalism) in policy and decision-making for climate change and environmental management. Indigenous peoples in particular have not only innovation solutions that focus on collective outcomes, but have unique knowledge of the land and how to live in harmony with nature.
The use and exploitation of fossil fuels are a primary driver, that is sure and scientifically proven, but other extractive sectors have a gigantic responsibility in pushing us into a climate emergency. These industries prop up the consumerist society and support throw-away cultures that have a growing disconnect between spontaneous, self-indulgent or convenient whims, the natural source of the product and how it ultimately impacts the earth – think of the dire state of water and food (in)security, and the global impacts of deforestation on air quality, biodiversity and climatic events.
Indigenous peoples in particular know that all interactions with the environment have an equal or greater reaction on humans, and so the capitalist level exploitation of (note: not use of) all natural resources must be curbed significantly. In concepts like Buen Vivir, Indigenous knowledge also interacts and cooperates with other knowledge such as Western technical knowledge to co-create solutions that pursue the same goal.
I will say it again, this inclusivity cannot be a mere symbolic gest. The Indigenous groups who have and will be travelling to Glasgow are expecting to be heard, and to have their concerns and solutions included and highlighted in negotiations. At this point in history, we have more to lose than to gain by continuing down the dominant path to climate action.
More power to let people lead change
People in societies everywhere are bound by their own access to power within political systems that may or may not support community-led processes. Where vital progress will be made is where governments, both national and local, create the structures and systems for allowing communities not only to become involved in decision-making, but also in leading the decisions around their local environments and communities.
For many communities this will take not just political will, but educational and advocacy campaigns to get people involved in scenarios where they have traditionally let people in power lead the charge. Still, it starts with political will and systemic change. In frameworks like Buen Vivir this might look like local governments prioritising a cross-section of different community voices to be key decisionmakers, driven by Indigenous knowledge. This can be played out in participatory budgeting models and peoples’ assemblies. The point is people are at the core of climate action and should be prioritised as such.
So, to summarise, while COP26 will be a pivotal moment in climate diplomacy for the future of our planet, it must be accompanied by a decolonisation of knowledge to allow and prioritise other voices and knowledge in solutions going forward. Transformative change will be closer if we do so, but this will also need to be accompanied by a change in the global economic system. Some say it is already underway, other say not anywhere near as radical or as fast as it needs to be. I will discuss this in the final post of this series on COP26.
COP26 Coalition Global Day of Action and People’s Summit
Systems Change Alliance
UNFCC Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform
IPCC Report and Indigenous Solutions
COP26 and Indigenous Leadership
Part I – Time for planet altering commitments
We are in the lead up to the most pivotal climate conference in history, from which the outcomes have the potential to either send us full throttle towards climate breakdown and biodiversity loss well beyond 2 degrees warming, or provide us with the last exit – one last chance to redeem humanity’s future and limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The pressure on our global leaders from civil society to achieve the latter has never been so high. An overwhelming number of people around the world have listened to the climate science and now want those in power to act with urgency and resolve, rather than continue the conflated lip service we have heard from environmental negotiations over the past three decades.
What is COP26 and why is it important ?
The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degree since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the jury is out as to whether the 1.5 goal is still possible. In July this year global surface temperatures were the highest since records began in 1880. The IPCC 6th Assessment Report released in August found that global warming and sea level rise is happening much faster than scientists originally predicted.
Between 2019-21, we have witnessed an unprecedented number of extreme weather events around the globe. Instead of decreasing, CO2 emissions have reached historical levels in May 2021 at 419 parts per million. These figures only make it more crucial that we try everything within the realm of possibility to avert climate catastrophe. There are thus unprecedented expectations of the November conference.
In the lead up to COP26 there have been a number of key climate discussions at a multilateral level. In July, the G20 debated (albeit divisibly) the need for stronger climate action. In August, the UN General Assembly kicked off its 76th session with an assessment of the Sustainable Development Goals.
As host, the UK has mapped out four main goals for COP26, which include :
- Securing global net zero by mid-century and keeping warming to below 1.5 degrees by : phasing out coal, preventing deforestation, switching to electric vehicles, and proliferating renewables.
- Increasing focus on adaptation to protect communities and habitats.
- Mobilising $100 billion of climate finance to developing countries, which has fallen below the previous pledges.
- Working together to deliver key commitments by accelerating collaboration and finalising the Paris Rulebook (how countries implement the commitments of the Paris Agreement, namely through Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs).
Thanks to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Australia is reinforcing its role as the climate villain of COP26 for lack of commitments for robust action. Not only does Australia not have a NDC, missing the 31 July deadline set out in the Paris Agreement ; but Morrison has tried to convince the UK to scale back key climate commitments in the bilateral trade agreement, and suggested he might not attend the November meeting. As it stands, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warns that current NDCs will lead to a “catastrophic” rise of 2.7 degrees. This will imminently lead to rapid climate breakdown.
Why COP26 is not everything
The reality is that since global governance on curbing carbon and other atmospheric emissions began all those decades ago, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has not decreased, but increased 40%. While we need strong governance and genuine policy commitments in place on a multilateral scale, we also need national governance that reflects the climate crisis, community-level cooperation to lead effective change on a daily basis, corporate buy-in to make transformation possible through technology and innovation, and organisations to act as mediators between these actors and call out agenda pushing.
The COP26 goal of ‘Working together’ must be a genuine commitment to including a wider range of voices at the table. In that respect, the (im)balance of power that has led climate action to date needs to change. I’ll explore what that might involve in part II.