The outcomes in Glasgow were an unmitigated betrayal
In the leadup to COP26 in Glasgow, the first in two years, there was much talk about how this COP would make or break the collective global target to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It was deemed as the "one last chance" to avert climate catastrophe by a plethora of global talking heads. What Glasgow delivered, was instead, as Greta Thunberg put it, "blah blah blah".
There were several key points that Glasgow promised significant progress on. This was to be the COP where loss and damage would be operationalised carrying on from Madrid in 2019, where we would see adaptation come into focus and climate finance finally ironed out, even if the existing pledges remain woefully inadequate. Ambition was a key word, as countries were appealed to return with newer, better, and more urgent Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Alok Sharma, the COP26 President, promised this would be the COP that would consign coal to history, and explicit action on fossil fuels was what many hoped for. Of course, no one realistically expected Glasgow to deliver on everything, but as it quickly emerged within the first week of November, the struggle would rather be to get Glasgow to deliver on anything.
The warning signs were evident. The UK is said to have hosted the least inclusive, whitest and most Global North-centric COP. A British visa is an ordeal in the best of times for those of us with weak passports, but the added requirements around the UK's Red List Covid travel restrictions made travelling to Glasgow out of reach for many. Any sane person would balk at the idea of quarantining in a Heathrow hotel out-of-pocket. The lack of access to Covid vaccines in many parts of the world added an extra obstacle. While the UK government had a scheme for vaccinating COP participants, the programme was limited in scale.
A much better faith policy would have been to ensure the spread of vaccines to the Global South rather than being hoarded in developed nations. Within the COP Venue, the SEC, civil society access to the plenary rooms where negotiations took place was severely limited, as were meeting spaces due to so-called Covid restrictions. As a result, many observers were shepherded into the expo-style pavilion area. It is no surprise then when climate justice activists were outraged at the news that while they were being excluded, the fossil fuel lobby had a larger combined delegation at COP than any country.
There were pushes for the outcomes necessary to call COP26 a success. The Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), presided by Bangladesh, pushed for the adoption of the Glasgow Emergency Pact, an acknowledgement of the short-term action required to stave off climate collapse rather than vague 2050 targets. But often proposals such as these, and discussions on loss and damage, climate finance, and fossil fuels (not just coal, but also oil and gas), were met by stern opposition by a variety of actors, including developed states such as the US, Australia and Norway, as well as certain non-Western states like Saudi Arabia. The Glasgow Facility on Loss and Damage pushed by developing countries was similarly scrapped. Meanwhile, developed states diverted negotiations primarily toward carbon markets, nature-based solutions and offsets.
There are several reasons why it was highly problematic that negotiations got bogged down on offsets rather than meaningful action on loss and damage, adaptation or strong language on fossil fuels. The first and foremost is that offsets aren't proven to work as effective climate action and at a time when ambition and urgency is needed for action in the near term, they provide excuses and loopholes for the polluters that landed us in this mess to continue polluting. Carbon markets have never been proven to reduce emissions and the pricing of carbon remains a sticking point. In theory, carbon markets could work as effective offsets, but in practice, the pricing of carbon has remained far too low in an unequal market to be anything more than a loophole for big polluters.
Similarly, nature-based solutions are iffy when it comes to efficacy. Net zero targets (rather than absolute reductions) are an easy get-out clause. By 2050, for most of these geriatric world leaders, it will be someone else's problem. In addition, they rely on projections based on unproven, or in some cases, non-existent technologies. Carbon capture and storage, green hydrogen, molten salt reactors, nuclear fission, etc all sound really nice—but none of them are ready for deployment on the scale we need in the timeframe that is necessary. All in all, as environmental group Friends of the Earth International put it, no deal would have been preferable to the one we got.
The reason why this feels like a betrayal is that, while rich countries look for ways to continue their business-as-usual approach, the climate catastrophe is no longer a future possibility for vulnerable countries. We simply do not have time—Bangladesh loses around 30m of coastline every year and will face a displacement crisis of unimaginable proportions if sea level rise is not controlled. Displacement is already underway.
Before the land gives way, people suffer as saltwater encroaches. An often-bandied statistic is that 19 coastal districts could at least partially go underwater and 30 million people may move further inland. Inaction by large emitters, both with their own commitments and with their reluctance to provide necessary resources to the vulnerable countries, is a death sentence for millions. With all this in mind, it felt quite gloom and doom as I left Glasgow.
However, there were certain hopeful takeaways, as slight as they are. The first is that through the tireless work of activists, NGOs, indigenous peoples and vulnerable states, Loss and Damage has moved from being the unloved black sheep of the climate framework to an increasingly popular talking point. While we didn't see meaningful operationalisation of the topic, this is no longer a niche topic for climate nerds—it has entered mainstream vocabulary and movements have embraced the concept as fundamental to climate justice. While this deserves an article of its own, one hopes that the ball has started rolling irreversibly, especially as hosts Scotland themselves committed a symbolic amount of money to a loss and damage fund, the first country to do so.
Secondly, as I met activists from across the world, I saw anger, both in the hallways of the SEC, especially as coalitions of civil society organisations including youth, indigenous peoples, farmers, researchers, etc, marched out of the SEC in protest on the last day, and on the streets of Glasgow as 150,000 people braved the torrential Scottish weather to demand action. Anger is an extremely potent emotion and for the climate movement, this COP reiterated that there is no rest. That anger must be funnelled into making the lives of policymakers a living hell until they act. That anger must be directed against the fossil fuel companies who lied about their knowledge about the effects of burning carbon and continue to lobby to protect their profits rather than protecting human life.
Glasgow failed the developing world. This cannot be forgotten in Egypt next year. As the travelling circus of COP goes to Africa, developing states and the climate justice movement must lick their wounds and reorganise, remobilise and have their voices heard. Climate action is inevitable. The question is whether COP, as a platform, will deliver it in time.
Bareesh Chowdhury works at the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.
His Twitter handle is: @brshhc