COP26 was no triumph, but the protests were a base to build on

Submitted by AWL on 23 November, 2021 - 9:33 Author: Zack Muddle
COP26 protest

In “COP and the credibility gap” (Solidarity 614) I covered the COP26 outcomes on energy generation. This week I cover other aspects.

In transport, the biggest focus was on cars. A pledge of dozens of national and regional governments and automobile corporations committed to end the sale of new cars and vans with internal combustion engines by 2040, globally. This far-too-late deadline does not address cars that have already been bought before that date, or retrofitting. It does not aim to reduce the production and usage of this inefficient and environmentally destructive mode of transport, in itself: it doesn’t even aim to tackle its extremely rapid growth. Germany, China, the USA, and several major car manufacturers didn’t even sign up to this weak — and non-legally binding — declaration.

No agreements were made in COP26 on promoting walking and cycling, reducing necessary travelling distances, or expansion of efficient and electric trains and public transport. Electric cars will continue to have a much greater environmental footprint than any of those.

Various countries and governments made promises to support moves to supposedly “zero-emissions” shipping routes. The proposed method is using hydrogen, derived from water electrolysis. But this is a very inefficient way of storing energy. And talk of reliance on so-called “green” hydrogen often covers for the fact that the more commonly proposed and economically more profitable way of generating the hydrogen is steam-methane reforming, using natural gas and releasing at least as much greenhouse gas as burning gas would.

There was no discussion of modern wind-powered cargo ships. They would be considerably greener, but would require a greater technical change, and adaptation of freight practices from just-in-time to allow for variable weather. Nor was there discussion of global levelling up and coordination to minimise unnecessary shipping of goods and parts around the globe.

Aviation

Aviation is a particularly dirty form of transport and freight. Unfortunately, large electric and low-carbon planes are unlikely to exist in the near future. Yet a declaration on aviation accepted and took as given that “the international aviation industry and the number of global air passengers and volume of cargo is expected to increase significantly over the next 30 years.”

It does not even intend to stop airplanes from running on hydrocarbons and belching out CO2. Instead, it aims to “tackle” aviation emissions by “offsetting” them. This would be partly through “Carbon Offsetting Schemes” — with all the problems that carbon markets bring. The other method would be through using “sustainable aviation fuels”, i.e. “biofuels”, that would supposedly offset emissions when the plants to make the fuels are grown.

Many biofuels are sourced through deforestation, or processes which degrade the soil, undermining any “offset” potential. Even genuine “offsetting” would be the wrong approach. We need to reduce emissions everywhere we can, including by a rapid reduction of aviation, while drawing down and storing (not burning and releasing) carbon as fast as we can.

To halt the climate crises, we need to rapidly end all burning of fossil fuels, primarily used in energy, transport, and heating. There was nothing agreed on heating, building temperature regulation, or insulation.

Redistribution

We need also global redistribution of wealth to the global south, to support carbon mitigations, adaptation, and “loss and damage”. We need to open borders to climate and all migrants. We need to stop deforestation, and transform agriculture to stop methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

The quantity of wealth wielded is indicates well how serious ambitions to tackle climate crises are. The $100bn per year by 2020 promised but not delivered by wealthy nations to the global south would have been woefully insufficient. The conservative International Energy Agency, considering energy alone, estimates $5tn/year by 2030 is needed, globally. This is 50 times larger than the broken promise to date for total finance for all carbon mitigation plus adaptation for the half of the planet who are in “developing countries”.

The “Like-Minded Developing Countries” and the African Group, early in negotiations, did call for $1.3tn per year with a “significant percentage on a grant basis”. This did not make it into the agreements itself.

Those ambitions themselves were already severely toned down. The UNFCCC’s Standing Committee on Finance recently concluded that these nations would require nearly $6tn up to 2030, including domestic funds, to support just half of the actions in their

NDCs. As socialists, we fight to take the wealth of the rich and the ruling class into democratic working-class control, with a radical distribution across society and globally. We demand a vast redistribution from the global north to the global south: in grants, not loans.

COP 26 has seen steps in sketching processes for these discussions, as part of UNFCCC: but not decisions.

Despite what the Paris Agreement calls for, climate finance to the global south is heavily skewed towards mitigation activities, which are generally seen as better financial investments. COP26 upped aims for spending on climate adaptation, but not as far as called for. While our priority in richer parts of the world is on reduction of emissions, poorer countries produce much less carbon and are disproportionately receiving the brunt of climate change. African nations already disproportionately spend on adaptation. In this context, greater funding on adaptation is a basic component of global climate justice: but one which rich countries generally push back against.

Many were pushing for a facility for “loss and damage” funding, something often seen as akin to “reparations”, for poorer countries suffering the terrible impacts of climate change. The EU and US in particular blocked any such agreement.

Who are the rich countries in question? The UNFCCC list is based on those who were members of the OECD in 1992, so doesn’t include South Korea or the oil-rich Gulf states. These continue to fight attempts to be obliged to provide finance.

Money spent for mitigation and adaptation within the richest countries does not directly form part of the COP 26 negotiations. Instead, agreements cover specific tangible policies. As seen, these too have fallen far short.

Climate crises are already driving increasing migration, within and between countries. We should aim to undercut the conditions which force people to involuntarily migrate. But there is only so much adaptation that can be done to an island going underwater. Mitigating the impacts of climate change must involve welcoming climate migrants. There has been a small amount of discussion about this, but not concrete decisions. Indeed, many of the biggest polluters spend twice as much on border enforcement as on climate finance. The 1951 Refugee Convention hasn’t even been expanded to include people forced to migrate by climate change.

Our sights must be set higher still than that. Any border policy which seeks to permit only certain groups of people necessarily leads to the kind of death and suffering that we see in Calais, at the Poland-Belarus border, and elsewhere. We must fight for free movement and migrants’ rights for all.

Little specific was agreed on agriculture within the core COP 26 process itself. The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration of over 130 countries did promise to “wor[k] collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030”. It promised $19.2bn of public and private funding. There was a second “Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade” statement. Within days the government of Indonesia, a signatory and majority-forested country of almost one million square kilometres, denounced the agreement and sought to reinterpret it. If the regulation and policy agreed fails to meet the challenge, so does the funding. One investigation found that banks and asset managers based in the EU, UK, US and China have made deals worth $157 billion with firms accused of destroying tropical forest in Brazil, Southeast Asia and Africa since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

USA and China

During COP26, the USA and China announced that they had agreed to work more closely on climate change. That announcement has been widely celebrated. They make promises about deforestation, and about methane. Yet the promises they made about coal didn’t impel China to even sign up to the commitment (discussed last week) to phase out coal; likewise with methane. Xi Jinping, China’s president, didn’t even show up to COP 26.

The even more celebrated launch of the “global methane pledge”, with 105 signatories, had a foundational flaw. Signatories don’t face individual targets for reducing emissions. Thus they may sign up without drawing up any goals or policies.

Nitrous oxide was not even covered in agreements.

The greenwashing didn’t end at the edge of Glasgow. Much of the media have been celebrating the successes of COP 26. Even some campaigning NGOs, eager I assume to offer quick gratification to their donors, have played up the successes.

To celebrate COP26 you must first lower your ambitions through the gutter. Yet we can make the so-far empty promises real, and go beyond them. We must and can build a movement to force the needed changes in our workplaces, countries, and internationally.

Baby steps have been made in that direction within the movements built around COP 26.

Peoples summit

In many cities, and in the COP26 Coalition’s “People’s Summit for Climate Justice”, activities around COP26 took the form of a coalition, of individuals and groups taking action within one area. They did not cohere into a movement. COP26 Coalition was neither democratic nor transparent in its organising. It was not clear who was making decisions, how they were made, or how they could be challenged.

The summit was relatively open with a reasonable range of perspectives and organisations taking part. Yet they were not put in serious dialogue with each other. Instead of working together, debating out differences as parts of a common movement, different groups worked in independent silos alongside each other. That was a big missed opportunity.

Within the discussions, in the meetings we organised, and in wider protests and discussions in Glasgow and beyond, Workers’ Liberty activists raised the urgency of a class struggle approach to environmentalism.

There was an appetite for this message. But where we were not making such arguments, they were largely absent.

The left wing environmentalists in the People’s Summit generally recognised that capitalism, with its insatiable drive for profit, is the engine behind climate change. Yet they failed to take the next logical step: recognising that workers organised at work, at the place where profit and capital is produced, are the key agents with the power to make change happen.

Even those advocating engagement with workers often saw trade unions as just another movement in a “movement of movements” against climate change. Many trade unionists there advocated a state-led “just transition”, with “trade-unions” as a homogenous body negotiating a better deal as part of an already occurring transition.

Against this, we advocate a worker-led transition, with grass-roots organising to transform our unions and movement from the bottom to the top, to fight for the environmental changes we need. This struggle will take us into increasing conflict with capital, and with its representatives within the labour movement. We organise and educate to face this conflict straight on, to win it, and to build a better and ecologically sound society.

Environmental organising is no less urgent now than before or during COP26. A radical class-struggle approach to environmental organising remains the only strategy that can win. Check out your local COP26 coalition hub or XR group, which may already be organising next steps, and advocate a workplace orientation. From the other side: raise environmental issues in your workplace, and union.

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