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UN Climate Change Conference: COP26 and Climate Change needs solidarity

By Kumi Naidoo

This year’s UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) takes place at one of the most consequential moments of human history. What we do in the next 10 years will determine humanity’s future – or whether we will have a future at all.

Having participated in several climate negotiations, I think it’s important not to put all our eggs in the Glasgow COP basket. We will almost certainly be disappointed by the gulf between what governments agree and what actually is required.

Climate lawyer Farhana Yamin outlined what is required in her article “A Manifesto for Justice for COP26 and Beyond” when she said: “Glasgow needs to give a boost to global solidarity and the build back better and climate justice agendas. It can do so by correcting power imbalances and putting justice and fairness at the heart of this and all future COP negotiations.”

In the lead up to the Paris climate negotiations, when I was with Greenpeace, along with other campaigning organisations, we made a conscious decision to talk about “The Road through Paris” rather than “The Road to Paris”.

Even though we knew we needed to do everything in our power to secure the best possible outcome from that flawed negotiating process, we recognised that it was never going to deliver anything close to an ideal outcome, given the disproportionate power of rich countries, the failure to acknowledge the links between climate, gender, race and so on, and the blank refusal to question the economic system that has driven us to the edge of climate destruction.

Anyone hoping and praying for an ideal outcome from COP26 is setting themselves up for disappointment. Nevertheless, we need to use COP26 as a moment to mobilise and build awareness among people who are not part of the negotiations. We must use this event to raise global public consciousness and a sense of greater urgency.

The necessary changes to transform our global systems – our economic system, our energy system, our transport system, our food system – will require everyone’s participation.

Therefore, COP26 should be seen as a moment to strengthen the growing movement for climate justice around the world, as we have seen with the momentum generated by the Climate Justice Charter Campaign in South Africa. We must continue to push for the best possible outcome from Glasgow.

Climate justice is fundamentally an issue of social justice. It is important that we recognise that environmental injustice affects the poor and marginalised the most. We need to ensure that the struggle to address poverty and inequality and the struggle to address the climate crisis (and the environmental crisis more broadly) are recognised as two sides of the same coin.

We already know the positions taken by the most powerful countries in the world: these countries seem to be comfortable with the idea of climate apartheid. Even though these countries have been largely responsible for creating the problem, they appear incapable of accepting responsibility.

Just last week, leaked documents revealed how some wealthy nations are working behind the scenes to slow down efforts to address climate change. The leak reveals Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.

It also shows some wealthy nations are questioning paying more to poorer states to move to greener technologies. This “lobbying” raises questions for the COP26 climate summit next month.

I wish we could say that we are surprised. But, sadly, this happens all the time. Governments are saying one thing to appease the public but doing another to support the fossil fuel industry – who sometimes appear to own and control these governments.

Should we have needed any proof? This has happened throughout recent history and is the reason we are in such dire straits in terms of the oncoming climate catastrophe.

In a letter to COP26 president Alok Sharma, Transparency International cautions that even the perception of conflicts of interest is enough to undermine public confidence and threaten progress towards making the critically urgently needed progress in these negotiations.

It is critical that Sharma takes steps to make sure his and future COP presidencies can tackle the climate crisis by eliminating corruption and undue influence at COP26. But don’t hold your breath.

Even though the $100 billion (about R1.4 trillion) a year commitment made at COP15 in Copenhagen was fought for and won in 2009, we see no sense of urgency to ensure those resources are being made available to poor countries, many of whose emissions are negligible compared to the emissions of those countries that built their economies on dirty energy.

By the time countries reach the actual face-to-face negotiations, a lot of positions will be already locked in. That is not to say that a surge in global public mobilisation in the remaining days before the COP cannot shift things in a more positive direction, so all efforts should be encouraged and supported.

At the same time, we should not be naive about the limitations of a process that has failed to deliver in almost three decades of negotiations.

For example, when George Bush, a climate denialist, was president of the US, we lost close to eight years of progress. President Barack Obama was only marginally better.

What we must recognise is that the writing is on the wall insofar as the crisis is now in plain sight.

All countries are going to be saying the right things, including that we have to act now. For instance, Sharma, the UK government-appointed president of COP26, has proposed four main aims for the summit: Global net-zero; adapting climate strategy to support communities in need; providing financial support to tackle climate change; and governments working together with business and local communities to bring about change.

This might suggest that decisionmaking is heading in the right direction, but the UK Government has a track record of saying one thing, then acting differently.

We need to bear in mind that the rich nations failed the “Covid test” by hoarding vaccines and putting their citizens’ short-term interests above the interests of people elsewhere in the world, so we would be foolish to take their word as a guarantee. These actions and their past behaviour at previous climate negotiations confirm that global economic apartheid is alive and well.

History will judge those nations that go into these climate negotiations protecting the economic interests of a handful of powerful stakeholders, and the South African government should not be exempt from that scrutiny.

* Kumi Naidoo was the global head of Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and he is a global ambassador for Africans rising for global peace, justice and dignity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.