What would an inclusive and fair COP26 have looked like?
While the British government has worked hard towards making COP26 in Glasgow a ‘safe and inclusive summit’ the conference has widely been criticised for being an elitist, patriarchal, and exclusionary space.
"I think it is just a negotiation… between rich and powerful people. The voices of indigenous communities haven’t been heard."
Despite efforts from the COP26 Presidency, UNFCCC and other partners to make the climate summit accessible, many activists who are at the frontline of climate breakdown couldn’t attend at all. Many faced a combination of visa problems, limited access to Covid vaccines, changing travel rules and scarce or expensive accommodation. Media sources particularly highlighted the absence of several climate-vulnerable Pacific Island states including Vanuatu and Kiribati.
A conference for rich white men?
These barriers have led the climate conference to be described as the “whitest and most privileged ever”. While it is unclear if such claims stand up – it is certain that COP26 has been treated as this season’s hot ticket. One where high-flyers must be seen, rather than a crucial moment to avert climate collapse. White actors, billionaires, fashion designers and royals have been among the attendees, not to mention the excessive number of white executives from the oil and gas industry.
Women only serve 24 countries as Heads of State, which accounts for the stark gender imbalance at the World Leader’s Summit. Women have been historically underrepresented in party delegations at previous COPs, but – in a small sign of progress, they made up 49% of registered government delegates this time round. But still, men accounted for 60% of active speakers in the COP26 plenary and spoke for 74% of the time. This is shocking but not surprising, given that, for example, the UK team of politicians and climate negotiators were all men until very recently, in a response to public criticisms.
One exception was Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley – described as a ‘regional rockstar’ after an inspiring opening speech, and the Amazonian activist Txai Suruí who brought attention to the devastating deforestation of the Amazon. Afterwards, Txai shared that she was nervous to speak in a foreign language (English) to a mostly white, male audience.
Or a conference to host land defenders?
One of the most striking successes at COP26 is the emergence of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. While the governments of Costa Rica and Denmark have been rightly celebrated for this new commitment, it is worth reflecting on the origins of this movement.
Indigenous people have a long history of fighting extraction on their territories. For example, the Ogoni Bill of Rights of 1990, led by the Ogoni People, made both the Nigerian government and transnational oil companies liable for the poor environmental and human rights conditions in the Niger Delta. More recently, the Waorani people of the Ecuadorian Amazon won a legal case to prevent oil drilling in their territory. Opposition by Indigenous People contributed to Biden’s executive order cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States.
Yet despite this legacy, indigenous land defenders have struggled at COP26. For example, Mitzy Violeta and Ita Mendoza from the Mixteca region of Oaxaca in southern Mexico were attending COP for the first time as accredited observers. When talking to them to get more insights about the experiences of female indigenous environmentalists at COP, they lamented it was a space designed for English speakers with few multi-lingual signs or language support. Ita observed that most of many side and panel events did not offer simultaneous translation, limiting their ability to take part, something noted by other South American activists invited to speak.
Mitzy noted the exclusion of indigenous perspectives:
"… when we are here, we are only able to come and listen, because that is what it says in our name badges - that we are only observers. This means someone who only looks, who cannot give an opinion, who cannot make decisions."
Activists from the Global South, especially indigenous peoples, have been at the front line of the environmental protests and resistance movements. Yet, indigenous peoples’ delegates reported feeling a pressure to ‘perform indigeneity’ if they wanted to be heard at COP26. As Ita says:
"We come dressed in a sweatshirt that says: Defenders of the Earth, and not all of the time we wear our typical indigenous costumes. If people here see you, as they think an indigenous person looks like, they treat you better. But it becomes a racist space when you don’t wear the typical costume … So, [it’s like] if you don't go [dressed] with this stereotype of what an indigenous person looks like in COP, they won't treat you well."
What would an inclusive and intersectional COP process look like?
Gender justice goes hand in hand with climate action. We know that women are more likely to confront the physical impacts of climate breakdown, and that the climate crisis increases women and girls’ exposure to gender-based violence or child marriage.
We also know that drivers of, and vulnerabilities to, climate change, fall starkly along racial lines. Industrialisation and current living standards in the Global North has been fed by slavery, colonialism and exploitative (some argue racialised) capitalism, creating a vast historical carbon debt within and between countries. Those facing the most severe climate impacts are vulnerable partially because of a history of extraction and conquest. The most vulnerable within these countries are low-income and other marginalised groups.
But, global leaders remain blind to the role of patriarchy, racism and neo-colonialism in the climate crisis, precluding a fair and just planetary future for all. This means rethinking the negotiations process, requiring those in the Global North to recognise the expertise and leadership of the ‘first adapters’. All countries should ensure a gender balance and represent marginalised communities (such as indigenous peoples) in their delegations, rather than relegating them to observer status.
What would a fair COP outcome look like?
Rich countries jointly committed to mobilise $100 billion a year for climate action by 2020, but they have collectively fallen short. Many of the worst per capita emitters – settler colonies such as Australia, Canada and the United States – all contributed less than 20% of their fair share to the climate finance goal, a stark example of climate injustice.
Negotiations over the new climate finance goal commenced at COP26, but still the draft decision text on the table is not sufficient. There is an urgent need for a paradigm shift about climate finance within the multilateral climate negotiations. Given the human and economic cost of ecological collapse, negotiators must focus both on achieving 1.5°C (to avoid any further loss and damage) and securing climate reparations for those at the front lines of climate injustice. Moreover, those reparations should reflect responsibility for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions rather than willingness to pay. The science has been clear for thirty years; rich countries that have chosen not to decarbonise should be held to account for the catastrophe that they are fuelling.
Ultimately, the fight to avert planetary breakdown is intersectional. We cannot achieve climate justice without actively listening to the voices of women and marginalised communities, particularly those defending their lands from environmental degradation. By hearing about their needs and priorities, we can learn about how to prevent, mitigate and adapt in the face of our climate emergency – particularly learning from indigenous peoples, who protect 80% of the biodiversity left in the world.