False solutions prevail over real ambition at COP26


COP26 in Glasgow started with a plethora of declarations. But in the end it failed to deliver on the real and immediate action needed to avoid climate catastrophe, and to address the demand for justice and equity for those most impacted by climate harms.

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Global day of action, COP26Coalition March, on 6 November 2021 in Glasgow.

The message outside of the negotiating halls at COP26 could not have been clearer: massive protests in the streets, a growing tide of climate litigation, and science demonstrating that 1.5°C is moving further out of reach all pointing to the urgent need for climate action to slash rising emissions, remedy mounting harms, and accelerate the just and equitable transition to a fossil-free future. Rather than demonstrate the courage to confront fossil fuels and the ambition needed to keep warming below 1.5°C, Parties at COP26 embraced false solutions - from offsets and carbon capture to monoculture plantations and land grabs. Although many political leaders acknowledged the necessity of keeping 1.5°C alive in their speeches, they failed to reflect that imperative in their decisions. COP26 started with a plethora of declarations and ended with a dearth of action. The outcomes neither deliver the real and immediate measures needed to avoid climate catastrophe, nor address the demand for justice and equity for those most impacted by climate harms.

Exclusivity impedes equitable, ambitious action

The gap between words and actions first manifested in the exclusion of civil society and Indigenous Peoples from the COP, with direct consequences for the policies and decisions adopted in Glasgow.

For months the UK government promised that COP26 would be the most inclusive gathering of its kind, despite the ongoing pandemic. In reality, the opposite was true - both in the lead up but also during the conference itself. Even before the opening of the conference, vaccine apartheid - the result of developed countries prioritizing corporate interests over universal access to vaccines - meant that representatives from developing countries faced unprecedented logistical challenges and health risks to attend the COP.

Despite these challenges and the enormous financial costs associated with COP participation this year, thousands of representatives from social movements, civil society organizations, and Indigenous Peoples gathered in Glasgow to hold governments accountable and to demand climate justice. On the first day of the COP, however, the UK government and the UNFCCC Secretariat made clear that their focus was primarily on promoting meaningless numbers (“the most badges ever allocated”), while restricting meaningful participation in the political process in a manner never encountered at any prior COP.

The UK COP presidency and the UNFCCC Secretariat imposed a nearly full ban on civil society presence in the negotiations for the first few days of the conference. In doing so, they breached even the inadequate guidelines that all governments had previously adopted with regards to the transparency of the negotiations, as well as other international standards guaranteeing rights of access and participation in environmental decision-making, including UN processes. UN Special Rapporteurs denounced the situation and issued urgent appeals to the UN Climate Secretariat and the UK presidency to ensure that all voices could be heard.

These unprecedented restrictions on civil society participation contrasted starkly with the presence of business leaders and lobbyists, who enjoyed privileged access to policymakers. Fossil fuel industry representatives at the COP outnumbered the delegates of any individual nation. Numerous CEOs participated in business events held jointly with States to launch various “initiatives” that lack accountability and transparency but allow corporations to greenwash their way out of adequate climate regulations. The greenwashing threat was so pronounced in both the lead up to COP and during the gathering that the UN Secretary General announced the establishment of a Group of Experts to act as a watchdog, identifying corporations whose climate claims are not matched by adequate actions.

The imbalance in access and influence enjoyed by different non-governmental actors not only signals a lack of commitment by the UN and the UK to environmental democracy. It also undermines the decisions made at the COP by insulating the process from public pressure, leaving governments to settle for the common lowest denominator. In perhaps the clearest demonstration of what happens when observers, as well as many of the most affected countries, are not in the room, Parties adopted a program on public participation, access to information, and climate education (known in the Paris Agreement parlance as “Action for Climate Empowerment”) void of any reference to human rights. At the last minute, in a late-night, closed session under pressure to conclude, Parties removed references to taking a rights-based approach to this work. The irony of negotiating a work programme on public participation after having excluded any observers from the negotiations seems to have been lost on the delegates. This watering down and removal of meaningful rights- and people-centred content from COP texts happened across agenda items and demonstrated why an exclusive COP produces inequitable outcomes and ultimately ineffective decisions.

Fossil fuel fake-out, enter false solutions

Fossil fuels overwhelmingly drive the climate crisis, yet for more than 30 years they have been conspicuously absent from the climate negotiations, save for the large number of fossil fuel industry representatives wandering the halls. This year, for the first time, discussions at the COP addressed fossil fuels explicitly. The topic was raised not only by civil society in protests and side events, but by governments both inside and outside the negotiating rooms. While this focus was groundbreaking, the Parties’ final decision text was not.   

The talks broached the topic of fossil fuels, but most of the progress toward ending their production and use still occurred outside the official negotiations. A UK government-led process garnered commitments from nearly 40 countries and institutions to phase out financing for fossil fuel projects abroad. The initiative is a significant win in the fight to end fossil fuel subsidies. Yet it is not without limitations. The pledge does not address financing for domestic fossil fuel projects at all. Moreover, it only ends financing for “unabated” oil, gas, and coal projects, leaving the door open to carbon capture subsidies, and it allows for some exceptions, including potentially for fossil gas financing, in certain contexts.

COP26 also saw numerous announcements focused on quitting coal. Forty countries, including many of the top coal emitters but notably not the United States, China, India, or Australia, committed to end investment in new coal power generation. Twenty-eight additional countries joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which now counts nearly 190 members, and others committed to phase out unabated coal.

In what was arguably the most significant development on the margins of COP26, the Danish and Costa Rican governments officially launched the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance (BOGA), committing to stop new oil and gas exploration and to phase out production. The founding members of the Alliance include seven countries (Denmark, Costa Rica, France, Greenland, Ireland, Sweden, and Wales) and one subnational government (the Canadian province of Quebec), as well as several associate members (New Zealand, Portugal, and the U.S. state of California). As members’ remarks at the launch made clear, BOGA recognizes that the future is not fossil and that climate leadership requires accelerating the energy transition. On the same day, Carbon Tracker launched the Global Registry of Fossil Fuels to create more transparency around fossil fuel production.

These initiatives demonstrate that progress towards the phasing out of fossil fuels is not only possible, but also logical and ultimately necessary from an economic and political perspective. They sent a strong signal regarding where we are heading and indeed where the world must go to have any hope of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C. Combined with widespread public protests, growing legal challenges, and steadfast resistance by frontline communities facing the threat and impacts of fossil fuel development, these political announcements contribute to mounting pressure on fossil fuel companies. On the heels of COP26, where climate campaigners called out the unacceptability of new oil developments, Shell withdrew from the Cambo oilfield project, one of the UK’s largest undeveloped offshore oil fields. The move may mark the end of new North Sea oil production.

Unfortunately, the urgency reflected in political announcements and public protests outside of the meeting rooms at COP26 did not shine through in the negotiated outcomes. In the talks themselves, while countries finally found the courage to name fossil fuels, they failed to confront them. Rather than committing to phase out fossil fuels, countries agreed only to a weak “phasedown” of “unabated” coal and a phase-out of “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies - a decision marred by so many qualifiers that it fails to reflect the gravity of the climate crisis.

The media largely laid the blame for the last-minute weakening of the language at India’s feet. India’s push to preserve the use of coal was widely decried as incompatible with climate science and at odds with the rights of communities to clean air and a safe climate - rights currently threatened by toxic levels of air pollution in New Delhi that are prompting demands for government action domestically. But rich countries share responsibility for the shameful outcome. The opposition by the United States and other developed countries to referencing phaseout of oil and gas - the extraction of which they continue to support, domestically and abroad - and those same states’ unwillingness to equitably finance the energy transition in developing countries, did at least as much damage to the credibility and impact of the Glasgow decision. The attempt to single out coal as a priority while ignoring the imperative of addressing oil and gas with the same urgency shifted the main burden of the transition to developing countries that continue to rely on coal more heavily than rich countries. In the end, instead of reflecting climate science or the imperative to accelerate the energy transition, the first express reference to fossil fuels in a COP decision text reflects the power of corporate interests and country commitments to maintaining business-as-usual.

While Parties refused to tackle the fossil fuel drivers of the climate crisis, they continued to tout net zero pledges and focus on false solutions.

Focusing on offsets, failing on ambition

After six years of negotiations, Parties finally agreed to overarching rules governing offsets and cross-border cooperation under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which provides for carbon markets and non-market cooperative approaches. The rules open the door to potentially risky actions that serve only to “offset” not reduce emissions. Even with the most robust rules, carbon markets threaten to undermine human rights and ambition as they allow countries and companies to continue business-as-usual emissions in one place on the promise that they will cancel them out by paying for emissions reductions elsewhere. In principle, the Paris Agreement calls for these measures to help increase total emissions reductions. In practice, however, the rules adopted in Glasgow do little to enhance overall ambition. They allow buyers to use most of the purchased carbon credits to directly offset their ongoing emissions, while requiring only a small quota to be “retired” -  i.e., put aside and not used.

Further, while Parties established rules to prevent most double-counting of emissions reductions, they did not eliminate all loopholes including in relation to voluntary carbon markets or credits that are not authorized. On top of that, they opened the door to the use of junk credits from Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects dating back to 2013 to meet emissions reduction targets going forward. The carryover of past credits into the new emissions trading framework not only undermines overall mitigation ambition. It also rewards rights violations. In generating credits, the CDM also generated land grabs and violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and people living in project areas; the little reductions in emissions it created were often without any tangible long-term benefits. Using these zombie credits to achieve “net zero” or post-2020 emission reduction targets does nothing to address the current climate crisis and reduce emissions now. The compromise reached in Glasgow to allow these credits treats the climate emergency as an accounting problem rather than the human rights crisis it is. It also discounts the experience of frontline communities who were or are still harmed by these projects, as well as the continued pollution these offsets allow.

One of the central demands of civil society and Indigenous Peoples (as well as many countries) was that Parties avoid repeating past mistakes, in part by ensuring the Article 6 rules incorporate protections for human rights, including the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Past carbon markets saw communities’ rights to water, food, and housing, among others violated and no avenue to seek remedy. While the final rules agreed on Article 6 market and non-market approaches contain references to human rights including the rights of Indigenous Peoples, they fail to fully incorporate human rights in the design of activities in the “Sustainable Development Mechanism” or require full respect for international human rights standards, including Indigenous Peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), and a just transition. In the final hours, States inserted a reference to an independent grievance process, which is critical for ensuring the right to remedy. However, they stopped short of guaranteeing an institutional structure for grievance redress. Looking ahead it will be necessary to ensure that standards developed under these rules are robust so that countries and companies aren’t trampling rights in an effort to offset their emissions.

The drive to conclude rules to legitimize carbon markets, rather than eliminate fossil fuels as the primary cause of climate change demonstrates the misguided priorities of many countries. In a climate-constrained world, where the impacts of climate change are worsening each day, there is no role for markets with offsets. Countries need to take real and immediate domestic action that addresses the fossil fuel drivers of the crisis and doesn’t try to avoid the hard work through accounting tricks. Pressure from civil society will be critical to limit reliance on carbon credits and to ensure that governments and companies deliver actual emission reductions.

On a positive note, Parties finally devoted considerable time to discussing the non-market cooperative approaches under Article 6 and established a Glasgow Committee and work programme on such approaches to explore how to enable international cooperation outside carbon markets. These activities offer the opportunity to raise ambition by enabling countries to identify approaches to meet their climate commitments through international cooperation not based on offsetting. In creating the Glasgow Committee on Non-Market Approaches, Parties hope to foster the sharing of information, best practices, and lessons learned, among other forms of cooperation. This framework and work programme, which will be further developed in 2022, could help enable real climate action that promotes a just transition, protects human rights including the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and ensures ecosystem integrity.     

States still not putting money or measures where their mouths are

The ambition gap at COP26 was not limited to mitigation. It was also evident in the failure of States to provide adequate support for countries that are already experiencing the brunt of climate impacts and those that are projected to suffer most in the future. Climate finance is woefully inadequate, especially for adaptation. The countries most responsible for the climate crisis are mandated under the UN Climate Agreements to support those least responsible and most impacted through the provision of climate finance. Over a decade ago, developed countries promised to deliver $100 billion per year by 2020. That figure is not based on need, which is in the trillions, but instead reflects a political decision. 2020 has come and gone and countries have yet to achieve even this inadequate target.

COP26 did little to close this ongoing gap rapidly and meaningfully. Developed country Parties pledged to double their adaptation finance delivery over the next four years and promised hundreds of millions in new finance to both the Adaptation Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund for urgent adaptation actions. These new commitments are critical, as adaptation finance continues to lag behind finance for mitigation. However, the announcements are not nearly enough to achieve the long-promised 50:50 balance in mitigation and adaptation finance, or to meet the real needs of those communities most affected by climate change. Moreover, global North governments acknowledged that they would continue to fail to meet the inadequate $100 billion goal until at least 2023. This money is owed to countries in the global South and is necessary to support them in addressing the climate crisis.

And that’s to say nothing of financing for loss and damage caused by climate change, which countries most responsible for the crisis continue to avoid entirely. Calls to “pay up for loss and damage” could be heard throughout the halls and streets of Glasgow and across the virtual COP spaces. Civil society groups made loss and damage a litmus test for the success or failure of the COP. Despite this increased attention and a specific proposal supported by all developing countries to establish a Glasgow Loss and Damage Finance Facility, in the end, Parties committed only to more technical work and to yet another dialogue on loss and damage—no funding. In this context, Scotland’s announcement to contribute money to a loss and damage fund sets a precedent and builds pressure on other Northern countries to follow suit.

The scale and pace of the worsening climate crisis demonstrates that this is not a future problem, but a now problem, as the damages only continue to mount. Concrete proposals to mobilize resources where the money is and to make polluters pay have been put on the table, building on existing precedents demonstrating that such sources of finances would work in practice. Yet, developed country governments refuse to even review these proposals. The ongoing failure of political leaders to provide quantitatively and qualitatively adequate finance for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage - finance that is people-centred, gender-responsive, and accessible to climate-vulnerable communities -  is morally reprehensible.

Glasgow’s failure may delay climate justice but will not prevent the transition away from fossil fuels

Climate justice, loss and damage and rights-based climate action will remain high on the agenda in 2022. The lack of ambition in action and finance, inadequate attempts to address fossil fuels, and loopholes opening the door to offsets and false solutions, will inevitably lead to more climate harm, jeopardizing human rights, including the rights of Indigenous Peoples, around the world. COP26 demonstrated that effective and equitable climate action is impossible without the meaningful participation of civil society, Indigenous Peoples, women, persons with disabilities, and youth. Future COPs must be inclusive not just in principle, but in practice. Rather than serving as a platform for empty promises or instrumentalized to green-wash human rights violations, the climate negotiations must provide a forum for confronting the drivers of the climate crisis and addressing the demands of those on its frontlines.

The continued failure of the UN climate process to meet the urgency of the moment will not deter the global movement for climate justice, nor slow the legal and financial momentum for a just transition to a fossil-free future. That the mere mention of fossil fuels - the primary driver of climate change - marks a breakthrough in nearly 30 years of global climate talks is itself an indictment of the disconnect between the politics that play out in the negotiating halls and the reality experienced in the streets and on the frontlines. But it’s also an indication of the mounting pressure to accelerate the inevitable and necessary end of the fossil fuel era.

Until the Parties convene again, civil society organizations, women, Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and youth around the world will continue to speak truth to power in the streets, at international institutions, and before courts, and will work to hold those countries and companies most responsible for the climate crisis accountable. The fossil fuel era is ending. If global leaders can’t summon the courage to help make that happen, then the people will.


The authors are grateful to Lili Fuhr, Liane Schalatek, and Linda Schneider for their review of this text, which was first published on boell.de.