As Alok Sharma, Tory minister and president of the United Nations’ COP26 climate conference, closed proceedings, he was moved to tears.1 “I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment. But…it is also vital that we protect this package”.2 Sharma’s comments came after COP26 was extended to allow negotiators to reach agreement. Ultimately, discussions came down almost to a single word, but one which represents the conundrum of bourgeois environmental politics.
In the run-up to the climate summit, leading politicians had highlighted the event’s importance. John Kerry, the United States climate envoy said it was the “last chance” for significant action. However, others, such as Boris Johnson, the British prime minister whose government was hosting the event, warned of the possibility of failure. Johnson suggested that the chance of reaching a deal to keep global temperature rises at 1.5°C were “six out of 10”. Speaking at the G20 meeting in Rome on the eve of COP26, Johnson said, “Currently…we are not going to hit it and we have to be honest with ourselves”.3 COP26 was further weakened by the absence of the leaders of Russia and China. Campaigners also highlighted how exclusive the event was, with thousands unable to attend due to vaccine inequality, racist immigration policies, the high costs of accommodation and the expense of Covid-19 quarantine. Given these factors, even reaching a final agreement ought to have been a moment of celebration for the hosts. Yet, Sharma’s tears give an insight into the tensions present in the conference hall.
Even before the final day, it was clear that COP26 would be a failure. Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific research group that compares government action to promises made at the Paris COP conference in 2015, pointed out that even the increased pledges made by countries at COP26 would lead the world to disaster: “With all target pledges, including those made in Glasgow, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will still be around twice as high as necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures.” It continued, “With 2030 pledges alone—without longer-term targets—global temperature increase will be at 2.4°C in 2100.” Bill Hare, a chief executive of one of CAT’s partner organisations, emphasised that even on COP26’s own terms the summit was failing:
The vast majority of 2030 actions and targets are inconsistent with net zero goals: there’s a nearly one degree gap between government current policies and their net zero goals. It’s all very well for leaders to claim they have a net zero target, but if they have no plans as to how to get there, and their 2030 targets are as low as so many of them are, then frankly these net zero targets are just lip service to real climate action. Glasgow has a serious credibility gap.4
Final agreement was delayed by representatives of the Chinese and Indian governments who wanted to see a commitment to “phasing out” coal changed to “phasing down”. China and India are the two biggest consumers of coal in the world, and the semantic disagreements betray the centrality of coal to their economies. Blame was immediate. In a BBC interview the following day, Sharma put it very clearly: “China and India will have to explain themselves and what they did to the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world”.5 Sharma distanced himself and the British government from any blame, claiming that his role was to “build consensus” and that the deal was a “fragile win”. He went on to deny the deal was a “failure”, instead describing it as a “historic achievement”.Nevertheless, it is likely the only historic aspect to the COP26 agreement was the inclusion of the word “coal”. This was the first time a fossil fuel had actually been named in a COP agreement, although neither oil nor gas were mentioned.
The blaming of India and China hides the culpability of other countries in the ongoing expansion of fossil fuel use. Yes, the much celebrated COP26 “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement” was not signed by China and India, but nor was it signed by the United States.6 Scientific American explains why US president Joe Biden failed to sign it:
Coal retains political power. The Biden administration’s decision not to sign the coal phase-out pledge comes as Democrats haggle over a budget bill in Congress that would direct billions of dollars in subsidies to clean energy. Finalising that deal requires securing the vote of Senator Joe Manchin, the Democrat from coal-dependent West Virginia who holds the swing vote in the Senate.
“What you’re seeing in the US as part of that announcement is a quiet belief that markets will do the dirty work and that politicians don’t need to get their hands dirty by saying the quiet part out loud,” said Justin Guay, who tracks climate policy at the Sunrise Project, an international advocacy organisation.7
In fact, the US Energy Information Administration expects US coal generation to increase by almost a fifth in 2021 as a result of higher gas prices.8 The inclusion of coal in the final text and the exclusion of oil and gas is due to the relative importance of those fuels for the Global North.
Indeed, despite the anger directed at India and China, the final COP26 agreement reflects the interests of the US in particular. Few news reports have mentioned that the compromise came from a conference floor “huddle” between representatives of the US, China and the European Union.9 These representatives of powerful countries and groupings at COP essentially decided the conference outcome to the exclusion of everyone else. No wonder that Sharma, in his BBC interview, felt obliged to apologise for the lack of transparency in the final negotiations.
So, although India and China publicly took the blame, the US was far from disappointed with the outcome. Kerry simply said, “You have to phase down coal before you can end coal”.10 In fact, the United States, alongside other major powers, has been working hard to expand fossil fuel production in recent months. Biden himself had to acknowledge the irony that he was calling for increases in oil production just before COP26. As oil prices boomed, Biden needed increased production to reduce costs. At a press conference after the G20 conference that immediately preceded COP26, Biden said:
It does, on the surface, seem inconsistent, but it’s not at all inconsistent… No one has anticipated that this year we’d be in a position now—or even next year—that we’re not going to use any more oil or gas or that we’re not going to be engaged in any fossil fuels. We’re going to stop subsidising those fossil fuels. We’re going to be making significant changes. This just makes the argument that we should move more rapidly to renewable energy: to wind and solar and other means of energy.11
Despite the urgency of climate change, the US finds itself trapped by the logic of capitalism. Fossil fuels are deeply embedded in the economic system—so much so, in fact, that no less than 503 attendees at COP26 were shown to have links to fossil fuel interests. Together they formed the largest single delegation at COP26, outnumbering, for instance, representatives from Indigenous groups by two to one. Global Witness notes:
The fossil fuel lobby at COP is larger than the combined total of the eight delegations from the countries worst affected by climate change in the last two decades—Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, Philippines, Mozambique, the Bahamas, Bangladesh and Pakistan.12
Together these 503 delegates represented 100 fossil fuel companies and a further 30 trade and membership associations. The insidious nature of the fossil fuel companies’ presence was shown by the revelation that the official delegations of 27 countries included representatives of fossil fuel industries.
Most obvious was the delegation from Australia led by Scott Morrison. Before becoming prime minister Morrison brought a lump of coal into the Australian parliament, saying, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.” As prime minister he infamously went on holiday to Hawaii while Australia suffered a major bushfire crisis in December 2019. Morrison is heavily encouraging the expansion of the fossil fuel industry. As Australian socialists report:
The governing coalition is also continuing to fund its “gas-fuelled recovery”. This month, it announced $30 million for another new gas plant at Port Kembla, New South Wales, on top of $600 million in spending on a new gas plant at Kurri Kurri in the same state… It wants to open up new gas fields with $50 million in funding for the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin and $20.7 million for Queensland’s North Bowen and Galilee Basins. And it has approved three new coal mine developments in the last month.13
Morrison also hopes that new technologies for storing carbon will allow the fossil fuel industry to continue. His government is spending $260 million AUD of state funds on such technologies. This is why he brought representatives of oil and gas giant Santos with him to Glasgow, where the company set up a stand promoting its carbon capture technology.
One of the major political issues at COP26 was the question of climate justice. As John Sinha has explained, climate justice is the recognition of the unequal effects of global warming:
We are not all equally impacted by climate chaos and we are not all equally responsible for it. The unfolding climate catastrophe is not hitting us all equally. The poorest will be hit hardest everywhere, and the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world will be hit hardest of all.14
Some 30 years ago, at the 1992 Earth Summit, concern was raised by countries in the Global South that emissions reductions would prevent their economic development. A global plan of “contraction and convergence” was agreed whereby richer countries would reduce emissions and poorer ones could develop, both converging to a sustainable level. With this strategy, the biggest burden would be on the richer nations most responsible for environmental destruction.
However, the bulk of emissions since 1992 continued to come from the Global North. Attempts to redress this imbalance led to pledges at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 for climate finance of $100 billion a year from 2020 for climate change mitigation and adaption. Again, this failed. The money was not forthcoming.
This fund was a key point of contention in the run up to COP26. Some hoped that it would be agreed. Yet, the COP26 final agreement notes “with regret” the missed target while “welcoming the increased pledges made by many developed countries and the Climate Finance Delivery Plan” and “urging developed country to fully deliver on the US $100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025”.15
This lack of clarity about how key decisions will be implemented is characteristic of the outcomes of COP26. During the Glasgow conference, many announcements were made with great fanfare, but there was little information on what they really meant. For instance, a pledge to stop deforestation by 2030 was signed by over 100 countries, claiming it would protect 33 million square kilometres of forest.16 Johnson celebrated this “Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use”, saying, “We will have a chance to end humanity’s long history as nature’s conqueror and instead become its custodian.” Yet, after a few bland promises to reaffirm commitments to sustainable practices and “smallholders, Indigenous peoples and local communities”, the Declaration’s real policy becomes clear. This is to “facilitate the alignment of financial flows with international goals to reverse forest loss and degradation, while ensuring robust policies and systems are in place to accelerate the transition to an economy that is resilient and advances forests, sustainable land use, biodiversity and climate goals.”
Trapped by the logic of capitalism, the negotiations were never going to bring about the dramatic transformation of humanity’s relationship to nature that Johnson’s rhetoric implied. In fact, it seems likely that the $19 billion pledged from public and private donations to oversee the Declaration’s implementation will instead by funnelled through financial schemes designed to offset, rather than prevent, deforestation. Indeed, corporations are actively looking for land as an opportunity to offset their emissions through projects such as planting trees.
As Open Democracy has pointed out, it is fitting that COP26 took place in Glasgow since Scotland is at the forefront of this land grab. Scotland saw a boom year for land sales in 2020 in Scotland, and some of this is linked to carbon offsetting:
Craft beer brewer BrewDog, for example, has purchased over 9,000 acres of land in the Cairngorms in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint. Similarly, oil giant Shell has invested £5m in extending the Glengarry forest in the Scottish Highlands, with the aim of planting or regenerating one million trees over five years.17
The ideological and economic background to the commodification of nature through “natural capital” has been explored previously in this journal.18 Such strategies are doomed to failure. Open Democracy notes, “There is simply not enough land in the world to offset global emissions.” In addition, such schemes have proven records of failure, including the displacement of communities in the Global South, corruption and dubious financial accounting. In their 2009 critique of carbon trading, Steffen Böhm and Siddhartha Dabhi write:
Carbon markets and climate change mitigation are not merely about the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, we have to talk about wider issues of social, economic, environmental and climatic justice. The key problem is that, through the commodification of carbon, climate change is turned into a numbers game, inviting all sorts of creative accounting techniques that fail to actually correspond with the reality on the ground.19
Unfortunately, these kinds of financial schemes remain at the heart of mainstream responses to climate change at COP26. Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England who is now the UN’s special envoy for climate action and finance, explained in a speech at COP26:
Finance is no longer a mirror that reflects a world that’s not doing nearly enough. It’s become a window through which ambitious climate action can deliver the sustainable future that people all over the world are demanding. It will help end the tragedy of the horizon.20
Indeed, Carney expects big returns from these sorts of policies. Elsewhere he explains, “The transition to net zero is creating the greatest commercial opportunity of our age”.21 For Carney, the role of governments in fighting climate change is to create policies that can encourage action by the public sector to develop a new “sustainable financial system”:
Governments can reinforce the efforts in the private sector by setting clear and credible climate policies, which will provide more certainty to the market, crowd in private investment and ensure that private financial markets pull forward adjustments from the future. This will minimise costs and smooth adjustments.22
Carney is also chair of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (Gfanz), a network of 450 “banks, insurers and asset managers” that have pledged $100 trillion to help a transition to net zero. Among Gfanz leaders are representatives of financial services giants such as AXA, Aviva, NatWest, London Stock Exchange Group and the Bank of America. Gfanz focuses on using finance to reach net zero.
However, despite Carney’s belief that finance is the solution, it is clear that such financial initiatives are at best a fig leaf and part of the greenwashing of the economy and political institutions. At worst they encourage economic fantasies such as carbon trading, which prevent real action on climate change taking place.
Fortunately, the politics of COP26 were contested, although primarily by forces outside the conference. In the 30 years since international conferences on climate change began, those who pointed out the limitations imposed on them by the framework of the capitalist economy have grown from a tiny minority to a significant percentage of the environmental movement.23
The COP26 Coalition, which came together to coordinate the protests during the conference, was a broad, but radical, alliance. It involved almost every national trade union, many local union branches and trades councils, dozens of national and local environmental organisations plus anti-racist organisations, refugee and migrant groups, religious networks, and many social justice campaigns. The COP26 Coalition organised hundreds of demonstrations and meetings through a network of over 50 “hubs” in Britain and Ireland.
COP26 had been due to take place in November 2020; had it done so, the movement could have built upon the major climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic put the movement on hold, but the protests around COP26 showed that it has not disappeared. The Coalition’s protests focused on the theme of climate justice, and, by linking a much broader range of issues to COP26, it was able to galvanise activists from a broad range of backgrounds and organisations. In particular, it was important to see marginalised voices from Indigenous communities, people with refugee and migrant backgrounds, and representatives of diasporas from many parts of the Global South speaking and organising as part of the coalition.
A global day of action was held on Saturday 6 November. The day before, 50,000 protesters had marched through Glasgow with Greta Thunberg and striking workers from the GMB union. This coming together of the trade union and environmental movements was symbolic of wider unity on the protest. Thunberg had tweeted, “I’ll join the climate strike in Glasgow during #Cop26. Climate justice also means social justice and that we leave no one behind. So, we invite everyone, especially the workers striking in Glasgow, to join us.”
On the day of action itself, around 100,000 people marched in Glasgow, with a further 20,000 in London. Over 250 other protests took place around the world, but it was in Britain that the biggest mobilisations occurred: 7,000 in Bristol, 4,000 in Sheffield, 3,000 in Liverpool and Oxford, 2,000 in Birmingham, 1,500 in Manchester, and 1,000 in Portsmouth, Plymouth, Nottingham and Norwich. Hundreds joined protests in dozens of smaller towns. The day of action was thus a major day for climate protest in Britain, with significant participation from much wider social forces such as trade unions. This bodes well for rebuilding a mass environmental movement for 2022 onward.
What sort of movement is needed? In the aftermath of COP26 many activists are debating the way forward and, at the time of writing, it is not clear what the COP26 Coalition will do. Certainly, there are many activists who think it should continue focusing on the question of climate justice, and 2022 brings a number of symbolic opportunities to do this, such as the 30th anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit in June 2022.
The urgency of the climate crisis continues to be a motivating factor. The year 2021 was a year of wildfires and floods as well a climate-induced famine in Madagascar. COP26 demonstrated that the ruling classes of the world have no viable alternative to environmental disaster. It also proved that they are prepared to allow the poorest in society to suffer, whether they are in the Global South or the richer Global North.
The breadth of the movement in November 2021 certainly shows an appetite for action. The challenge for the movement will be to simultaneously keep its mass character and its militancy. If the movement becomes narrowed down to the actions of a few militants blocking roads, together with the occasional mass protest, it will fail to win change. Instead, we need a dynamic movement, within which different organisations can explore and deploy radical tactics. It would be encouraging to see climate justice blocs as part of the international mobilisations on UN anti-racism day in March 2022 and demands for climate jobs being made central to May Day protests.
Crucially, however, the COP26 movement involved the organised working class. The great strength of the climate strike in September 2019 was that it brought together tens of thousands of young environmentalists with thousands of workers, many joining collectively through their trade unions. These workers have the power to stop capitalism; their revolutionary action can create a sustainable world based on a democratic planned economy. As Australian socialist Jeff Sparrow argued recently, “A planned economy offers an alternative: a fundamentally different way to respond to environmental crisis”.24 A planned economy also offers a way of rationally organising society in the interests of ordinary people instead of the billionaires. A socialist society organised on the basis of mass participatory action by workers would redistribute wealth to provide healthcare, education, jobs and a safe environment for all. Socialists can offer this alternative within the environmental movement as a vision of a future that moves beyond attempts to green capitalism and has climate and social justice at its heart. In other words, socialists must counterpose workers’ power to capitalist destruction.
Following COP26, socialists need to develop and strengthen the environmental movement, building links between it and other social movements, in particular those fighting for social and climate justice. We need to argue for the central role of workers, and raise demands such as the call for “climate jobs” to bring workers’ and their organisations into the movement.25 Crucially, we must build on the radicalism seen on the streets during the Glasgow conference. Indeed, at COP26 there were signs that those inside the conference halls were worried by the radicalism and scale of the protests outside. During one event on climate finance, Mark Carney felt obliged to respond to Thunberg’s accusation that the COP process was “30 years of blah, blah blah.” He replied, “The core message today is that the money is there, the money is there for the transition, and it’s not blah blah blah”.26
COP26 showed that, although there is money, governments and big business will fail to use it in ways that will bring real action on climate change and solve the sort of inequalities that the climate justice movement has brought to the fore. If the money is there, then the movement should demand it is spent and make sure it is used on meaningful measures rather than on greenwashing projects that just funnel more cash into the hands of billionaires.
While at the COP26 summit, former US President Barack Obama celebrated the participation of young people in the climate movement but concluded by insisting they “vote like your life depends on it”. If voting means choosing politicians like Obama—who infamously helped drive through the accords that scuppered the COP15 conference in Copenhagen and oversaw a “boosting” in fossil fuel production during his term in office—then the movement is right to look elsewhere.27 Like the previous 25 conferences, COP26 saw the capitalist class attempting the impossible; the negotiators in Glasgow were trying to green a system that systematically degrades the natural world through its relentless drive for profit. The scale of the protests outside indicate that millions understand that is impossible. Therein lies the only hope that came from COP26.
Martin Empson is the author of Kill all the Gentlemen: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Bookmarks, 2018) and the editor of System Change not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis (Bookmarks, 2019).
1 Thanks to Amy Leather and Camilla Royle for their comments on drafts of this article.
2 Guardian, 2021. Of course, Sharma is no environmental ally; he is, for instance, an outspoken advocate for airport expansion, and his own website advertises that he is in favour of “both Heathrow and Gatwick Airports expanding”—www.aloksharma.co.uk/supporting-heathrow-airport
3 Walker, Mason and Harvey, 2021.
4 Climate Action Tracker, 2021.
5 Cursino and Faulkner, 2021.
7 Storrow, 2021.
8 United States Energy Information Administration, 2021.
9 Hook, Hodgson and Pickard, 2021.
10 Hook, Hodgson and Pickard, 2021.
11 Biden, 2021.
13 Supple, 2021.
14 Sinha, 2021.
15 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2021.
16 COP26, 2021.
17 Macfarlane, 2021.
18 Rappel, 2018.
19 Böhm and Dabhi, 2009, p21.
20 McLaughlin, 2021.
21 Carney, 2020, p8.
22 Carney, 2020, p9.
23 One of the earliest such critiques of international attempts to deal with environmental disaster was an article in this journal in autumn 1992 about that year’s UN Earth Summit. In it, Dave Treece argued, “Any serious attempt to explain the failure of the Earth Summit must first acknowledge the central role played by imperialism in sacrificing the interests of the world’s dispossessed majority to the destructive dynamic of global capital accumulation and market competition.”—Treece, 1992.
24 Sparrow, 2021, p190.
25 The Campaign Against Climate Change launched the latest edition of its Climate Jobs: Building a Workforce for the Climate Emergency pamphlet in the run up to COP26 conference. It is can be downloaded for free at www.cacctu.org.uk/climatejobs
26 United Nations, 2021.
27 Aronoff, 2021.