COP26 Coalition: The fight for climate justice

Indigenous people join climate change activists at Glasgow Green for the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march on November 06, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland.
7 min read
11 November, 2021
In-depth: The COP26 Coalition held an alternative summit to amplify the voices, ideas, and solutions it believes are largely absent from COP – including the global green new deal, polluters' liability, and indigenous ecological knowledge.

Glasgow's annual climate conference may be catching a lot of attention this year, but its publicity isn't all good.

Swathes of protests around the event have amplified the message that world leaders aren't doing enough, despite big promises, and are demanding more ambition in national commitments and strategies. One side this message is coming from is a civil society movement called the COP26 Coalition.

The movement is holding an alternative summit that amplifies the voices, ideas, and solutions it believes are largely absent from COP– including the global green new deal, polluters' liability, indigenous ecological knowledge, and the gulf between net-zero and real zero emissions.

The UN climate conference, known as COP26 this year, brings officials from almost 200 countries to discuss how best to combat global warming. It has been taking place each year since 1995 and also serves to review progress and implementation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and 2015 Paris Agreement, which saw a global commitment to keep warming between 1.5C and 2C. The UK government's Alok Sharma is chairing COP26, running between 31 October - 13 November, which was delayed one year due to the pandemic.

"Swathes of protests around the event have amplified the message that world leaders aren't doing enough, despite big promises"

After more than a week of talks, there have been deals to phase out coal over the next 30 years, reduce deforestation and curb methane. While some have welcomed these initiatives, others call them "false solutions" and "greenwashing," including famous youth activist Greta Thunberg who has been leading protests calling for an end to "empty promises" and climate commitments "full of loopholes."

"Every day is a disappointment," says Sapna Agarwal, a volunteer with the COP26 Coalition. "Every day, we hear more and more about how the actual process itself is becoming more and more liberalised."

The Kyoto Protocol made binding legal agreements while the Paris Agreement was defined by pledges due for review this year. She says some of these have moved further in the wrong direction with no accountability built into the system.

"It seems like the greater the urgency, the less the action," she says.

In-depth
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The People's Summit commenced 7 November and ended on 10 November 2021. It involved around 235 events and workshops held online or in-person at the Scotland location.

The sessions ranged from broad actions, such as implementing zero waste, local, sustainable solutions, climate justice as racial justice, and uprooting the drivers of deforestation, to direct actions like how to sue big oil companies like Shell or dealing with confrontation such as policing.

Specific issues are also addressed, such as the role of surveillance in climate change and Kurdistan's social ecology revolution. And there is an emphasis on global perspectives, including from the Middle East and North Africa.

"The grassroots movement can shift the Overton window and change the conversations that are happening in higher places. So it's hugely worthwhile"

South London-based Choked Up, led by Black and Brown teenagers, is one of the groups that delivered a workshop at the People's Summit. Their "hacked road signs" highlighting air pollution caught national news coverage this year as part of a campaign to iterate that "people of colour are disproportionately exposed to toxic, poisonous air".

Cofounders Anjali Raman-Middleton, 18, and Nyeleti Brauer-Maxaeia, 17, told The New Arab that the workshop, delivered as part of social justice training group the Advocacy Academy, addresses their campaign Choked Up, wider issues surrounding climate change, and how to get involved in activism.

Artists paint a mural on a a wall next to the Clydeside Expressway near Scottish Events Centre (SEC) which will be hosting the COP26 UN Climate Summit later this month, on October 13, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland
Artists paint a mural on a wall next to the Clydeside Expressway near Scottish Events Centre (SEC) which hosted the COP26 UN Climate Summit. [Getty]

The campaign, which they started after air pollution was recognised as a contributing factor in the death of teenager Ella Adoo-Kissi Debrah, started a conversation about air pollution in the build-up to the London mayoral elections, says Raman-Middleton.

"Off the back of that action, we were also able to ask questions, specifically about clean air and air quality at some of the mayoral debates, and hold a hustings, specifically making people talk about their clean air policies, which otherwise they would not have been grilled on," she says.

The main aim of the People's Summit was for grassroots activists and people having conversations about climate justice to have those conversations outside of their existing circle, says Agarwal. The process facilitated the exchange of information about each other's struggles, learned experiences and genuine solutions from early adopters to the climate crisis.

"The grassroots movement can shift the Overton window and change the conversations that are happening in higher places. So it's hugely worthwhile," she tells The New Arab.

"Critics have said that this year has seen the structural set-up of the conference exclude important and vulnerable communities more than any other year"

"It's been really interesting being here, involved in more grassroots campaigning, and seeing the amount of people that are showing up and just the feeling of disconnect between what it seems like quite closed doors conversations and not really acknowledging the people who are actually here and what we're demanding, which is action now," said Brauer-Maxaeia.

Civil society groups often participate in the main annual climate conference with space for events and exhibitions carved out in the Green Zone, open to the general public, and the Blue Zone for parties accredited by the UN.

However, critics have said that this year has seen the structural set-up of the conference exclude important and vulnerable communities more than any other year. This exclusion has happened due to "the global vaccine apartheid" as richer countries have had better access to the Covid-19 vaccine, a barrier to travel from some countries. High travel and accommodation costs are also a factor, as is the UK's difficult visa application process that many activists blame on the UK's hostile environment policy.

"All this combined stopped thousands of key activists and organisations from all over the world, including North Africa, from coming," said Hamza Hamouchene, an Algerian researcher and activist who spoke at a session at the People's Summit called ‘Reflections on Just Transition(s) in North Africa’.

Perspectives

Hamouchene, who has been to several climate conferences, is highly critical of current statements and says there must be a drastic reduction of CO2 emissions by halting the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and production, namely oil and gas.

"Some fossil fuel economies in the region like Algeria and Libya will be hugely impacted if Europe significantly reduces its fossil fuels imports from the region in the coming decades. Therefore, a serious discussion and public debate need to take place to reflect on the needed transition to renewable while phasing out fossil fuels," he says, adding this can't be disconnected from questions of democratisation and popular sovereignty of land, water, and other natural resources.

"In kleptocratic military dictatorships like Algeria and Egypt, how can people decide and shape their future without first demilitarising and democratising their countries and societies?" he asks.

Hamouchene cites various instances in North Africa, where he says undemocratic and exclusionary governance of the transition to renewables persist.

The Ouarzazate Solar Plant in Morocco launched in 2016, for example, did not justify the appropriation of land from the Amazigh agro-pastoralist communities to install the more than 3,000-hectare facility, he says. Moreover, the financing by various international institutions is also backed by Moroccan government guarantees that increase the country's already laden public debt and the thermal power (CSP) source of the project necessitates extensive use of water to cool and clean the panels.

"In a semi-arid region like Ouarzazate, diverting water use from drinking and agriculture is just outrageous," says Hamouchene.

Similar harmful projects are playing out elsewhere that he calls "green grabbing" but says the renewable projects in the occupied territories of Western Sahara can be labelled "green colonialism" because they are carried out in spite of the Sahrawis.

"In kleptocratic military dictatorships like Algeria and Egypt, how can people decide and shape their future without first demilitarising and democratising their countries and societies?"

One of the big talking points this year has also been the issue of climate finance and how to help less well-off countries develop their green economies while suffering the detrimental effects of climate change caused by big economies.

Activists have been demanding reparations and "totally shifting that narrative away from this idea of foreign aid," explains Agarwal.

Hamouchene further warns against the corporatising nature of buying into industry-touted solutions.

"Carbon trading tricks many into thinking climate change could be dealt with without structural change," he says. "We must recognise that market mechanisms will not reduce global emissions sufficiently."

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights, particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram