The United Nations Climate Summit being held in Glasgow takes place against a backdrop of concerns about safety, growing inequalities and social demands to ‘build back better’ after the Covid pandemic exposed risks and vulnerabilities based on systemic injustices across the world.
Consequently, Glasgow is not only crucial for delivering climate ambition and finance in line with 2015 Paris Agreement, it is also a litmus test for safer, more just and inclusive forms of economic restructuring and global governance.
Fragile economies, based on tourism, rain-fed agriculture and exports are reporting record levels of indebtedness caused by the impact of climate change intersecting with the pandemic and one of the worst recessions in living memory.
Many small islands and least developed countries are already spending as much as 10 per cent of their gross domestic product on coping with climate-induced problems.
Leaders from ‘red list’ countries are making the difficult journey to COP26 because they have little choice but to ask for deep emissions reductions and for debt relief. They desperately need rapid delivery of the $100 billion in financial support from richer countries as promised at COP15 held in 2009. Half of this sum was to go towards adaptation and resilience in the face of the climate crisis.
However as rising global emissions are expected to breach the Paris Agreement temperature target of restricting a rise in temperature to 1.5C by cutting carbon dioxide emissions by half by 2030, this appears wholly inadequate.
A recent assessment by United Nations confirmed that current pledges will actually increase global emissions by 16 per cent.
As a participant in climate negotiations for more than 30 years, I have attended 23 of the 25 COPs to date. COP26 is facing insurmountable problems in delivering on promises already made and meeting targets already set because previous COPs have been unfair. They did not secure just outcomes even if they may have passed the procedural justice test of representation.
Glasgow cannot contribute meaningfully to global solidarity and the ‘build back better’ agenda if it does not trigger a more profound ‘justice reset’ to make future COPs fairer in a deeper way than simply flying in delegates to secure its quorum requirements.
‘Building back better’ requires a globally just transition based on correcting past injustices and avoiding new ones. This requires everyone, not just governments but also non-governmental organizations, companies, the media and social movements, to embrace and implement all three elements of fairness – procedural, distributional and restorative – on an equal footing.
Procedural fairness looks at decision-making processes and ensures everyone affected has a seat at the table and is treated fairly.
Distributional fairness focuses on the effects of outcomes among and between groups, including how resources and the benefits and burden of inaction are shared. Restorative fairness prioritizes repairing the harm already done, both to nature and human relationships, by putting those who have been harmed at the centre of decision making and making the historic and systemic injustices that caused the harm in the first place visible.
Not everyone agrees with this and more time needs to be spent at COP discussing fairness, equity and justice. The mainstream view in climate negotiations, especially in the Global North, is that justice-based demands detract from the ‘real work’ of COP26, which should focus simply on reducing carbon emissions through technologies, tools and mechanisms.
Any justice reset should start with the recognition that we need both insiders and outsiders. Those working on pricing carbon, delivering the billions of dollars and shifting the trillions are trying to reform the existing financial system, largely through ‘insider’ advocacy.
Those calling for climate justice are, by and large, calling for an overhaul of the existing system by shifting resources and political power to those with less. These people are termed ‘outsiders’ simply because their work is undertaken locally in communities and in and through challenging political systems that are ‘outside’ the COP focus on ‘systems, not symptoms’.
The insiders may be closer to those with power, but they need the outsiders because they are closer to ordinary people, speak from experience and for those excluded from power and are, therefore, better placed to speak truth to power.
There is growing convergence of a ‘movement of movements’ as insiders and outsiders agree that climate action requires global solidarity based on systemic change and cannot be solved by a patchwork of weak policies. None of this can happen, however, without rewriting the core operating codes of the current world economy which measure GDP instead of wellbeing and are based on extractive growth that is impossible on a finite planet.
Decision-making should seek instead to secure a just transition centred on the well-being of people and the planet. Doing so will require a shift in power so all three elements of justice – procedural, distributive, and reparative – are given equal footing in the work of the COP.
What would a justice reset look like?
The most important starting point is simply an official acknowledgement that poorer countries, indigenous people, small-scale farmers, children and the poor did not cause the climate crisis and will bear the adverse consequences.
An acknowledgement that fairness matters would bring insiders and outsiders closer together. This bridge building is needed because since 1989 when the UN negotiations first started, richer countries have not paid enough attention to the injustice faced by those most affected. Those raising social justice issues are regarded as naive. But they should be bolder and demand diplomats go through gender, racial and decolonization training so they can better support solutions to injustice and inequality. All too often the COP mindset has regarded the links between gender, race and poverty as tangential issues that shouldn’t take up negotiators’ time. This is staggering considering billions of people are affected.
A second suggestion is a reform of the proliferating agenda items and the institutions that handle them. In general, delegates from developing countries have dozens of agenda items they are trying to follow compared with those from better resourced developed countries. Perhaps, in the light of Covid, every country can be given proper digital access as well as the same number of in-person delegates so small countries are not outnumbered on these key fairness-related issues.
It is true that savvy climate diplomacy by vulnerable countries, especially banding together in coalitions such as the Climate Vulnerable Forum or the Alliance of Small Island States, has kept the climate regime on track and that equalizing their representation would not necessarily guarantee a change in the geopolitical realities, but it must help if policies are crafted by all those affected and not simply by the powerful, polluting countries.
Glasgow could trigger a broader discussion about correcting the imbalance in representation, not just at the COP talks but across the United Nations. The atmosphere, ocean, soils and forests don’t get to negotiate. Smaller countries and indigenous people are nature’s custodians. Mother Earth may be mentioned in the Paris Agreement, but she lacks any legal standing.
Consequently, the rights of nature are not being considered, nor is the punishment for those who commit ecocide, defined as widespread damage. Likewise, the interests of future generations are being ignored.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, The Ministry for the Future, the COP creates a new institutional body to champion the interests of future generations and the non-human world. Perhaps it is time to have a rethink about how COP could create new champions for those who have no seat at the table.
Legal institutional precedents exist that could be drawn upon, such as the Welsh Future Generations’ Commissioner set up by the 2015 Well-Being of Future Generations Act. The agreement at the recent International Union for Conservation of Nature congress on the establishment of a Climate Emergency Commission provides another example.
A final suggestion would be for COP26 to create a post for a High-Level Champion to speak up for the incorporation of justice, equality, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) issues. Many organizations are creating JEDI-related posts and programmes because they realize that fairness needs a voice. A COP-appointed JEDI champion, augmented by sectoral and national counterparts, is a doable innovation.
Giving those most badly affected a louder voice, and more seats, resources and power is important but taking these away from those who have too much is a necessary corollary to avoid them having a disproportionate influence on any outcome.
There is increasing evidence that powerful elites, such as fossil fuel companies, use their deeper pockets to devise and lobby for strategies to skew the way we approach solutions. For example, some companies have framed problems in such a way that citizens blame themselves and not the polluters.
Certain kinds of solutions are seen as sensible and business friendly such as the use of markets, technology and awareness, while others, such as universal basic income, gender equality and command-and-control mechanisms, such as bans and phase-outs, are seen as too radical or socially disruptive.
Policy solutions put forward by poorer countries, such as free, informed prior consent, are seen as impediments to business rather than as supporting human rights.
Greenwashing of ‘net-zero by 2050’ goals is rife and refers to overblown claims that emissions will be curbed when in fact little will change in the short term. Small countries and NGOs lack geopolitical weight, nor can they afford lobbyists. Perhaps a COP-appointed JEDI official could help climate champions challenge these claims.
Boost to global solidarity needed
The suggestions outlined address the problems in establishing a justice-based reset that would help future COPs make changes to the structure, values and principles and values on which our global economy is based.
It is important to acknowledge there has been much progress on justice and fairness issues in the COP. Over time the ‘invisible majority’ groups have banded together and made themselves visible. The Gender Work programme, the Local Communities and Indigenous People Platform and the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage are testimony to the drive for better representation.
Currently COP is composed of a patchwork of institutional arrangements and proliferating agenda items with no clear overview of how they relate to issues of inequality, inclusion and fairness. In many cases the institutional spaces created are too weak to make the necessary change.
A justice reset at Glasgow would focus attention on whether the pace of these deliberations is in line with what needs to happen in this critical decade.
Glasgow needs to give a boost to the 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.
The views in this article are personal.