Twenty years too late” – our review of COP26

Written by Gina Cortés Valderrama 

The 26th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP26) held in Glasgow from October 31 to November 13 had as a central objective to bring countries from all over the world to reach tangible and real agreements enabling us to collectively fulfil the goal of the Paris Agreement. At this conference, the decisions taken should have defined the “rules of the game” for the implementation of specific policies and actions for the reduction of CO2 emissions and adaptation to climate change. It’s crucial to understand that climate change is not only an environmental problem but also involves social and political challenges with a highly ethical component, that needs to take human rights and the welfare of living beings into precedence. 

Millions of people are already living in a permanent state of crisis being constantly threatened by the rapidly escalating effects of climate change as a result of extractivist models sponsored by developed countries in developing territories. Cycles of poverty, forced displacement, political instability and resource conflicts are exacerbated, particularly in countries from the Global South. That is why climate policies at all levels must follow the principle of climate justice and ensure the integration of groups that are already disproportionately affected by climate change. Was this achieved at COP26 ? No. Despite being publicly heralded as the most inclusive COP by the UK presidency, it failed to deliver on that discourse as well as on real climate ambition.

Guarantees for civil society participation

Limitations to meaningful participation during COP26 began with discriminatory visa processes, high accommodation costs in Glasgow, and vaccine apartheid. These, along with other causes, prevented the participation of intersectional feminist groups, indigenous, Afro-descendant and LGBTIQ+ communities, as well as youth and peasants, mainly from the Global South. However, this was only the beginning of a long list of barriers. Those who managed to afford and overcome this, experienced on-site restrictions as access to the negotiations rooms was limited to 36 out of the 11,700 registered civil society observers during the first days of the COP. The rest of the participants were invited to follow the negotiations on a virtual platform that failed to transmit the entirety of the talks. 

The consequences of the lack of civil society participation were reflected in the conclusions of the COP. A clear mirror of the root causes of this environmental crisis. Decisions that will have a high impact on our present and future are taken mainly by an exclusive and privileged group of white men belonging to developed countries, which favour corporate actors that put monetary gains over people. This while the voices of women in all their diversity, youth, indigenous and afro-descendant communities are not taken into consideration. As Mary Robinson said: “COP26 is too male, too pale, too stale”.

Ambition at COP26 made some progress… Perhaps what was required 20 years ago

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the key findings in the Working Group I contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report has been clear: Human influence on climate change is unequivocal. Immediate, rapid, deep and large-scale GHG reductions involving societal, and systems transition are required. Climate change depends on the decisions we make now. And the negotiations did not meet the level of ambition and urgency required to address this crisis.

Parties moved forward promoting the expansion of market mechanisms such as carbon trading, without references to the obligation of states to respect the right of Afro-descendants and Indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent. Even though an independent grievance mechanism was secured, the rules for the implementation of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement leave loopholes that could undermine its goals and the protection of human rights. But just like carbon trading, more narratives promoting false solutions such as the so-called nature-based solutions (NbS) and Net Zero were widely used, imposing a threat that gives way to the continuation of colonial and extractivist models.  

One of the most critical points that were obstructed by developed countries was climate finance. The creation of a Loss and Damage fund to compensate communities who have already lost their homes and livelihoods from floods, droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels did not get the green light from several countries. This lack of commitment and responsibility occurs in a context in which, according to the new report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), global fossil fuel subsidies amounted to $6 trillion in 2020, equating to $11m per minute. Just 8 per cent of these fossil fuels subsidies reflects undercharging for supply costs (explicit subsidies) and 92 per cent reflects undercharging for environmental costs and foregone consumption taxes (implicit subsidies). For the very first time, the term ´fossil fuels´ (excluding oil and gas) and the need to phase-down (instead of phase-out) coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies were included in the final decision text of the COP. While this is a step forward in naming one of the major drivers of this climate crisis, the text falls short of providing clear objectives for transformative policymaking.

People’s power, climate justice!

One thing became very clear at this Climate Summit: real action is driven by the people. It is civil society that demonstrates this forcefully while demanding ambitious commitments and solutions for a more sustainable future. This was reflected in the Glasgow “Climate March” on the 6th of November, which saw more than 250,000 people come together to raise their voices. Indigenous communities, Afro-descendants, LGBTIQ+, women, youth, peasants, among many other groups demanded that their governments and the international community gathered in Glasgow come to substantial conclusions in which human rights and just climate action are a priority. Several feminist groups from the Women and Gender Constituency (WGC) who were able to attend the COP and represent their communities marched voicing our message and key demands for the outcomes of COP26.

Representatives of the UNFCCC civil society constituencies, including the WGC, took the stage at COP26 for a “People´s Plenary” session organized together with the COP26 Coalition. After making our voices heard for climate justice, hundreds of people then left plenary singing “people´s power” and holding a red line to symbolise the lines which have been crossed by the 26th UN Climate Summit in not delivering the just and urgent commitments that were needed.

In addition, with different campaigns and demonstrations inside and outside the COP, the participation of those that were absent, was virtually integrated by amplifying their voices at the conference and on social media through the hashtag #MissingVoicesCOP26. The WGC led a #FeminstClimateJustice colour campaign addressing a different topic each day and using colourful hygiene masks to attract greater attention. This was a huge success, as the campaign achieved visibility in major media outlets such as the BBC and The Guardian.

This is what gender-just climate action looks like!

As governments disappointed us on climate ambition, it was local initiatives led by women in different communities that promoted exemplary and transformative models for climate adaptation and mitigation at high-level events during COP26. Such is the case of the project led by Pauline Lancon, Gender Just Climate Solutions awardee 2019, who was invited as panelist in an event organized by the UK COP-Presidency, alongside guests such as Dr Rose Mwebaza, Director at the UN Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) and Dr Tamsin Edwards, IPCC Author and Climate Scientist. In this panel, Pauline emphasized the importance of integrating a gender perspective in the implementation of climate technologies, innovation and science. Similarly, Lucie Gamond-Rius, 2021 awardee, and Trupti Jain, 2018 winner, participated in the Gender Dialogue organized by UN Women during Gender Day. Thanks to their experience working closely with communities, both representatives shared lessons learned and best practices on ways to ensure the development and implementation of gender-responsive adaptation and mitigation technologies. WECF also demonstrated its strong commitment to biodiversity protection by hosting an event on the French pavilion. Based on their practical experience, Karen Dubois and Dorothee Lisenga, winners of the Gender Just Climate Solutions Awards, discussed the interconnections between biodiversity and gender justice with Ronan Dantec, French Senator and Jean-Luc Redaud, administrator of 4D.

At the panel discussion of the European Union’s side event on “Just Transition”, WECF Director Sascha Gabizon brought feminist flaws in the energy transition to the table: energy poverty in Europe mainly affects single womxn, the European Green Deal adheres to patriarchal standards and funds flow mainly to places where male socialised people benefit. She made it clear that the inclusion of intersectional aspects in the upcoming transformation is inevitable and that “a gender-equitable Green Deal benefits society and the economy”.

During the sixth ceremony of the Gender Just Climate Solutions Awards, organized in the Blue Zone on November 8th, we were very proud to announce the new award winners and launch the publication. The awards ceremony featured the participation of high-level guests such as Åsa Regnér, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, Abdou Karim Sall, Minister of the Environment & Sustainable Development, Senegal, Kitty van der Heijden, Director General for International Cooperation of the Netherlands, among others. 

The Gender Just Climate Solutions Awards show that relevant gender-just climate solutions are already happening around the world. They aim for transformative, inclusive development models and help to rethink growth. With real commitments from governments, e.g., in terms of finance and technology, we can upscale these inclusive solutions to have a significant impact, not only locally but also on the global level.

A strong step forward!

One of the most important achievements for civil society representatives during this conference was the securing of three seats on the Advisory Board of the Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN) for the observer constituencies YOUNGO, Indigenous Peoples Organisations and Women and Gender. Thanks to the collective advocacy work led by WECF and leaders of youth and indigenous people’s organizations over the last years, we now have a seat at the table of a UNFCCC body responsible for climate technology transfer and development.  

This is a strong step forward towards integrating and understanding the priorities, needs, but above all, solutions that youth, indigenous communities and women in all their diversity can provide to address climate change. It is a step forward in guaranteeing the meaningful participation and contribution of communities at the frontline in decision-making spaces.