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16 November 2021

After Cop26, the time for law-abiding demonstrations is over

Peaceful protests around the world left no mark on the climate talks. A new phase in the fight must begin.

By Andreas Malm

STOCKHOLM – Was the Glasgow climate conference a big step forward or a complete fiasco? That depends on your measure of success. Those of an optimistic bent might highlight that, for the first time since Cop3 in 1997, when the Kyoto protocol was agreed, the words “fossil fuels” have made it into the final declaration. Others, however, might be of the opinion that that is setting the bar rather low. After all, what does it say about the UN’s annual climate summit if 24 years have passed since the cause of the problem was last even mentioned by name?

The “F” words make their appearance in the passage of the Glasgow deal in which the world unites in order to tackle “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” – another point that optimists believe is a further step forward. Sure. If your yardstick starts at countries realising that it might be mildly problematic to subsidise the production of oil, gas and coal to the tune of $6trn annually (2020’s figure), then this does indeed count as a step forward.

Your yardstick will, however, have to take account of the fact that an unsuspecting little adjective has snuck its way in: the focus will be on “inefficient” subsidies. Moreover, they are going to be “phased down” – whatever that means – because “phased out” was too radical for Glasgow.

The same goes for coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, the burning of which is also going to be “phased down” – but only if it is “unabated”. In case you were wondering, “abated” means fitted with carbon capture. When Cop26 president Alok Sharma read out the rephrased passages, he was barely able to disguise his tears. Just for some context: Sharma is a long-standing Tory and chartered accountant who previously worked in mergers and acquisitions for the Swedish bank SEB. If the semantic pussyfooting around coal is enough to make even him want to cry, well…

Prior to Cop26, it looked as if carbon emissions would go up by 16 per cent through to 2030. Now, they are set to rise by 13 per cent. A big step forward? Sure. If you are able to forget that, in order to keep global warming below 1.5°C, emissions need to be halved in that same period.

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Before Cop26, the sum of all the climate pledges made by the nations of the world added up to produce global warming of around 2.7°C; now, that figure has been reduced to 2.4. Inveterate optimists insist, of course, that this could be the start of something big. After all, didn’t the Glasgow participants agree to – maybe, perhaps – meet again in a year’s time to – all things being well, quite probably – increase the pledges they made?

This is exactly how every climate summit has ended since Cop1 in 1995. Any real action is always put off until “next year”. And in the 26 “next year”s since 1995, humanity has put into the atmosphere half of all the greenhouse gases it has ever emitted.

Yet isn’t it promising that states are now finally pledging to take action? Only if you can join everyone in the collective amnesia around the first 14 climate summits: until Cop15 in Copenhagen, in 2009, there was no question that commitments made at the summits had to be binding. States signing up to the final declaration had to be willing to lower their emissions – and face sanctions if they failed.

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Since the US intervention in Copenhagen, however, the rules have changed – to “do more or less as you please”. As Naghmeh Nasiritousi, an expert on climate policy at Stockholm University, perceptively pointed out in a recent article for the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, auxiliary verbs expressing obligation such as “shall” are completely absent from the Glasgow declaration. All agreements are non-binding and none can be enforced with sanctions of any kind.

This voluntary approach to climate diplomacy has long been a bone of contention between two camps; the division between them is quite clear from their differing assessment of the Glasgow summit. In one camp, rich countries such as the US and UK celebrate the results (even if their cheers sound slightly less self-assured than after Cop21 in Paris); in the other, poor countries, island nations and climate campaigners turn round and head home, even more embittered than when they arrived.

You could see these two camps in the very topography of the Glasgow plenary, organised in a series of concentric circles. At the core lay the fortress-like Blue Zone in which negotiations took place; the largest delegation present was from companies that produce fossil fuels – and whose headcount of 503 outnumbered all of those sent by eight of the countries and territories hardest-hit by climate collapse. Yes, oil multinationals et al sent more people to Glasgow than the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Philippines, Haiti, Mozambique, Myanmar, Pakistan and Puerto Rico put together.

The next circle, the Green Zone, was where companies of all stripes from Sky to Hitachi were able to present their “corporate social responsibility” programmes as if it were a trade fair. At the outer edge, a slender ring of participants at the People’s Summit for Climate Justice encircled the space. Here, under the vaults of an open church, you could listen to a young woman from western Pakistan whose home village is being smothered by worsening sandstorms: “Climate change is going to kill us within the next ten years,” she cried in anguish.

Next to her sat a young man from Tuvalu; he told us about islands that had already disappeared for good, about the sea rising up through streets and through floors, about storms that wash the dead from their graves. He, too, was having trouble keeping his tears at bay. Yet he was in quite a different world to Alok Sharma. For two weeks, the world’s most powerful people and its most vulnerable were in the same place, in Glasgow, yet divided by financial, political and, indeed, actual walls – into a centre and a periphery.

The actual walls are only going to be higher next year. Cop27 will be held in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh – almost like a trophy to be awarded to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for having stopped the revolution in its tracks. And under El-Sisi, there won’t be any alternative forums, no demonstrations and certainly no opposition – well, not without a custodial sentence afterwards. Cop27 will mark a new low point in the long-standing tendency of militarising climate summits and isolating them from their surroundings.

The next low point after that, however, is already on the horizon: Cop28 will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a dictatorship erected on fossil fuels. How do you rate the chances for real progress finally being delivered in 2023?

In view of all this, it has become really rather hard not to see optimism about UN climate diplomacy as a form of pathological denial. A more realistic assessment of Cop26 at its close was delivered by the front page of Scotland on Sunday: “Make no mistake, we are still on the road to hell.”

To put none too fine a point on it, the whole Cop circus has now degenerated into an annual striptease that culminates in the emperor standing there naked – before running off back home to play the lyre while Rome burns.

On 17 November, the Biden administration is holding the largest-ever auction of deep-sea oil licences in US history. The sell-off will take place in New Orleans, just months after Hurricane Ida tore up the Louisiana coast. In other news, France’s largest private company Total will soon start construction on the world’s longest oil pipeline, from Uganda to Tanzania; the east African crude oil pipeline – or Eacop, as it’s known to its friends – will cross 230 rivers and several forest reservations, displacing around 100,000 people from their land. Eacop will allow Uganda to export more oil to the international markets.

The French president Emmanuel Macron has hardly missed an opportunity to declare his support for Eacop. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government – to which the tearful Sharma belongs – is about to open a new coalmine in Cumbria, and retains its commitment to “maximum economic exploitation” of North Sea oil and gas reserves (ie, we will pump up whatever can be pumped up). These are developments against which nothing was undertaken in Glasgow – and similar developments are happening everywhere, every day.

If the Cop summits have a saving grace, then it is this: research findings are published to coincide with the event and shed some light on the reality of fossil fuel capitalism. One report has informed us that the US military emits more carbon dioxide than 140 countries put together; the US government has successfully secured an exemption for military activity in recording emissions. We also learned that the percentage of global emissions from consumption caused by the world’s wealthiest top 1 per cent has increased from 13 per cent in 1990 to more than 15 per cent in 2015. On current trends, the 1 per cent will be emitting 16 per cent of greenhouse gases by 2030.

Right now, this handful of the super-ultra-rich are responsible for more than twice the emissions of one half of the world’s population. And this year, a new trend has emerged that is taking this madness and putting a rocket under it – quite literally, as the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have themselves blasted into space, releasing in ten minutes more greenhouse gases than one of the world’s poorest billion inhabitants will ever emit in a lifetime. Is just a smidgen of class hatred too much to ask?

[See also: In an age of “blah, blah, blah”, what should climate activism look like?]

The Cop summits have another saving grace: they are meeting places for climate activists and act as magnets for protest from across the world. At climate conferences, people forge new ties, hammer out programmes and talk tactics with one another. On 6 November, there were 100,000 of us marching through Glasgow’s rainy streets.

That’s no more than in Copenhagen back in 2009. This time, however, there were 300 other demonstrations happening on every continent except Antarctica. This is a display both of incredible strength and deplorable weakness: there are lots of us – more than ever before; yet we are all doing the same thing, sticking to the same rituals, just like those doing the negotiating. What is more, our powerlessness is monumental.

The Extinction Rebellion people, for instance, were all over Glasgow with their street theatre antics: activists dressed as oil barons could be found pouring black liquid in the mouths of other activists, who mimed collapsing and choking to death. It was visually effective – and wholly without effect. The negotiators in the Blue Zone don’t seem to have got the message, or even noticed what we were doing at all. How could they? The police themselves, after all, praised the law-abiding nature of the demonstrations. Assistant chief constable Gary Ritchie wished to “thank the vast majority of those who attended… for their positive attitudes and for following instructions from our officers.”

And that’s how such a gigantic demonstration did not leave the slightest mark on the process – and so will be forgotten by history.

There will be no thousands demonstrating in Sharm el-Sheikh or Abu Dhabi – a circumstance some leading activists, such as João Camargo, welcomed as an opportunity. In their view, efforts to sway Cop proceedings have reached the end of the road; now, with no other options left, a new phase in the fight will begin. Camargo is part of the Glasgow Agreement, a new network forged during Cop26 by a couple of hundred climate protest groups worldwide, based everywhere from Uganda to France, from Bangladesh to Britain. Its aim is to publish inventories of fossil fuel infrastructure in their countries – and then proceed to direct action.

If states prove incapable of shutting down this kind of infrastructure – and even allow it to continue commissioning – then it is up to us to try instead of them. But this effort will require more than law-abiding demonstrations.

This op-ed was first published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. It was translated by Brian Melican.

[See also: Was Cop26 a failure?]