Climate injustice suggests that those who are least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions are the ones most affected by – and most vulnerable to – climate change consequences; they are also those who have the fewest resources to adapt (Morrow 2010). Climate justice advocates bring a human face to international climate conferences, as they remind state negotiators – who are usually focused on technical solutions to climate finance, reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, and carbon markets – of the human impacts of climate change.
Civil society groups highlight how human rights, including the right to life and self-determination, the right to water, the right to food, and the right to health, are severely affected by climate impacts (Schapper and Lederer 2014). These groups emphasize in what ways local communities, indigenous peoples, ecosystems, and biodiversity are adversely impacted by climate policies like large-scale hydroelectric dams (Schapper 2021), solar power projects or forest management programmes (Bayrak and Marafa 2016). They claim that those most severely affected by climate change need to be able to participate (Schapper 2018); these populations should have a seat at the table in order to influence decisions that directly concern them. Thus, the climate justice movement can be understood as an advocacy vehicle to bring local rights and justice concerns about climatic challenges and climate policies to the international climate negotiations (Schapper 2020).
In this article, I argue that due to severe participation and inclusion issues for climate justice advocates, COP26 has missed important governmental and non-governmental voices that intended to take decisive steps to protect the human rights of those most severely affected by climate impacts. Moreover, world leaders have failed to deliver just climate decisions on mitigation, finance, loss, and damage, and on upholding indigenous peoples’ rights standards when defining the rules for global carbon markets.
In the following, I will first explain the different participation issues civil society organizations and state delegates from the Global South faced at COP26, which hindered meaningful advocacy for climate justice and human rights. I will then analyze the Glasgow Climate Pact, the COP26 outcome agreement, from a human rights and climate justice perspective, arguing that this COP has largely failed in protecting the human rights of vulnerable communities.
In the larger context of the pandemic, COVID-19 regulations and further rules imposed by the UK COP26 presidency restricted meaningful participation of those who would bring local concerns to the international negotiation table: climate justice advocates. This has happened despite earlier promises by UK COP president Alok Sharma to make COP26 ‘the most inclusive COP ever’.
Even before the negotiations, many civil society actors and even state leaders, especially those from the Global South, struggled to find their way to Glasgow. The UK has a traffic light system in place with a longer requirement to quarantine for citizens from red list countries, which happened to be mainly poorer developing nations. Although the UK lifted the red list category for most countries shortly before the conference, this had already prevented many delegates from making travel arrangements to come to Glasgow to attend the conference. Fearing existing and ever-changing COVID-19 regulations, requirements to self-isolate, and high travel and accommodation prices in and around Glasgow, many civil society advocates, indigenous peoples, and state delegates from lower income countries decided to not attend the conference. As a consequence, only four leaders from Pacific Island states, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, and Palau, attended the conference in person. Other important state leaders from Pacific Island states were sorely missed as they are particularly important for coalition-building in the negotiation stream on loss and damage focusing on compensation for climate-related harm in their countries. In stark contrast, the USA demonstrated strength by sending 13 cabinet members and senior administration officials to the international meeting, while state leaders of Brazil, China, Russia, and Turkey decided to not attend the summit at all. Furthermore, there was a worrying number of delegates from the fossil fuel industry present, which has led to severe criticism.
At the conference site, many additional restrictions were in place: During the world leaders’ summit in the first two days, two-thirds of the venue was closed to civil society observers. There was a ticketing system for participation but only 40 tickets per observer constituency were issued, although some constituencies, like environmental non-governmental organizations, comprise more than 600 partner organizations. Civil society activists were advised to participate virtually, but the online platform was unreliable and often did not guarantee that important negotiation streams could be followed by critical observers. The platform also did not allow civil society activists to make interventions in the negotiations; they could only passively listen to what was being discussed.
As a consequence, COP26 is considered not only the whitest and most privileged to date, but also as the most exclusionary COP in many decades. Many civil society advocates, especially youth groups, but also indigenous peoples voiced their disapproval. At a number of side events, climate justice advocates acknowledged the missing voices. An angry youth representative at a side event on ‘Youth Voices for Climate Justice’ demanded, ‘If they don’t make space, we need to take the space!’. An indigenous peoples’ leader, when discussing a ‘Human-Rights Based Approach to Climate Action’, commented, ‘If you are not at the table, you are on the menu – or you are serving the menu’.
Climate justice activism peaked when a hundred thousand people took to the Glaswegian streets to raise their voices for more meaningful climate action on 6 November 2021 and when observer organizations, in a united symbolic action, staged an official civil society ‘walk-out’ on the last day of negotiations, demonstrating disapproval with the restrictions and lacking state ambition, uniting those outside and inside the negotiations in their demand for more climate justice.
The Glasgow Climate Pact, the outcome agreement of COP26 adopted on 13 November 2021, one day after the negotiations should have officially been closed, is a failure from a human rights and climate justice perspective. The first main conference objective was to commit to ‘global net zero’ by 2050 and keep the 1.5 degree global warming goal, stipulated in the Paris Agreement, alive. ‘Global net zero’, however, is heavily criticized by human rights groups, environmental advocates and indigenous peoples around the world because too many states rely on carbon offsetting by investing in mitigation and carbon removal projects in developing countries without really cutting emissions in their own countries. This has, in the past, led to double-counting and delaying urgent action. Thus, in order to protect human rights of future generations, climate action and truly transformative solutions cannot be further delayed, and ‘real net zero’ is the demand of climate justice advocates.
Regarding mitigation ambitions, states have now decided to revise nationally determined contributions (commitments to greenhouse gas emission reductions) in 2022. Commitments by states made at COP26 in 2021 will still lead to a global warming of 2.4 degrees and thus, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has commented that the 1.5 degree global climate goal is alive 'but on live support'.
Another huge disappointment was the negotiation stream on loss and damage, which reflected the unequal power structures at COP26 and which sorely missed the voices of state delegates from the Pacific islands and Global South civil society advocates. Loss and damage negotiations are about compensation for those developing countries that are already acutely suffering from climate change impacts caused by industrialized countries. At COP26, the G77+China demanded a new financing facility but the Glasgow outcome agreement is so weak that it merely mentions the importance of ‘dialogue’ and discussing ‘arrangements’. A sign of hope was sent when Scotland announced that it would shoulder 2 million pounds to address loss and damage but most industrialized countries have actively resisted taking responsibility as they fear being held liable by international courts for large sums in compensation payments. In a press statement issued by the Climate Action Network (CAN), environmental groups commented that rich nations, like the UK, USA, and certain EU states, have 'betrayed vulnerable communities of the world' by not supporting a funding facility for loss and damage.
A small win for developing countries is that industrialized countries will need to 'at least double' the financial provisions for adaptation measures from 2019 levels by 2025 to help those most severely affected by climate impacts cope with finding new solutions for agriculture and farming, prepare for extreme whether events, adjust housing, accommodation, and public health programmes. However, the decision on overall finance did not deliver on the initial COP26 objective to commit to $100bn of climate finance annually to developing nations; this goal will not be met before 2023.
At COP26, the Paris rulebook – the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement – were finalized. These contain references to human rights, social and environmental safeguards, and indigenous peoples’ rights. Important international standards, like Indigenous Peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent, however, are missing from the Glasgow agreement. This means that carbon market projects remain at risk of being carried out without obtaining consent from indigenous peoples’ at the local level – an important rights failure that has previously led to conflicts in mitigation policies and rendered them unsustainable.
A first at this year’s COP was the mentioning of fossil fuels and coal in the outcome decision. In the last minutes of negotiation, shortly before the Glasgow Climate Pact was adopted, India, backed by China, insisted on watering down the final draft to be adopted from 'phasing out' to 'phasing down' fossil fuel subsidies. Despite the weak language, many commentators consider these references to ending support for fossil fuels and reducing the use of coal as a success of the Glasgow Climate Pact.
From a human rights and climate justice perspective, the Glasgow Climate Pact does not live up to the expectations of those who are most severely affected by climate change, i.e. indigenous peoples, local communities in the Global South, and those inhabiting small island nation states. After the Human Rights Council had recognized a new ‘Human Right to a Safe, Clean, Healthy, and Sustainable Environment’ only weeks ago, and an increasing number of states signing the UN Declaration on Children, Youth, and Climate Action, hopes for acknowledging rights and justice demands at COP26 were high, but the outcome is sobering. The UK COP26 presidency failed to facilitate a meeting that allowed access, participation, and inclusion of diverse voices, and to hear everyone concerned with just climate decisions. Lacking state ambition for climate mitigation and missing financial commitments for loss and damage will leave those who are the least responsible for the climate crisis without adequate protection of their human rights in the future. Thus, the Glasgow Climate Pact is a failure from a climate justice perspective.
Bayrak, Mucahid and Marafa, Lawal (2016). ‘Ten Years of REDD+: A Critical Review of the Impact of REDD+ on Forest-Dependent Communities’, Sustainability 8: 620. doi:10.3390/su8070620.
Morrow, Karen (2010). ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: The Defining Dilemma of Our Times?’ Journal of Human Rights and the Environment 1(2): 132.
Schapper, Andrea (2021). ‘Climate Justice Concerns and Human Rights Trade-Offs in Green Economy Transition: Evidence from Ethiopia’, European Journal of Development Research. doi: 10.1057/s41287-020-00340-6.
Schapper, Andrea (2020). ‘From the Local to the Global: Learning About the Adverse Human Rights Effects of Climate Policies’, Environmental Politics 29(4): 628–648.
Schapper, Andrea (2018). ‘Climate Justice and Human Rights’, International Relations 32(3): 275–295.
Schapper, Andrea and Lederer, Markus (2014). ‘Introduction. Climate Change and Human Rights: Mapping Institutional Inter-linkages’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 27(4): 666–679.
About the Author
Andrea Schapper is Senior Lecturer in International Politics and Programme Director of the MSc International Conflict and Cooperation at the University of Stirling, UK. She was a Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen for several months in 2016 and 2017. Her PhD is from the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences. Her research focuses on new forms of civil society advocacy, climate justice, and the relationship between climate change and human rights.