We need a people-centred COP26. Instead, we have an elite marketplace
COP26 is full of big boys in small rooms. It needs to be led by the people, not Northern elites with the financial interests in maintaining the status quo.
Half a century ago, the Niger Delta region of Nigeria was lush and thriving. Then, oil was discovered and multinationals like Shell turned up. Fast forward through several decades of exploitation, pollution, gas flaring, and dozens of oil spills, and the area could not look more different.
Today, ash and tar cover once luscious farming land. The fishing industry has been all but decimated. Water has become dangerous to drink with UN scientists finding 8cm of refined oil floating on top of water that supplies drinking wells. The air is thick with smoke. People’s livelihoods have been destroyed and life expectancy has plummeted.
Niger Delta communities have repeatedly called on Shell to clean up its mess, but instead of launching the urgent measures needed to save lives, the multi-billion-dollar oil major has instead repeatedly denied responsibility and spent millions in courts in an attempt to evade liability.
This is the impact wrought by one oil major in one region, but it is a microcosm of what the fossil fuel industry is doing to the planet as a whole. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming. In 2018, fossil fuels and industry accounted for 89% of global CO2 emissions. To keep global heating to an already devastating 1.5C, the development of new oil and gas fields has to stop this year. It’s as simple as that.
Like with cleaning up the Niger Delta, however, stopping projects in which they have already invested vast sums is not in the interests of the fossil fuel industry’s executives and shareholders. And so, while they invest millions in greenwashing campaigns and attempts to confuse the public through notions like “net zero”, they continue to pump tens of billions into oil and gas. It is true that they are also investing in renewables, but a 2021 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that less than 1% of fossil fuel companies’ annual investments in the Global South have gone into clean energy.
The economic interests of oil and gas majors are simply at odds with the need to tackle climate change. And yet, at COP26, the global summit to address the crisis, there are more delegates associated with the fossil fuel industry than from any single country. Campaigners from Global Witness assessed the list of participants and found 503 accredited participants with links to oil and gas. That is more than double the 230 approved delegates representing the UK, which is hosting the talks.
That’s not to imply that more representation from Global Northern governments like the UK would lead to better solutions. They are already the ones with the most power and that continue to enable fossil fuel companies. They are the ones benefiting the most and suffering the least from the devastating impacts of their activities. They are the ones largely responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions that are disproportionately affecting the formerly colonised Global South. Although the whole world stands the suffer, it is the wealthy industrialised nations in the North that have the most to lose and the least to gain by taking the climate crisis seriously, at least in the short-term.
Some representatives from civil society like myself have been given observer status at COP26. This is supposed to allow us to participate in and scrutinise the process, but my yellow badge doesn’t get me into the areas where the real negotiations are happening. We’ve been closed off from critical spaces and, at times, had whole sections of the conference cordoned off to us.
To make matters worse, two thirds of the civil society organisations that usually send delegates to COP could not even make it to this conference to enjoy this highly limited access. Despite repeated reassurances from organisers, participants from Africa and elsewhere in the Global South have been denied visas, been unable to access the Covid vaccine, been upended by the UK’s changing travel restrictions, or been priced out due to the lack of accommodation in Glasgow. COP is always elite and exclusionary, but this year’s conference is unprecedented in its marginalisation of those most affected by the climate crisis.
And so, what we have at COP26 is a lot of big boys in small rooms. We have a process led and lobbied by heavily polluting countries and industries that are more interested in their media image than the hundreds of millions of people that are suffering. We have a fundamentally illegitimate global summit in which the voices of those least responsible for climate change and most vulnerable to its impacts are effectively silenced.
What we need is to completely invert this failed model. Fossil fuel companies and their lobbyists – concerned about their ability to profit – must be barred from negotiations. And civil society groups representing hundreds of millions of people – concerned about their ability to live – must be foregrounded.
We need a people-centred COP that can talk about critical issues of justice and take clear and urgent actions like immediately banning any new oil and gas projects – not the elite marketplace for environmental criminals that we currently have.
Aderonke Ige was speaking to James Wan.