Who Sits on the Sidelines at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland?

Written by: Kamika Patel

In 2015, almost all of the world’s countries pledged to limit global warming “well below” 2 °C compared with pre-industrial levels and to strive to keep temperatures at 1.5 °C by the end of the century as part of the historic Paris Climate Agreement. Scientists warn that any additional warming past 1.5 degrees will trigger more intense and frequent climate extremes, irrevocable by any preventative measures put in place thereafter. Half a degree may not sound substantial, but according to the UN, for example, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees instead of 2 degrees could result in around 420 million fewer people being frequently exposed to extreme heatwaves.

After two weeks of intense negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, more than 120 world leaders from nearly 200 countries signed off on a new climate change agreement. Yet, the outcomes of this summit are weak and do little to limit global temperature rises to 2 °C as there was a lack of stronger commitments to reduce emissions and failure to agree on “loss and damage” finance for countries that are vulnerable to climate change.

Despite many extensive scientific reports determining the narrowed window of opportunity to act on climate change, countries in the Global North showed great reluctance to squarely agree on resolutions related to the cutting of emissions and fossil fuels. Most world leaders were more interested in building soft power and blaming other nations for their inaction or damaging contributions concerning climate change. 

To protest the lack of global action to combat climate change, thousands of people gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, and around the world during the two weeks of meetings and negotiations at the summit. While these meetings and negotiations are thought to be inclusive, bringing together global leaders, NGOs, activists, and civil society groups, they largely only included white male world leaders. Underrepresented groups, including those from the Global South, spoke out against the UK’s promise of COP26 being “the most inclusive COP ever.”  The Global South refers to poorer, less industrialized countries that are disproportionately harmed by increasingly intense climate extremes, yet they have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions.

Delegations from the most at-risk nations, primarily island nations, struggled to overcome constantly changing COVID-19 restrictions, expensive flight prices, and exorbitant rent to accommodate their stay in Scotland. One-third of small island states and territories in the Pacific region, where rising sea levels jeopardize their very existence, reportedly did not send any government leaders due to these struggles. According to the COP26 Coalition, representing indigenous movements, vulnerable communities, trade unionists and youth strikers from the Global South, two-thirds of its members gave up attempting to travel to Glasgow due to similar issues faced by these small island states.

The 2015 Paris accords legally recognized the importance of traditional knowledge and innovations by local communities and indigenous peoples in understanding and tackling the climate crisis. This recognition was meant to ensure that indigenous people could more equally participate and influence international climate policies. However, while indigenous people are more visible, members of different indigenous groups share a similar sentiment in that they are not taken any more seriously. Six years later at COP26, indigenous people interviewed by various media outlets express that little has changed inside the UN-led negotiations, while outside environmental destruction grows increasingly worse in their communities and the impact of the climate crisis remains unchecked.  

The role of indigenous peoples in combating climate change is crucial as they form only 5 percent of the global population, but protect 82 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity. It is indigenous people who protect lands vulnerable to resource extraction. If indigenous communities are successful in maintaining control of their territories as well as preserving their traditional cultivation processes, they would play a substantial role in mitigating climate change.

Women were also underrepresented at COP26, facing systemic challenges in terms of the lack of women’s senior leadership in climate negotiations. About 45 percent of the COP26 unit are now women, but almost all of the most senior public-facing roles are carried out by men. Women’s representation in climate talks is crucial as women are considered to be the most impacted by climate change. In many countries, women are responsible for gathering fuel, water and food. Therefore, they often suffer the most when shortages are caused or made worse by the climate crisis. Additionally, as they usually lack land rights, especially in developing nations such as India and China, women are also more likely to be displaced in climate disasters. Studies have also found the climate crisis heightens gender-based violence against women. 

The neglect of these sidelined groups of people, those most affected by climate change, severely undermines the credibility of the summit, a sentiment echoed by Asad Rehman, a spokesperson for the COP26 coalition, who further added that some civil society groups in attendance had also been “locked out” of negotiations. 

The absence and underrepresentation of the people most affected by climate change paints the two-week conference as a PR stunt for world leaders. This rings true when considering the lack of commitment developed nations were willing to put forth to help the developing world adapt to the climate crisis. While developing nations came to the Glasgow summit ready to propose that wealthier countries compensate them for climate change-related “loss and damage.” By the end of the summit, the final compromise was the “Glasgow Dialogue,” referring to discussion beginning between nations about how loss and damage funding might work. 

The difficulty for underrepresented groups to partake in COP26 along with its outcomes sends the message that it is merely a global platform to only promote developed nations’ interests. The minimal accountability that Global North countries have when making decisions for those least responsible and most affected by climate change is a step backward for climate justice.