November 21, 2021

A Tale of Two COP26 Meetings

Vijay Prashad

GLASGOW (Scotland, UK) was once the second most important city in the British Empire. The old docks along the river Clyde brought ships that came from Bengal carrying jute for the mills of Dundee and brought the wealth of the Americas that was earned by the trade in human beings. The city’s old buildings carry the evidence of that wealth, while the stories of its working-class rebellion in 1919 (Red Clydeside) are buried under the flagstones of St. George’s Square along with the memories of the Indian jute workers and the African sugarcane workers. That old dock has been substantially shut down and the land reclaimed to build the Scottish Exhibition Centre. It was in this enormous glass and steel castle that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), set up in 1994, held its Conference of Parties-26 (COP26).

The agenda for COP26 had been established long before the jets carrying world leaders arrived at Glasgow airport. The mood was captured by UN Secretary-General António Guterres on the first day of COP26, ‘The sirens are sounding. Our planet is talking to us and telling us something. And so are people everywhere’. What Guterres did not admit to is that the people are not speaking in one voice. Inside the official COP26, alongside the Scottish Exhibition Centre and the restaurants and hotels that border it, the government leaders, their coteries of advisors, and an army of corporate executives and lobbyists tried to adopt the language of concern as they went about the business of ensuring the status quo for the major polluters of the world (oil and natural gas companies, certainly, but also the major military forces of the Global North). Concern seemed less evident for the people from the small island states or for species going extinct and more for the creation of mechanisms to vacuum vast sums of public money to modernise capitalism. There was little money for the Green Climate Fund toward a just transition in the Global South, but there were a lot of handshakes to secure government investment for the revitalisation of sectors of the global economy that are not only polluters but whose sources of energy and whose machines are now near obsolete and uncompetitive with new technology being developed in places such as China.

‘So are people everywhere’, said Secretary-General Guterres, but the voices of the people were not heard much inside the official COP26. For that, one would have to leave the ‘Green Zone’ of the Scottish Exhibition Centre and walk down to the area between the River Clyde and St. George’s Cross, to the People’s Summit. Organised by the COP26 Coalition of non-government organisations and campaign groups, the People’s Summit held several days of debate and discussion in a day care centre, a multicultural centre, a trade union hub, and in an art house. No government leaders took the time to attend these meetings, not even representatives of the United Nations. In earlier summits, it was expected that Cuba’s Fidel Castro would leave the stale air of the official meeting and spend time with the people’s representatives (at the UN World Conference against Racism in 2001, Castro was the only world leader to receive a standing ovation at both the official meeting and at the people’s meeting). The gap between the two COPs is significant: the official one has been largely taken over by the corporate agenda, while the people’s COP lifts every voice but has little power to influence policy.


Focus at the official COP was on coal rather than on all the mechanisms that produce greenhouse gases. It was clear from the first day that the Western countries wanted to blame India and China for the inevitable failure of the negotiations. Most Western countries use energy sources other than coal, such as oil and natural gas, which are both contributors to carbon emissions. To make the debate about coal suggested that the great scofflaws on the planet are not in the West but are in Asia. In fact, even this headline misses the actual manoeuvring that took place inside the official COP. India’s environment minister Bhupendra Yadav did intervene at the last minute to change the wording in the final text from ‘phase out’ coal to ‘phase down’ coal. But India was not the initiator of this retreat from a much strong text. A few days before, in a joint statement on climate by the United States and China, the phrase ‘phase down’ had already been used. China, India, and the United States are the world’s largest users of coal. ‘You have to phase down coal before you can end coal’, said John Kerry, the US climate envoy. There was unanimity on this position although the general spin out of Glasgow is that it was only China and India that walked the agreement back from ‘phase out’.

A closer look at the COP26 negotiations shows that the United States and other Western countries wanted to focus on coal so that they would not have to deal with a wider debate over the phase-out of all fossil fuels. The facts speak for themselves: four of the world’s major carbon emitters (United States, Canada, Australia, and Saudi Arabia) have over 300 per cent higher per capita emissions than the world average, with the United States emitting at 333 per cent of the world’s average. China, meanwhile, has a per capita carbon emission of only 52 per cent above the world average, while India is at 60 per cent above the world average (China’s per capita emissions are only 46 per cent of the US level, while India’s are only 12 per cent of the US level). None of this was at the table in the official discussions at COP26, where the burden of the failure was placed squarely on India and China.

On November 15, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that China “attaches high importance to energy transition.” But, he said, there are some issues that need to be on the table. First, no energy transition can take place without awareness that “not everyone has access to electricity and energy supply is not adequate.” Cutting coal tomorrow will condemn billions of people to a life without electricity (about one billion people still have no electricity connection, most of them living in the Global South). Second, Zhao said, “We encourage developed countries to take the lead in stopping using coal while providing ample funding, technological and capacity-building support for developing countries’ energy transition.” The developed countries had agreed to fund the Green Climate Fund to the tune of $100 billion per year, but the actual amounts disbursed have been far smaller. No agreement on finance was reached at the COP26. “We need concrete actions,” said Zhao, “more than slogans.”


At the end of COP26, UN Secretary-General Guterres said, “Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode’. These phrases could have been uttered in the aftermath of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) or at the 1997 meeting in Kyoto to extend the UNFCCC or at the 2009 COP15 (held in Copenhagen, Denmark), or at the 2015 COP21 (held in Paris, France) – each of these producing a Kyoto Protocol, a Copenhagen Accord, and a Paris Agreement, each of these words on a page as the carbon emissions continue to spew out of a corporate-owned civilisation.

Asad Rehman of War on Want, one of the organisers of the People’s Summit, spoke to the presidency of COP26 with words that resonated far from Glasgow: ‘The rich have refused to do their fair share, more empty words on climate finance. You have turned your backs on the poorest who face a crisis of Covid, economic and climate apartheid because of the actions of the richest. It is immoral for the rich to talk about the future of their children and their grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now’.