Widely derided as a “talking shop” that failed to deliver on the climate action we need, the pageant around COP26 – the UN’s 26th “Conference of the Parties” that took place in Glasgow in December – pointed towards a deeper systemic malaise that’s emblematic of our times.
We find ourselves at the back of a decade of broken promises and inaction by international governments and transnational corporations that has seen the earth’s atmospheric temperatures rise to 1.2˚C above pre-industrial levels, driving us ever closer to the guardrail of 1.5˚C.
“1.5 to stay alive” was the slogan of campaigners from the world’s most climate vulnerable countries at COP14 in Copenhagen in 2009. The target was enshrined in the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015, then centred by leading climate scientists in the IPCC’s 2018 report as a crucial threshold not to be breached for the preservation of water, food, housing and biodiversity systems around the world.
Earlier this year, a blueprint for what it would take to achieve 1.5˚C came from the unlikely quarter of the International Energy Agency [IEA], highlighting the urgency of bold immediate term (2025) and short-term (2030) commitments to decarbonisation.
Yet the UK government, president of COP26, approached the moment focused on long-term goals of achieving Net Zero by 2050 and based on questionable approaches including carbon-offsetting schemes that can only deepen existing inequalities of power and productivity and on speculative technological solutions that to-date remain unproven.
The strategy represented a failure of imagination of epic proportions, reflected too in questions of resource allocation where G7 leaders, including self-proclaimed climate champion Joe Biden, attempted to spin a victory out of plans to come good on a 12-year old (broken) promise to commit $100 billion a year in climate finance.
Given that during this past decade of rising global temperatures, with an increased frequency of extreme weather events, costs of loss and damage alone have now risen to in excess of $150 billion a year, the proposal that was on the table amounted to little more than sign-off on a deficit that climate breakdown runs deep through the global economy. (Though even on this they failed to deliver.)
So here’s the reality check. Based on existing rates of carbon emissions, as corroborated by the most recent report of the IPCC, we will breach 1.5˚C within a decade – driving food scarcity, conflict, forced migration and continued economic breakdown around the world.
These effects will incur costs that will escalate and will be felt most by future generations (our children’s children) and by communities living on the frontlines of climate breakdown who are, above all, black and brown people living in the global south.
The failure to adequately plan and mitigate against those costs, alongside the challenge of decarbonisation, needs to be read now as a failure of governance that will perpetuate and exacerbate the inequalities of a 500-year old history of empire and racial capitalism.
It’s this deeper system, of empire’s inequality, that lies at the roots of both COP26 in all its failures, and of the 21st century’s environmental crisis itself. It now demands its transformation.
Ashish Ghadiali is a filmmaker and activist who organises with the climate justice collective Wretched of the Earth. He is a member of the co-ordinating committee of the COP26 civil society coalition and a commissioning editor at Lawrence and Wishart Books where he’s developing a new Soundings imprint, to be launched with a slate of books on Race and Ecology in 2022. He was formerly Race Editor, then Co-Editor of Red Pepper magazine (2017-2020) and part of the team that set up the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp (in 2006).
Ashish’s 2016 feature documentary, The Confession, explored the geopolitical arcs of the War on Terror through the testimony of former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg. The film was described by The Guardian as “a documentary of great clarity and gravitas” and by Sight and Sound as “an interrogation of the very nature of truth-telling, freedom and responsibility”. Ashish is currently developing new projects for film and TV with BBC Studios and BBC Films and is a regular contributor to The Observer New Review.
This piece was commissioned as part of the Contextualising Climate Crisis series.