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From COP26 to Your Local Council

By Maheep Sandhu, Community Climate Hubs Manager at the Climate Reality Project Canada

· Advocacy Stories

In November 2021, I had the privilege to attend the global climate negotiations occurring in Glasgow, Scotland on behalf of the Climate Reality Project Canada. While at COP26, I did live correspondence for community-based partners like the Calgary Climate Hub and The Climate Dialogues, interviewed young people from Kahnawá:ke, observed negotiations for the Climate Action Network-Canada, and marched alongside thousands of people for climate justice. 

I went into this space wondering how my day-to-day work with city-based climate advocacy groups translates to the level of international climate policy. As citizens, how are our interests represented in these spaces, especially when our future is on the negotiation table? How do the top-level commitments and conversations in closed rooms translate to meaningful action in our communities? Here, I reflect on my experience and hope to share some of my learnings. 

COP in a Nutshell 

The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—also known as COP26—was one of the largest gatherings of people since the pandemic began. Depending on whom you ask, this conference had different purposes. On its face, it is the annual meeting of countries to negotiate their strategies to mitigate temperature rise and collaborate on adapting to climate impacts. For civil society, it is the venue to publicly hold our governments to account in front of an international audience, and monitor negotiations where our futures are on the table. And for the fossil fuel lobbyists, it is a playground of greenwashing where they are able to wield their profits and access in order to prolong the lifespan of their extractive projects, to our collective detriment. 

At this conference, the world saw some major accomplishments and shortfalls. Principally, the first ever mention of fossil fuels in a final text occurred, laying the path for global coordination against the 500+ elephants in the room. This, coupled with an array of commitments to end the international financing of fossil fuels, marks the beginning of a major shift in global markets. Beyond this, the language in the final text around phasing down coal and phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies is yet another example of commitments that have broken new ground for COP, but remain insufficient. When benchmarked against what we have managed to do so far, these achievements are laudable. But when measured against the science, it is clear that we are only starting to take the necessary steps to transform our global economy, which the climate demands. 

Despite the good news, the countries of the Global South were doubly betrayed at COP26. The principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities” underpins the need for the Global North to finance economic and energy transitions in the Global South. Before the conference even began, developed countries failed to meet a promise made in 2009; the delivery of USD $100 billion in climate finance to the Global South by 2020. Canadian Minister Wilkinson and German State Secretary Flasbarth had led the coordination effort around this issue for COP26 and discovered that the Global North had fallen short of their promise. Despite this shortcoming, Global North countries entered into a non-binding commitment to deliver USD $100 billion annually in climate finance until 2025, leaving global trust intact, but on thin ice. With significant financing being promised, and a record of failure to deliver, many in the Global South were counting on the Glasgow Climate Pact to provide certainty and facilitate support. 

This is where the second betrayal came, in the final days of COP, when the countries of the Global North refused to deliver a mechanism for “Loss and Damage”—referring to the damages done to our societies by the climate crisis. While countries like Canada can largely afford to adapt to the major changes facing our communities, many economies have never recovered from colonialism and debt entrapment and therefore cannot afford to adapt their way out of the climate crisis. That said, COP27 will be presided over by Egypt, who has committed to champion loss and damage. This news, alongside the agreement to hold dialogues on loss and damage in 2022, leads many to believe that a stable system for financing loss and damage may be agreed upon at the next conference. 

As millions of people around the world held their breath watching COP26, many felt as though our collective fate rested in the hands of these negotiators. It is important to remember that the consensus-based structure of the UNFCCC means that the results of that negotiation are the lowest common denominator of the global community of nation states. While the conference is able to set a framework which attempts to deliver pathways for action across borders and markets, in practice, it also enables action at many lower levels. 

Cities at COP 

When the UN was created in 1945, the decision to structure membership along the lines of countries was one that would have far-reaching effects, including at COP26. Because the only recognized parties are national governments, “sub-nationals” (including provinces, cities, Indigenous nations, and regional governments) have almost no formal voice in negotiations. Much like non-governmental organizations (NGOs), they must rely on their national negotiating team to represent their interests. 

However, the role of their sub-nationals should not be discounted. In 2019 at COP25, the United States was in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement under the Trump presidency. During this period, an alliance of states, cities and non-governmental actors came together under the “We’re Still In” coalition, to make climate commitments in line with global targets for their own jurisdictions, covering the majority of the United States’ population. Subnational actors are an important secondary voice for citizens, especially when their national representatives lack the level of ambition demanded by the climate crisis. 

Cities consume nearly 80% of the world's energy, and produce >60% of greenhouse gas emissions, while being home to the majority of the population. 

Bringing it Home 

At COP26, the Local Governments and Municipal Authorities delegation was the second largest at the conference, with over 400 representatives. The Canadian group included the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and their Big City Mayors Caucus’ Chair, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage. The role of these cities at COP26 is often to share knowledge across borders, advocate for the devolution of decision-making into the hands of local authorities, and to push for their own distinct interests—such as highlighting the vulnerability of coastal cities. At COP26, the SFU’s Centre for Dialogue hosted their Canadian Cities at COP26 briefings which were instrumental in helping cities and community-based advocates stay in the loop with the complex and often inaccessible proceedings. On a global scale, the Cities Race to Zero Campaign was a focal point, with over 1,000 global municipalities joining the initiative to reach Net Zero and develop climate plans in line with a 1.5 C future. 

Fortunately, as citizens of municipalities, our votes and ability to engage our officials are in our own hands. It is within the ability of citizens to raise the ambition of our cities to lead the energy transition. It is the responsibility of citizens to hold our leaders to account when it comes to adapting our communities to the impacts of the climate crisis that are already affecting us at home. 

During COP26, major developments were underway at home, as Alberta and Quebec’s cities voted in new municipal governments. In part due to advocacy from the Calgary Climate Hub and Coalition Climat Montréal, both big cities elected progressive councils and mayors serious about fighting climate change. As the world looked towards Glasgow, it was local engagement that changed the fate of Alberta’s largest city, and delivered a solid pathway of continued ambition for Montréal’s mayor. 

At the federal level, Canada arrived at COP26 with a string of announcements coming out of the 2021 Election. Canada committed to $5.3b over five years with the following sub-commitments: 

These commitments, paired with the government’s announcement of a cap on oil and gas emissions, marks a significant jump in ambition given Canada’s history in the UNFCCC and follows a commitment from the US Climate Leaders Summit to enhance Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions goal. Yet more ambition and more details are required in order to meet a 1.5-degree Celsius-aligned plan, a challenge largely lies with the government’s ability to pass its commitments into law during a minority parliament. When it comes to implementation, cities and provinces need to work towards these goals, while including community members of all backgrounds in their planning processes. 

One such group that is typically excluded from policy making is young people. Whether it be in local communities, or at COP26. In the Blue Zone, young people faced exclusion from most party delegations, negotiation rooms, and ministerial consultations. That said, despite often being brought in as tokens, many young people used their platforms to speak truth to power. And outside of the venue, youth and Indigenous peoples largely led the march of over 100,000 demonstrators through Glasgow, on Saturday, November 6th. 

Governments at all levels are rapidly losing the trust of young people around the world, and will need to centre principles of intergenerational justice in their planning and decision-making processes in order to repair this relationship. The principle of planning for 7 generations ahead is embedded into many Indigenous knowledge practices, and would do well to be incorporated into policy-making to ensure that the short-term interests of capital are not held above the right of young people and our future generations to a liveable and ecologically stable future. The calls of young people for action must be heard if our policy-making is to be just and inclusive. 

The Takeaway 

COP26 was an arena of exchange and pressure. The real work, however, happens when the leaders of the world return home and face their constituents. It is our responsibility to organize powerful citizen-led movements that can hold leaders to account, and ensure they go into the next COP fearing the costs of inaction more than the ire of the fossil fuel industry. If we ensure that governments champion the interests of their people and future generations, we will be able to move towards the exponential pace of change that the moment requires. And we will do that, together. 

Calls to Action: