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Expectations for the 2021 COP26 climate summit were always low. They had dimmed even further by the time the prominent climate activist Vanessa Nakate of Uganda spoke from the main stage on the Glasgow conference’s next-to-last day.
Nakate chided her audience for sleepwalking toward catastrophe: “We see business leaders and investors flying into COP on private jets. We see them making fancy speeches. We hear about new pledges and promises. … I have come here to tell you that we don’t believe you.” She added, “I am here to say, prove us wrong.”
Throughout the summit, people of all ages and backgrounds had rallied in the streets outside to demand effective climate action, climate justice, an end to exploitation, and other policies through which the world’s governments might prove Nakate wrong.
On November 5, more than 8,000 children, teenagers, parents, and teachers marched through the city, calling on the generation now in power not to ruin the future for generations who follow. The next day, a surge of more than 100,000 climate marchers demanded an end to fossil fuel investments, a global conversion to renewable energy financed by wealthy countries, and reparations for Indigenous communities.
Tuntiak Katan, a member of the Shuar nation in Ecuador, reminded reporters that “Indigenous peoples already protect 950 million hectares of land worldwide.” Affluent nations, he said, must “abandon extractivism and get the oil, mining and agribusiness companies out of our territories, and apply a holistic vision, combined with the vision of the indigenous peoples.”
The Glasgow marchers’ goals were both necessary and achievable, but they knew all too well that fossilized COP summits have failed the world twenty-five times since 1995, and COP26 would be no different.
That sense was deepened when the UN Environmental Program reported on November 9 that even if all the countries represented in Glasgow meet their stated commitments to reduce emissions, human-induced warming will exceed 2.5°C(4.5°F) in this century. Such heating, according to the world’s climate scientists, will cause mind-boggling ecological destruction and human suffering.
Four days later came the unveiling of the Glasgow Climate Pact, the conference’s bottom-line statement. As expected, nothing in the pact proved Vanessa Nakate wrong.
One of the deepest disappointments for the climate-justice movement was the almost total failure to deal with fossil fuels. Negotiators had flirted with confronting the fossil fuel industry head-on—a key issue previous COPs had dodged— only to back off at the last minute.
Whereas an early draft had straightforwardly called for a phaseout of coal power and fuel subsidies, the final version suggested only a phasedown of “unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”, draining the statement of any meaning.
According to a Washington Post analysis, COP26 was derailed in part by failure either to agree on how to monitor countries’ actual emissions as compared with their pledges or to find a path to rapid, real-world emissions reductions in the short term, as opposed to the vague “net-zero emissions by 2050” promises that world leaders prefer to make.
It didn’t have to be this way. There are straightforward ways to overcome such impediments to climate action—if policymakers and negotiators can stop haggling over elusive greenhouse emissions and work instead toward directly eliminating the chief sources of emissions as rapidly as possible.
Experience has shown that emissions pledges and projections are subject to too much error, uncertainty, and sleight of hand to guide action on climate. Governments should instead employ direct, surefire policies based on tangible, easily tracked quantities.
Toward that goal, each high-emitting country could pass laws that cap the numbers of barrels of oil, cubic feet of gas, and tons of coal allowed out of the ground and into the economy each year, and then ratchet the cap down to zero on the steepest schedule that can ensure fair, adequate energy access for all.
In other words, the only feasible, ecologically sound way to keep fossil carbon from getting into the atmosphere is to stop digging and pumping it out of the Earth. That is doable, if we can summon the collective will.
We also know how to deeply reduce emissions from land use, the second biggest source of emissions after fossil fuels.
We can start with agriculture, by replacing carbon-intensive synthetic fertilizers with organic sources of fertility, including nitrogen-fixing intercrops and cover crops. In the United States, for example, this could include closing down cattle feedlots and converting as many as 100 million acres of farmland currently in monocultures of feed grains like dent corn and soybeans into deep-rooted pasture and prairie, and eventually into diverse, perennial food-grain/forage cropping systems.
These and other changes in food production are required to keep more carbon in the soil and out of the air. But even if we leave climate aside, such a transformation was already badly needed in order to reverse biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems both above- and below-ground.
Ending the extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth while achieving material sufficiency, equity, and justice would move us a long way toward the more livable future that the people who gathered outside COP26—along with billions of others around the world—are demanding and are standing ready to create.