“The history of COP is a litany of failure, with previous conferences only ever serving as opportunities for world leaders to grandstand without taking action.”
By Minesh Parekh, Labour for a Green New Deal.
This November brings COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, hosted by the UK in Glasgow.
Considering the importance that’s been placed on it by politicians and NGOs, it might be surprising to learn that more than half of UK voters think it will make no impact on the climate crisis. There’s good reason to be cynical.
The history of COP is a litany of failure, with previous conferences only ever serving as opportunities for world leaders to grandstand without taking action, and for fossil fuel companies to greenwash decades of environmental vandalism.
Paris’s COP21 was hailed by the press as a landmark victory for the climate movement, but on its own terms it was an abject failure. It sought to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C, but even if every single commitment made at the 2015 conference was kept (spoiler alert: they weren’t) we would still see a 3.2°C rise.
COP26 will fail, not simply because of duplicitous and/or inept world leaders, but because the “global summit” mode of politics only works in the minds of West Wing fans, speaking to a world that doesn’t exist and never has. It functions as a spectacle: like a perverse gala, our media are fixated on who will and won’t be there, deeming the absence of the Queen or the Pope to be more important than practicalities of how decarbonisation will or should take place.
COP26 could have been an opportunity to talk about localising decarbonisation and the need to devolve resources and power so that communities can build vibrant green local economies. There are many parts of this country that are – very fairly – distrustful of decarbonisation and the idea of a post-industrial future, precisely because of the devastation that was built into the UK’s post-industrial turn. This should be the moment to build a bottom-up vision for a post-carbon society, that—rejecting any trace of climate austerity— not only means cutting emissions, but necessarily scaling up zero- and low-carbon transport infrastructure, retrofitting housing (beginning with social housing), developing local renewable energy production (until we all have Governments willing to nationalise energy production), and greening the urban.
Considering financial commitments from climate accords in 2009 have yet to be met, I doubt COP26 will deliver the radical redistribution of wealth and power needed to facilitate this. By design, it can’t. For COP to succeed, it wouldn’t actually be COP at all. We need to be rid of Conferences of the Parties that ensure the rich and powerful continue to shape our world. Our challenge as municipal socialists must therefore be to build local climate revolutions, looking to fundamentally transform society rather than tinkering around the edges.
Community-led climate action means taking as a starting point that any green transition must be just—guaranteeing everyone the right to a liveable planet, and a secure and dignified life—and building outwards from there. Ensuring that, village by village, town by town, every home is powered by renewables and insulated to be safe and warm; food production is localised to ensure access to sustainable and nutritious food; trees are replanted, peatlands rewetted, rainforests revitalised, and saltmarshes restored. Radical climate action needs to be everywhere, in every community, from the ground up.
For those of us in the Global North this must also include a commitment to international justice—pushing for reparations to the South to enable the right to development and a dignified life for all.
COP26 was never going to be a pathway to climate justice. Instead, if we’re to tackle the climate crisis, we will need to mobilise all powers and resources available to us – and seize new ones.
- Minesh Parekh is a Labour for a Green New Deal activist and is running to be selected as a Labour candidate in Sheffield’s local elections in May.