At COP26 the voices of the next generation were powerful. Activists took to the stage in the opening sessions – activists that were overwhelmingly young and Indigenous women.
Elizabeth Wathuti, a youth climate activist from Kenya, called for global leaders to “open your hearts”. She spoke of how two million of her fellow Kenyans are facing climate-related starvation, with further climate-induced harm to come from “rivers running dry [and] harvests failing”. Africa is facing devastating climate impacts, despite contributing 3% to cumulative global emissions since industrialisation – an extraordinary global injustice.
Greta Thunberg, a Swedish youth activist who founded School Strike for Climate, was scathing. She labelled COP26 another theatrical performance by world leaders. Greta, at a second speech to activists outside COP26, asked: “what will it take for the people in power to wake up?” She then rightly answered, that global leaders are “already awake” and “know what they are doing” and what they are sacrificing to “maintain business as usual”.
Brianna Fruean, a young climate activist from Samoa, was also inspirational, telling the world that the Pacific people are not “not drowning, we’re fighting”. Her words represent “every single Pacific island” and their fight to protect their homes, environments and culture.
These incredible young women are just some of the climate activists that opened COP26 calling on world leaders to take advantage of the last best chance to halt devastating global warming. COP26 ended with the same message from youth, with a letter left on the floors of the Glasgow Summit for delegate on the final day. This letter pleaded: “On behalf of all the youth that can’t be in the room to negotiate with you…please…keep 1.5°C alive.”
So, did COP26 deliver justice for the next generation?
The Glasgow Climate Pact was never going to deliver on everything – international agreements rarely do, and climate action requires significant domestic planning. However, it was still a critical opportunity to jumpstart the drawdown of global emissions.
Indeed, the Pact does represent some positive, and important, moves towards global net zero emissions. Some major emitters committed to significant emissions reductions, such as India proclaiming a net zero by 2070 target. The Pact has created a framework for increased ambition, calling on States to return to COP27 (in Egypt next year) with updated Nationally Determined Contributions for greater greenhouse gas emissions cuts.
The Pact is also the first time a climate agreement has specifically called for the reduction of fossil fuels, although India’s last-minute intervention watered down the text from “phase out” to “phase down” of fossil fuel usage.
But it isn’t enough. Even if (and this is a big if) all States deliver on their most ambitious promises at COP26, the world will still experience 1.8°C warming, but State action is on track to deliver us 3.6°C warming by 2100. This is a death sentence for our ecosystems, vulnerable communities and the next generation.
The betrayal is compounding
COP26 is the latest in a long line of international climate negotiations that have failed to deliver significant emissions cuts or account for the loss and damage developing countries and vulnerable communities face from current climate impacts.
These betrayals are cumulative. In the 1990s, when international climate negotiations began, the path to a net zero globe and 1.5°C was – dare I say it – an easy target. Now, in 2021, “the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is on life support – it has a pulse but it’s nearly dead”. Decades ago, we could have averted the majority of global warming. Now, whole Pacific countries are at risk even if we get to net zero by 2050; Australia is exposed to more severe bushfire seasons; and, the quality of all our lives are less.
Sir David Attenborough, who – whilst not a young woman – was also a people’s advocate at COP26, said “it’s easy to forget that ultimately the climate emergency comes down to a single number – the concentration of carbon in our atmosphere”. He reflected on young people alive today, who will look at COP26 and consider: “Did [the concentration of carbon in our atmosphere] stop rising and start to drop as a result of commitments made here?”
David was optimistic on the opening days of COP26. But, as a young activist looking back from its close, I fear my answer is that I see a number still rising, and it shows no signs of stopping or falling as the betrayals spiral upwards.