“Keep Polluters Out, Let the People In:” A Rallying Call for Climate Justice at COP25

Since 1995, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has hosted the yearly Conferences of Parties (COP) to facilitate international climate policy. Organizations from around the world gather to set the agenda for coordinated action on climate change. Marking its 25th meeting, COP25 suffered multiple setbacks beginning during the planning stages and continuing through to the last day of negotiations. Brazil, after electing a far-right president, withdrew from hosting the conference. Chile assumed the presidency of COP and its hosting responsibilities only to cancel the event amid national protests denouncing social and economic inequality. At the eleventh hour, Spain agreed to host the summit in Madrid with the financial help of some of the biggest polluters in the country.

The primary goal of COP25 was for member parties to reach a consensus concerning Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, the section defining international mechanisms for carbon markets. These mechanisms allow a country to meet their emissions reductions target, formally known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), by purchasing the excess offsets from countries with lower emissions. Instead of cutting emissions by phasing out fossil fuels, carbon markets allow a country to reach their NDC by funding carbon sequestration projects, such as forest planting or conservation through programs like REDD+. Civil society and grassroots organizations have denounced carbon market mechanisms for their lack of human rights safeguards, double counting carbon reductions, trading pollution, and strengthening corporate power in global policy. Most dangerously, carbon markets allow corporations to continue business as usual—burning fossil fuels.

The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), a lobbying group heavily invested in carbon market mechanisms, represents several fossil fuel corporations including Chevron, BP, and Shell.

In the past decade, the UN has seen a shift towards multi-stakeholder approaches that have increased the influence of corporate actors over international policy-making. The origins of the United Nations are rooted in multilateralism and international cooperation. While power is not equally distributed among its member states, the UN is a more inclusive global decision-making organization than the G10/20, World Bank, or International Monetary Fund, who largely exclude poorer countries or assign voting power based on economic output. However, transnational Corporations (TNCs) have taken an increasingly bigger role in climate and environmental negotiations at the detriment of justice and equity concerns. The inclusion of fossil fuel companies in climate policy-making is a very troublesome development. Since the Paris agreement, fossil fuel corporations, aided by financial institutions, have invested $2.7 trillion dollars in the destruction of people and planet by expanding large-scale resource extraction. Through public-private partnerships, conference sponsorships, and special advisory roles, TNCs are capturing global governance under the guise of service to the public interest. If Exxon knew about the links between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and climate change for more than 40 years, what makes them a trustworthy partner now?  

I am a graduate student at the School for Environment and Sustainability examining the intersection of  agro-ecology, environmental justice, and international development. I was born and raised in Peru, one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in Latin America. When I was younger, my family and I lived through torrential rains that flooded our hometown and destroyed the livelihoods of many friends and relatives. Climate change is making El Niño events, like the one I experienced in Peru, more frequent and more intense. With much excitement and humility, I accepted the opportunity to bring my experiences to COP25 and represent my communities.  My role as a delegate was to serve as a civil society observer ensuring transparency and accountability for ordinary citizens.

Arriving at the conference, I quickly noticed the presence of energy trade groups and other dubious corporate actors. My colleagues and I met a fossil fuel lobbyist on the train back to our accommodations who was at COP25 to talk about carbon sequestration and storage technologies. Meanwhile, official negotiations on Article 6 were not moving forward because the US, Brazil, and Australia were blocking the inclusion of justice-centered language. For these reasons, I joined other black, indigenous, and youth of color in a non-violent direct action outside a negotiation hall. Their demands were encapsulated in a small chant: “Keep polluters out, let the people in.” Multiple times during the protests, security staff threatened to cancel my conference credentials. This culminated in the removal of myself and other delegates from the conference for the rest of that day.

A group of peaceful protesters led by black, indigenous, and people of color demanding climate justice were escorted out of the main venue.

I then decided to join COP25 protesters participating in a parallel climate conference on the other side of Madrid. Cumbre Social por el Clima, or Social Climate Summit, was a gathering of grassroots climate justice activists and frontline communities. Its panels and events were centered around the lived experiences of people from the Global South and other communities disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. I heard indigenous women speak about the horrors of violence surrounding man camps near tar sand projects in Canada. I listened to a woman from Mozambique describe how a cyclone had laid waste to her hometown. I learned about cancer-alley, an area in Louisiana where the majority African American population is being exposed to toxic chemicals from oil refineries and other industries. I listened to the stories of Guajajara people in the Amazon and the violence they face every day protecting their forests. What I was learning was heart-breaking, but it was not surprising. Corporations, aided by governments, were causing irreparable harms to vulnerable communities to satisfy their appetites for increased profits. Climate Justice organizations are sounding off the alarm because fossil fuel companies intend to continue profiting from human rights abuses and pollution. Believing that the fossil fuel industry will help us stop the climate crisis is naive at best. At worst, it is a dangerous ideology infiltrating governments and NGOs while fueling climate denialism and hindering real solutions.  

We will not achieve the ambitions of the Paris Climate Agreement by working with the fossil fuel industry and other petro-chemical polluters. They have made fortunes while committing genocide against indigenous people and polluting communities of color. Now they want to get paid by “cleaning up” the planet through a carbon markets scheme. Instead of false solutions, governments around the world should support efforts from grassroots movements and front-line communities who are envisioning a better future: a feminist green new deal, community-owned renewable energy projects, and indigenous sovereignty over their historical lands. Governments should nationalize their fossil fuel industries and transition towards their decommission. These corporations’ assets must be used to pay for climate reparations, losses, and damages. They must ensure that their workers can be part of a just transition. We are at a turning point in our history. The links between socio-economic inequality, ecological collapse, and the climate emergency can no longer be ignored

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was experiencing waves of social unrest. This pandemic has exacerbated the inequities driving an uneven distribution of environmental burdens. It is time to challenge the extractive economic system and its actors, which are moving us in the direction of a socio-ecological collapse. If we have the will to leave behind our current broken system, a just and sustainable future for all is within reach.

Author: Juan Jhong-Chung, University of Michigan, School for Environment and Sustainability, 2019 Delegate to COP25.

Published: May 05, 2020

Updated: June 16th, 2020

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