Innovation Will Not Solve the Climate Crisis: Indigenous Perspectives at COP26

Over the past two decades, Indigenous peoples have been an integral part of the global conversation on climate change. The first COP was held in Berlin in March 1995, and in 2001 the Indigenous Peoples Organization (IPO) was recognized as a formal constituency. This designation gave the IPO greater access to resources, allowed them to participate in UNFCCC secretariat events, and bestowed them with speaking rights. In 2015, the Paris Agreement established the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP), which functions to promote the exchange of knowledge, build capacity for local communities and Indigenous peoples, and incorporate their diverse ways of knowing into the design and implementation of climate policies. However, despite this engagement, the interests of Indigenous peoples go largely unrepresented at the negotiation table. Only nation states are recognized as Parties to the Convention, and thus Indigenous peoples have to rely on member countries to represent their interests, an occurrence that largely does not happen.

But do not be mistaken, Indigenous voices are far from silent. During my time at COP26 as a member of the University of Michigan delegation, I had the privilege of sitting in on a handful of LCIPP events, including the Presidency’s Dialogue with the LCIPP. Throughout the Dialogue, I took note of the numerous Indigenous representatives who emphasized the importance of ensuring that human rights were explicitly indicated within Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. The main purpose of Article 6 is to set up the operational rules for the establishment of a global carbon trading market. Through this market, countries can purchase carbon credits from renewable energy projects in other countries to offset their own high greenhouse gas emissions as they try to meet the climate targets specified within their Nationally Determined Contributions. Indigenous peoples fear that, without a human rights clause, such a market-based system will allow developed countries to continue emitting while offloading the consequences of sustained emissions onto frontline communities. Moreover, the irresponsible siting and implementation of renewable energy projects themselves can cause harm and implicate human rights violations.

Yet it is important to recognize that Indigenous peoples are not merely victims in the climate crisis; these communities safeguard generations of knowledge that can help the world better understand local impacts of climate change and identify strategies for bolstering human and ecological resilience. However, we have to take care that engagement with Indigenous communities is not merely an extractive process designed only to further predetermined aims. Instead, Indigenous peoples should be co-creators in the design and implementation of solutions.

Panelists and facilitators for the LCIPP’s multi-stakeholder in session workshop

This was my take home message after attending the multi-stakeholder in session workshop for the LCIPP towards the end of my time at COP26. During the event, I listened to Indigenous representatives from across the world detail the barriers they face, including, but not limited to, persistent lack of recognition from nation states, difficulties in accessing climate finance, and the illegal use of Indigenous knowledge systems. Many in the room emphasized the importance of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. The workshop also highlighted examples where Indigenous peoples are included within decision-making structures. One representative shared how Kenya recently designated a spot for Indigenous peoples on its National Climate Change Council. The senior specialist for the Finland Ministry of the Environment discussed how the Finnish government is legally obligated to negotiate with the Sámi Parliament during decision-making processes. While these couple of examples represent promising first steps, I got the sense that there is much work to be done to further Indigenous rights on a global scale.

The tone of these Indigenous perspectives stood in stark contrast to the buzz found around “big energy” in the renewables space, where market mechanisms were heralded as the path forward. This messaging was the underpinning of a talk by Al Gore that I attended with the other Week 1 University of Michigan delegates. Complete with slow motion video of collapsing coal power plants, Gore argued that fossil fuels are becoming more and more expensive to keep online and that economic incentives are increasingly favoring renewable energy sources. His thesis seemed to be, “if we follow through on the commitments made here [at COP26], hold countries accountable, and continue to push for innovation, we can solve this crisis!”

While I understand and agree with the need for hope and technological innovation, I’m afraid that some will take his, and the message of many others, as a silver bullet. Yes, increasing the pace and scale of green energy development is of the utmost importance, given the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels. However, renewable energy sources aren’t without environmental damages of their own. Metals such as copper, silver, aluminum, and cobalt are required to construct solar panels and wind turbines, which means additional mining. Collisions with wind turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds and bats in the U.S. annually. The land use implications of biomass (the practice of burning of wood for energy) disrupt ecosystem processes and threaten biodiversity. These consequences also carry implications for communities of people living in the vicinity of such green energy projects. Transitioning to renewables is of course a necessity, but it’s important to recognize that in doing so, we are making a trade off. In exchange for halting global warming, we are accepting a new set of challenges.

Ultimately, my experience at COP26 underscored the incredibly wicked nature of the climate crisis. Although it is tempting to search for simple fixes, truly equitable and just solutions are anything but. I’m not sure what the path forward entails, but I do know that progress will not come through viewing issues in silos. I thought one Indigenous representative from the Pacific said it well: “Everything is interconnected. You cannot separate Loss and Damages from Adaptation. You cannot separate Indigenous Peoples from any of it.”

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