A tale of two COPs

What actually happens inside COP? Alongside Scottish representatives from UNISON, Prospect, and EIS, the STUC were part of the formal International Trade Union Confederation COP26 delegation. Our Policy Officer, Francis Stuart, reflects on the exclusionary and corporate nature of COP, and the need to build people power outside to affect change.

COP26 was the most exclusionary ever. The international trade union delegation was cut in half; vaccine inequality and VISA difficulties limited participation from the Global South; and the extortionate cost of accommodation made Glasgow the preserve of the rich (with the honourable exception of initiatives like the Homestay network).

The steel fence perimeter around the Scottish Exhibition Centre, marshalled by hundreds upon hundreds of police officers, symbolised this exclusion, and it felt visibly different to COP25 in Madrid.

The large policing bill was supported by the principal sponsors whose logos are emblazoned on the walls: Sky, Hitachi, National Grid, Scottish Power and SSE, Microsoft, GSK, NatWest, Reckitt, Sainsbury’s and Unilever.

There is a distinctly corporate feel inside: one of the exhibits in the main walkthrough area is an electric Formula One Car.

Outside the formal plenary rooms, the bulk of the SEC is given over to country ‘pavilions’. These have the feel of a large trade expo. The UK Pavilion was dominated by panels made up of financial interests, such as the British Gas CEO Chris O’Shea who has fired and re-hired hundreds of workers. It increasingly feels like a space for business to talk about how to create and expand into new green markets, not a space for discussion about how to redistribute income, wealth, power or emissions.

Cameras and reporters are everywhere, waiting for the next celebrity to swan in. Everyone is trying to get hold of Greta. More often than not it is the rich and powerful that emerge out the media stramash, not the representatives of ordinary people. AOC drinking Irn Bru gets column inches, not the hypocrisy of rich Governments.

Trade unionists, as well as indigenous people, youth and environmental justice groups, beaver away following the negotiations and lobbying their respective Governments to ensure reference to key issues. On this, they undoubtedly have some success – I’ve no doubt that various references to Just Transition would not have been in the Glasgow Climate Pact if it wasn’t for the efforts of some extremely hardworking trade union officers. But it still feels like a losing battle.

At best, the Glasgow Climate Pact puts countries on a path to 2.4 degrees warming, not 1.5 degrees. There is no funding for loss and damage for those bearing the brunt of extreme weather events. And there are gaping loopholes in rules on international carbon markets, which will effectively lead to land and resources in the global south being commodified to facilitate continued emissions in the global north.

Let’s be clear, for all the attempts to blame China and India, it is the US and the EU who oppose funding for the Global South and who refuse to recognise their historic responsibility for climate change by increasing climate ambition.

We shouldn’t be surprised at any of this. 40 years of privatisation and marketisation has enabled a corporate stranglehold over climate negotiations in the same way it has in trade negotiations.

The answer to this, is the same as it has ever been – to build the power of ordinary people. Outside the steel fences of COP we saw more than 100,000 people march through the streets. But perhaps more importantly, we saw striking cleansing workers join the youth climate strike. We saw young climate activists dance on Caledonian Sleeper picket lines. We saw trade unionists, community groups, and environmental NGOs take over George Square to demand decent public transport for all our citizens, not just COP26 delegates. We saw Rolls Royce workers talk to climate campaigners about their plans to decarbonise their workplace, independently of management.

The trade union movement needs to join forces with the climate movement. But it also needs to remember its power is in organising working people to take action against employers. We do not need a new tranche of trade unionists skilled in the blah blah blah of climate policy. We need a new generation of trade unionists who can organise in their workplaces and their communities to take action – developing their own plans to decarbonise their work, to take industrial action and to join hands with the climate movement when they do.

Francis Stuart, STUC Policy Officer

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