COP26 – Big Failure?

transform! europe’s Roland Kulke critically reports on COP26, which took place in Glasgow in October/November 2021.

From 31 October 31 untill 12 November 2021, transform! europe took part in COP for the second time, after attending COP24 in Katowice in 2018. While at Katowice we concentrated on the democratic and worker-centred transformation of the energy system, this time we worked on a greater variety of topics. 

The Coronavirus pandemic prevented COP26 from taking place in 2020. As time is ticking and CO2 emissions are constantly rising, the pressure on the British Government, who were the hosts of COP26 and who therefore held the presidency at this meeting, was therefore correspondingly high.

The Glasgow COP – the setting

What were the most relevant goals to be achieved in Glasgow?

The trade unions were making four specific demands:

  1. The integration of the Just Transition into the operational part of the COP process (a.k.a. the ‘Paris Rulebook’),
  2. The universal acknowledgment of human rights in the decarbonisation exercise,
  3. An increase in financing the struggle against climate change, and, last but not least,
  4. Financing for loss & damage to compensate countries in the Global South against ongoing climate disasters.[1]

How was the playing field set up and the players distributed?

‘The global climate summit in Glasgow will be the whitest and most privileged ever, according to campaigners’.[2]

It was not the often-mentioned global pandemic that was responsible for this, but human behaviour and the interests of the white capitalist global supremacy. The worldwide unfair distribution of Covid-19 vaccination doses and manufacturing plants is not ‘natural’ but man-made (in this case very much ‘man’-made, indeed). All this is no accident. Boris Johnson, reflecting on the upcoming COP26 conference, got carried away when he started speculating about the future of the world, which for him equals the future of the UK. He actually claimed that the Roman Empire fell because of ‘uncontrolled immigration’.[3]

Counter Summit

The Counter Summit was organised by the COP26 Coalition. They were able to coordinate the whole summit in a way that 168 in-person meetings were organised in Glasgow and  interpreted into 11 languages. 

Transform! europe was the joint organiser of the opening session of the Counter Summit at COP26: the ‘Tribunal’. It was widely covered in the media, for example in The Guardian. transform! europe´s  Katerina Anastasiou was one of the two Masters of Ceremony of the event, which featured many leading scholar-activists and politicians speaking online from all continents. A report of this meeting can be found here.

Maxime Gaborit from Espaces Marx (Paris) took part in the civil society ‘Rally’, where a rainbow of different approaches to the climate challenges from the radical civil society were presented.

Finally, Roland Kulke co-organised an international event on the Climate Jobs Campaigns in different countries. For many years, trade unionists and colleagues from movements and NGOs have been fighting for good jobs for fossil fuel workers in other industries. We wanted to discuss the challenges this international campaign faces in different countries. Particularly moving were the two presentations by trade unionists from India and Brazil. Both countries are part of the BRICS state group, formerly potentially perceived as progressive, and now being ruled by hard-core right-wing governments. The German comrade discussed the case of cooperation between the service trade union VERDI and Fridays for Future in their struggle to secure good jobs and higher wages for workers in the German public transport sector. 

The big demonstrations 

On Friday, November 5, the big Fridays for Future demonstration took place in Glasgow. Approximately 30,000 young people took to the streets. It was a very interesting demonstration insofar as the radicality of the slogans was outstanding. No more words on individual behaviour or recycling; we could hear and read virtually nothing but systemic demands. Some years ago, we read posters like ‘System change, not climate change’. This year, we read posters held up by 14-year-olds that said ‘Capitalism is killing us’. 

The biggest environmental demonstration ever on Scottish soil took place the next day. Saturday 6 November saw the biggest demonstration since the anti-Iraq war demonstrations. In short, it was a wonderful sight. 150,000 people were counted – the organisers had previously expected or hoped for 20,000. One reason for the success was the consequent cooperation with trade unions in the run up to the summit. One particularly nice image stays in the mind. A huge and traditional trade union block, which was chanted at by the most radical climate movements. The climate activists sang pro-trade union songs throughout, going on for so long that the trade unionists started joining in with the singing. 

The European Left at COP26

The European Left had made it a priority to participate in the COP26 counter summit. The European Left was joint organiser of two workshops with the Scottish Democratic Left and trade unions, among them Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED). Heinz Bierbaum, the President of the European Left, was moderator of the seminar, ‘Expanding Democratic Control: Employment, Energy and Environment’. The other seminar was titled ‘Scale up and balance: mobilising adaptation finance’. 

Evaluation of the results

The official COP26, like all COPs so far, achieved ‘too little, too late’ with regard to specific results in reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases, i.e. in reducing global warming. With every COP the climate catastrophe has come closer.

COP26 and the previous COPs have not done enough to upgrade climate policies, but primarily to convince the public that the governments, parties and politicians are making an effort, a kind of greenwashing of the perpetual postponement of the necessary CO2 reductions and of the promised climate support for the Global South.

This was furthermore underlined by the focus on the market-driven ‘green’ transition. Not that the market will not have a role to play – it will – but with this priority the results would turn out to be detrimental to the struggle against climate warming. It was obviously a priority of COP26 to offer multinationals and private enterprises the ability to be part of a business venture to support ‘green’ growth. And, at the same time, it safeguarded their interests by producing the continuing meagre results regarding the reduction and elimination of fossil fuels (mentioned for the first time in the final text!), in the upgrading of CO2 storage – another business opportunity – and as a new development by focusing on the issue of nuclear power and natural gas as ‘green energy’. This was followed up after COP26 by proposals by the European Commission to introduce nuclear energy and natural gas as ‘green energy’ in the EU. 

The Paris Rulebook

The Paris Rulebook is finally in place. This was one of the big official items to be solved at COP26. The rulebook is the kind of administrative ‘real stuff’. The important point here is that this constitutes part of international law. COP26 was most surely the last COP for a long time to establish international law.[4]

One of the major results of COP26 is the further commodification of the ‘Critical Zone’, which supports all life on earth.[5] CO2 now becomes a tradable commodity. The rich can now buy themselves shares of the air, privatise it, and then pollute it, legally.[6]

One of the bitter results from COP26 was seeing that the big countries again got their way, while proposals from other countries were pushed aside. The proposal by the Mexican delegation to include the language of human rights was silenced by the British COP26 presidency.[7]

False solution: so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ 

Another example of the steadily ongoing commodification of the biosphere is ‘nature-based solutions’. The idea is that firms can trade carbon credits based on supposedly sustainable land restoration projects. The oil producer and polluter Shell can thus reforest certain areas, most probably not around its headquarters in Den Haag, but why not in terra incognita Africa, far away, then calculate – using some formula generated by organic intellectuals – the supposed carbon storage capacity of these forests and offset this against selling its oil reserves?

The problem is that Africa is not a country, and it is certainly not unpopulated, as much as CEOs in European and American firms might wish. It is a populated continent, and hence it is clear: the fertile ground is occupied by farmers, which has been the case for tens of thousands of years. There is no space on the Earth for reforestation to really add up and have a significant impact on further pollution. So-called nature-based solutions will only increase land-grabbing and lead to greater numbers of displaced poor people. The ‘Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice’ therefore speaks explicitly in its Statement on COP26 of the new dystopian future of ‘Climate colonialism’.[8]

The biggest fata morgana: the 100 bilion dollars for the Global South, always ‘nearly there’

At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the pressure from the governments of the Global South was so strong that the Western elites were struggling to hold the line and to keep the COP process running. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally pushed through the idea that the industrialised countries would support the Global South to the tune of 100 billion dollars per year, starting in 2020.

This amount has not been met, neither in 2020, nor one year later at COP26 in Glasgow. All this while we know that at least 10 times this amount would be needed![9] That means, after more than ten years, that the West is not able, or rather not willing, to provide the 100 billion dollars annually that it promised. Instead, the capitalist core countries committed to defining a new finance goal for 2024 and to doubling climate finance by 2025.[10]

In this battle against global financial support in favour of poorer countries the EU was one of the leading dark forces stopping any real progress.[11] In many statements from civil society observers this keeps popping up. Ridiculous as it may seem, the same countries who fail to deliver on a self-set goal now promise with a certain dash of chutzpah that they plan to double their financial contributions – not now, naturally, but in the future. To achieve the 2025 financial goal, an ad-hoc working group has been initiated that, from now on, will meet two weeks before the COP conferences take place. 

Loss & damage — another never-ending saga

The biggest frustration for many participants was the treatment of the Loss and Damage (L&D) issue. L&D is a demand by 134 governments, with more than 6 billion citizens – which constitutes 4/5 of humanity.[12]

Kemal Özkan, Assistant General Secretary of IndustriAll Europe, said: 

We were especially disappointed to see the EU blocking developing countries’ demands for a finance mechanism to support them in dealing with loss & damage caused by climate disasters.[13]

This topic, that the rich North has to pay for the poor Global South countries, has been reiterated for decades. The results of COP26 have been pathetic and bitter (“erbärmlich und bitter”) here, too, according to Kowalzig from Oxfam Germany. In the best-case scenario, the poorest countries would now be able to achieve technical assistance for planning processes – after future environmental catastrophes have devastated their regions (the ‘Santiago Network’ is responsible for this support).

According to negotiations today, the people of the Global South would not receive any financial support for the reconstruction itself. So, in essence, the rich countries would help them to understand what they should do after a catastrophe. It is hard not to see a cruel irony here. By the way – not even the scale of financial support for the technical expertise was decided at COP26. The whole debate on L&D has not moved forward an inch over the past two years.[14]

The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDs)

The UN Climate COP process is defined by voluntary contributions by every country. Since COP21 in Paris in 2015 these NDCs have been at the heart of the COP process. Before COP26 all countries had to submit their goals to the UNO.

For the first time since COP21 in Paris, after five COPs they have now been obliged to tighten their NDCs – so this is an important moment![15]

The EU submitted its NDC (for all Member States together) on 18 December 2020, one day after the European Council agreed the Climate Law, which focuses on the greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990.[16] The Left in the European Parliament indicated that the 55% goal won’t be achieved due to new accounting rules. Instead, only 52.8% will be achieved. In the name of the Left group in the EP, Silvia Modig also criticised the fact that science would have dictated a 70% emission reduction.[17]

What did the diplomats in Glasgow achieve in terms of tightening the reduction targets? The NDCs, which had to be sent to the UNO before the Glasgow COP started on 31 October 2021, set the world on a path to 2.8°C heating above pre-industrial levels. After 14 days of night-and-day negotiations the international community achieved a reduction of 0.1°C.[18] This further reduction of minus 0.1°C is the negotiation results, the hard stuff, so to speak. 

In real terms, the global emissions in 2030 would be 5-6 gigatonnes less than today in the event that all (often unrealistic) promises were kept, but, according to Dirk Messner, a reduction of 20 gigatonnes would be needed.[19] But if we just look at the written NDCs, emissions will grow by 14% by 2030, although the COP26 declaration itself states that the emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030, a statement that follows the scientific consensus.[20]

Mojib Latif, one of Germany’s most famous climate scientists, clearly states that the 1.5°C goal was confirmed in Paris in 2015. ‘Since then, the emissions have grown worldwide. I don’t see progress, only regression.’[21] Bill McGuire stated that, in five to ten years’ time, we will surpass the 1.5°C limit, and 10 to 20 years after that we’ll reach the 2°Cs.[22]

Outside the UN process a lot of promises and high-flying proposals and projects have been aired and avidly vented in the international media. But these are just plans and promises, even outside the weak COP process. Zeke Hausfather from the US-based Breakthrough Institute estimates that, in the best-case scenario, and if all these lofty promises were kept, the world would be on track for the climate warming by 2.3°C.[23] This result is so devastating that even most of the observers and governments have already acknowledged this. Therefore, a change in the process of the COPs seems to be in the offing. Originally, the plan was that the NDCs would be tightened every five years. But after this ‘catastrophic failure’[24] of COP26 the goal is now to achieve stronger NDCs at COP27, which is due to take place in November 2022. 

But alas: there is a smart definition of what power means. Who is powerful? The ones who do not need to learn. Following this definition, the US Climate Envoy John Kerry has already announced that the USA will not submit any stronger NDCs in 2022.[25] The same goes for Germany, with Minister for the Environment Svenja Schulze from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) announcing that the German climate goals will be sufficient.[26] Voila.

We are at 1.1°C already. Pollutant emissions are not decreasing but rather increasing and are now 14 per cent higher than they were in 2014 at COP20 in Lima.[27]  

Next Step – COP27 in Egypt

The next COP will be held in November 2022 in Egypt, in Sharm-El-Sheik. COP27 will take place in the United Arabic Emirates, on which Joao Camargo[28] states that the UAE are a “a petro-state run by a kleptocratic royal family”. And on the fact that Sharm-El-Sheik in Egypt will be the place for COP27 this November 2022, he believes that this is a “decisive spit in the grave of the revolutionaries who, in 2011, took Tahrir Square, overthrew Hosni Mubarak and later were drowned in their own blood by the military dictatorship of General Sisi” (ibid.). 

The European civil society will use the ‘European Summer University of Social Movements’ in Mönchengladbach, Germany, from 17-21 August to analyse and strategize the next steps.


[1] IndustriAll: COP26 concludes with the half-hearted Glasgow Climate Pact, 16 Nov 2021.

[2] Matthew Taylor: “Cop26 will be the whitest and most privileged ever, warn campaigners. Thousands from frontline communities in the Global South have been excluded, activists claim,” The Guardian, 30 Oct 2021.

[3] Gareth Dale: ‘From Nero to Net Zero’, in The Ecologist 13 Nov 2021 ; the UK’s role as neutral Presidency was also tainted by the plan by the Tory Government to open a new coal mine in Cumbria and a huge oil field (Cambo), as well as supporting a mega gas project in Mozambique.

[4] TAZ: Wenn das System kippt, 14 Nov 2021.

[5] On the term ‘Critical Zone’, see as a good introduction ‘”Critical Zones” reimagines humanity’s relationship with the earth” by Jones John, 21 Aug 2020 

[6] Khaled Diab: ‘COP26: Half-baked carbon market rules fail to take heat off the climate’ in carbonmarketwatch, 13 Nov 2021. 

[7] IndustriAll: COP26 concludes with half-hearted Glasgow Climate Pact, 16 Nov 2021.

[8] See also the good summary from Friends of the Earth International “The ‘Glasgow get-out clause’: How rich countries are staging a great escape from their climate responsibilities”

[9] TAZ: Wenn das System kippt, 14 Nov 2021.

[10] IndustriAll: COP26 concludes with half-hearted Glasgow Climate Pact, 16 Nov 2021.

[11] The EU was not offering any more advanced climate goals in the critical final negotiations at all, TAZ: ‘Ein Sieg wie eine Niederlage’, 14 Nov 2021. For a clear statement on the EU, see: Greenpeace European Unit ‘COP26 – EU hypocrisy exposed as climate conference wraps up’, 13 Nov 2021.

[12] Alpha Kaloga, negotiator of the Arica Group and representative of Guinea in the Group of the Least Developed Countries, in TAZ: ‘Was von der COP26 bleibt’, 15 Nov 2021.

[13] IndustriAll: COP26 concludes with half-hearted Glasgow Climate Pact, 16 Nov 2021.

[14] Klimareporter (interview by Christian Mihatsch and Jörg Staude): ‘Der Pariser Geist lebt noch’, 15 Nov 2021. 

[15] The idea behind these NDCs is that they are coupled with a ‘ratchet mechanism’. This is a clause designed to prevent the withdrawal of commitments once they have been made. Normally, this mechanism is used in free trade agreements to force neoliberal reforms that go further and further. In our case, with respect to the COPs, this mechanism is now, for once, a good idea.

[16] Council of the European Union: Submission to the UNFCCC on behalf of the European Union and its Member States on the update of the nationally determined contribution of the European Union and its Member States, 14222/1/20 REV 1, 18 December 2020.

[17] The Left, News: Europe falls short of science with weak climate law deal, 21 April 2021 

[18] BUND: Die UN-Klimakonferenz COP26 in Glasgow, no date, 

[19] Dirk Mesner in TAZ: ‚Was von der COP26 bleibt‘, 15 Nov 2021.

[20] Christian Mihatsch, in: Klimareporter: ‘Paris-Abkommen besteht ersten Test knapp’, 14 Nov 2021, Bill McGuire: ‘The circus at the end of the world’, in The Ecologist, 11 Nov.

[21] Joachim Wille: Interview mit Mojib Latif: ‚Dann sehe ich schwarz‘ in: Klimareporter, 14 Nov 2021.

[22] Bill McGuire: ‘The circus at the end of the world’, in The Ecologist, 11 Nov.

[23] TAZ: Das 1,5 -Grad-Ziel scheint verloren, 16 November 2021.

[24] That’s the perception of Amnesty International in its public statement: COP26 Outcome – 12 Months to take Climate Action that Delivers on Human Rights, 18 November 2021.

[25] TAZ: Das 1,5 -Grad-Ziel scheint verloren, 16 Nov 2021.

[26] TAZ: ‚Ein Sieg wie eine Niederlage‘, 14 Nov 2021.

[27] TAZ: Das 1,5 -Grad-Ziel scheint verloren, 16 Nov 2021.

[28] Joao Camargo: ‘COP Is Dead. Long Live the Movement!’, in: commondreams 12 Nov 2021.