COP26 – Caught in a Net: Agriculture, Climate Change, and the Decarbonisation Agenda

November 17, 2021

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is the 26th of its kind. After a Covid-related postponement, it was held this year in Glasgow, Scotland between October 31 and November 12. Dr Chris Maughan has been in Glasgow for the first week of the event and reflects on the links between ‘corporate greenwash’ and the ‘net zero’ agenda, as well as what this means for social movements seeking just and agroecological transitions. 

COP is a notoriously difficult process to grasp – is it genuinely a space of negotiation, or just political theatre? And where does it happen? Is it in the negotiating arena of the ‘Blue Zone’, or is it somewhere else? Should we look to the ‘fringe’ events, the streets, or even Twitter to follow its tangled process?

While some impressive noises have been coming out of the Blue Zone this week – commitments to halt deforestation and reduce methane emissions by 2030, for example – or even the $100bn per year of ‘Climate Aid’ promised (but not yet delivered) to the Global South – similarly attention-grabbing noises could also be heard outside these spaces, from social movements articulating their own visions of climate justice, or those emphatically rejecting the mainstream process.

As COP26 draws to a close, this blog offers some reflections on the fraught relationship between the mainstream process and the social movements, and what this means for the fight for a just and agroecological transition.

COP26: A ‘Greenwash festival’?

Even before the event kicked off, activists were already preparing to highlight the inevitable wave of greenwash that would envelop COP26, warning of undue influence of the corporate sector. Upon stepping into the centre of Glasgow, the extent of the greenwash was hard to ignore. Almost every billboard implored me to believe that the corporates ‘had it covered’ – or at least would do if we chose to buy their product.

Examples ranged from the lazy and opportunistic – as with the dozens of patronising invitations to pledge personal carbon reductions, while the same corporations made dubious ‘net zero’ commitments – to the deeply troubling: COP26 president, Alok Sharma, for example, caught flak for triumphantly announcing that financiers “are the new Swampys” (referencing the prominent 90s environmentalist) in either a naked attempt to co-opt that struggle, or a limp attempt at humour.

“…today the Swampys of the world are all around us, in boardrooms, in government departments, in multilateral development banks and trading floors all around the world – you, my friends, are the new Swampys, so be proud.

That means finance is increasingly flowing to climate action. Delivering the Paris agreement requires nothing short of aligning all financial flows with clean and resilient development”

(Alok Sharma – COP26 Finance Summit)

It wasn’t long before Greta Thunberg dubbed COP26 a ‘Greenwash festival’, though many others were also pointing out the problems of an opportunistic corporate influence.

The rise of the ‘Net Zero’ agenda?

Of course, greenwashing is hardly a new idea in climate change politics, but at COP26 efforts to cash in on the process hit a new intensity. As news broke that the single biggest delegate group at the event came from the fossil fuel industry, it also became clear who stands to benefit from the so-called ‘net zero’ agenda. As framed at COP26, ‘net zero’ targets provide an extremely attractive transition pathway for the fossil fuel industry.

Behind the pleasant sounding commitments is a tangled logic dependent on not-yet-existent technologies, continued emissions, and carbon offsetting which many fear will drive land grabbing, displace food production and the peoples living there. As a recent Oxfam report suggests ‘Shell alone will need land the size of Honduras by 2030’ to reach their net zero target. No wonder groups like The Indigenous Environment Network are calling ‘net zero’ a ‘new form of colonialism’.

Greenwashing also shuts down other ways of approaching the climate crisis. While some made more substantial commitments than others, as I trawled through the shiny corporate stalls with equally shiny and pleasant corporate reps, I was increasingly aware of what was missing: there was no space for a discussion about the world we actually want, only the technology that will get us there.

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In short, ‘net zero’ is increasingly a way for polluters to continue what the corporate sector are doing, to push their proprietary technologies, while appropriating lands in the Global South. Early on in the process, many social movement actors began to suggest that COP26 was a process which has already been determined – one in which the only possible way to participate was to buy or sell green industrial technologies.

Is food (and farming) on the table at COP26?

Prior to the event, social movements were again calling foul, noting the lack of a dedicated space for food and farming. While this turned out to be half-true – with the ‘Farmer’s Day’ being quietly shoe-horned in alongside the ‘Nature & Land-use Day’ – the sense that agriculture was a side issue (despite accounting for as much as 31% of global GHG emissions) was palpable.

The Landworkers Alliance leading the ‘Farmers, Foresters and Landworkers Bloc’ during the People’s March on day 7 of COP26.

The upshot of this marginalisation was that when farming issues were occasionally tabled, they were automatically folded into the ‘net zero’ discussion, one optimised for showcasing emergent ‘hi-tech’ solutions, and the vast global financing required to develop them, rather than the wider social and political changes called for by peasant and small-scale farming groups.

The most anticipated discussion was that on ‘The Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate’ (AIM4C) – a $4bn fund to increase research and development of ‘climate smart’ agriculture. Partners for this include CropLife International; The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Syngenta, alongside many other agri-tech focussed initiatives. The event took a troubling turn when representatives from the UK’s Landworkers Alliance were barred entry for, as they put it, asking ‘awkward questions’ (see Tweet, above).

Frustratingly – though perhaps predictably – the focus of this event further demonstrated the widening gulf between mainstream (industrial) agriculture and the vision of agroecology being proposed by social movements. Because agroecological solutions don’t depend on the ‘might’ of global finance, they aren’t nearly as compatible with their investment portfolios. As has been well documented by colleagues at CAWR, climate finance (such as the Green Climate Fund) has systematically ignored agroecological solutions to date, artificially keeping agroecology on the sidelines, as well as the farmers and social movement groups for advocating them.

The most ‘exclusive’ COP?

Difference of opinion is common in international political processes – indeed, such conflict can create a productive tension between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’; however, at COP26 the divide went deep. Here, the disconnect between the ‘central’ process and the social movements wasn’t only discursive, but spatial and securitised. Access to the debate was highly restricted, but also (as we have seen) clearly biased in favour of the fossil fuel industry.

Particularly apparent in this respect was the marginalisation of indigenous peoples. In the ‘fringe’ events – from People’s Summit talks, art installations, and marches, indigenous peoples and representatives from the Global South took a much more central role. By contrast, they were almost entirely absent – even arguably ‘excluded’ – from the negotiations, but also media coverage as well (see below).

The frustration voiced by indigenous peoples in the first week hinged around a sense of not being seen or heard by those in the Blue Zone. Part of this clearly stems from the democratic shortcomings of the UN itself, but it was not helped by the sense that each side was speaking fundamentally different languages: on the side of governments and corporate actors, an increasingly narrow and technical process of decarbonisation; on the other, calls for just sustainability transitions, as well as to foreground emotion, care, and humanity, otherwise absent from climate policy to date. This widening gulf is a huge problem not only for our social movements, but for everyone invested in the legitimacy of the COP process.

Early on in the first week, Greta was filmed chanting: ‘you can shove your climate crisis up your arse’ – at first, I have to admit, I was slightly perplexed by this chant, but by the end it was clear what she meant. This was an emphatic rejection of an increasingly corporate-branded crisis, one which excludes those we need to hear from most, and only invokes ‘emergency’ in order to sell the solutions it has deemed economically lucrative.


Teaser photo credit: Landworkers Alliance Facebook page

Tags: agroecology, Building resilient food and farming systems, COP26