Five Observations I took back to Eswatini from COP26

Dr. Deepa Pullanikkatil, Eswatini’s NDC Coordinator
This article is part of our series focusing on the COP26 global climate summit in the UK

On 2 November 2021, as I sat in a meeting room at Scottish Event Campus (the venue of COP 26 in Glasgow) listening to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speak at the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), I felt moved by the fierce urgency in his words. Addressing highly vulnerable countries, he said;  “You stand on the frontlines of an ongoing COVID-19 crisis and an escalating climate emergency. You represent those who are first to suffer and those who are last to receive help. The solidarity you need is lacking. The solidarity needs to emerge here in Glasgow”. Expectations were high for COP 26 to be the transformative summit that will bring the world back on track to net zero by mid century and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Countries negotiate at COPs in “blocs”, where groups of countries come together for presenting their specific interests. The CVF was one such “bloc” and is a forum comprising of countries highly vulnerable to a warming planet. It was founded in 2009 as an international partnership, with almost all its members coming from the global south. At Glasgow, the CVF meeting was chaired by H.E. Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, who echoed the urgency in her opening remarks too. It was my first time to attend a Conference of Parties (COP) summit and, like a sponge, I was absorbing everything I heard and saw and, truly appreciating the urgent call to climate action. I was pleased to note that at COP 26, the CVF confirmed seven (7) new member states, expanding the membership of the Forum from 48 nations to 55 nations (representing 1.4 billion people), with the following countries joining: Benin, Eswatini, Guinea, Guyana, Liberia, Nicaragua and Uganda. Yes, Eswatini is now part of this forum and joins the voices of vulnerable countries in the “Dhaka-Glasgow Declaration” to deliver climate justice and effective protection of the world’s most vulnerable nations. Eswatini also signed the declaration on “Action on Forests and Land Use” which is a commitment of countries to work together to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.

These were two of several high-level events held throughout COP 26. The climate negotiations were well attended and after extending for an extra day, nearly 200 countries adopted the Glasgow Climate Pact. There were some successes that could be reported including that the Glasgow Climate Pact called on countries to report their progress towards more climate ambition next year, at COP27, set to take place in Egypt. The Paris Agreement “rulebook” came to a successful close, including regulations around carbon markets and regular reporting of climate data by all countries. The pact enshrined commitment to double the funding for developing countries on adaptation by 2025 to around US $40 billion and urged countries to fully deliver on an outstanding promise to deliver US$100 billion per year for five years to developing countries vulnerable to climate damage.

There were some disappointments however, with not enough ambition on reducing fossil fuels and failure to secure the establishment of a dedicated loss and damage fund for vulnerable countries.  However, the pact did agree to fund the Santiago Network, a body that aims to build technical expertise on dealing with loss and damage. Technically, the 1.5℃ limit is still within reach, though, more ambitious emissions cuts will be needed, with countries required by the Glasgow pact to come back with stronger plans by the end of 2022.

Commonwealth Secretariat stand with Eswatini climate representatives

Here I offer five of my personal observations from COP 26.

  1. Climate Justice was in spotlight

Climate change has shifted from being perceived as a purely environmental issue of cutting down emissions into an approach that also addresses human rights and inequality. Climate justice can be defined as the fair treatment of all people in the creation of policies and implementation of actions that address climate change. Some activists felt that COP 26 could have done more to advance climate justice and felt that poor nations with miniscule per capita carbon footprint were asked to constrain their developmental goals in trying to abide by the Paris Agreement. Major developed countries who are big polluters could have done more to commit to domestic fossil fuel phase-out and made more commitments in increasing climate finance goal. Eswatini only contributes 0.007%[1] of world’s emissions, yet as a country we are taking climate change seriously and have a fairly ambitious NDC with a commitment to reduce economy wide emissions by 14% (conditional to receiving financial support).

  • Greenwashing was called out

“Greenwashing” is when the public is presented with “evidence” that makes an institution or person seem friendly to the environment when, in fact, they are not. Activists were wary of messages by private sector depicting what they are doing to protect the planet than what they really are, thereby misleading the public into thinking products, actions or institutions are more sustainable than they actually are. One example is private companies that were using fossil fuel-powered electricity to produce green hydrogen. Climate activists denounced greenwashing and many came forth, including Greta Thunberg to call out such including some financial institutions which profited from funding fossil fuel firms who were now being presented as green champions. Before and during COP 26, the internet was overflowing with articles on greenwashing with some NGOs coming up with guides for detecting greenwashing.

  • Youth voices took center stage

Over 50,000 people attended COP 26. Having spoken to some delegates who have been attending COPs for many years, they observed that at COP 26, youth took center stage. Events across COP26 and on the streets of Glasgow showed thousands of youth raising their voice for climate action. YOUNGO, UNFCCC’s Official Children’s and Youth constituency of the UNFCCC presented the Global Youth Position statement, representing the views of over 40,000 young climate leaders globally. President Obama’s speech focused on youth and there were several side events where youth got platforms to speak, and they were also actively present during negotiations. The Glasgow pact recognizes the importance of youth in achieving goals of Paris Agreement.  Eswatini had two youth representatives attend COP 26 and they took the opportunity to network widely and attend many of the talks and events (Read the blogs of one of these youth reps here).

  • Indigenous groups were united

Some hailed COP 26 as the most inclusive COP so far. Indigenous people from around the world united and lead a march of 150,000 people in the freezing Glasgow rain on 7 November. The pictures were stunning. At the COP 26, Indigenous people wearing traditional attire were participating at negotiations, taking the stage at side events and leading marches. These communities are knowledge holders of sustainable natural resources management, offer nature-based solutions to climate change and often lead the charge against oil companies and fossil fuel polluters. They were recognized in the Glasgow pact which specifically states to respect, promote and consider the rights of indigenous peoples and recognized the importance of supporting sustainable livelihoods, including for indigenous peoples and local communities.

  • COP was an opportunity to develop partnerships

COP 26 was an opportunity to network widely and initiate partnerships. At the Climate Vulnerability Forum (CVF)-Commonwealth High-Level Meeting on 1 November 2021, the Prime Minister of Eswatini, the Minister of Tourism and Environmental Affairs along with Presidents, Prime Ministers and other Ministers from among the Commonwealth participated in this event at the Commonwealth pavilion. The Eswatini delegation presented about the NDC at side events and presented Eswatini’s Climate Public Expenditure and Institutional Review and Private Sector Engagement Strategy supported by Commonwealth to the Hon. Minister of Tourism and Environmental Affairs of Eswatini. I took the opportunity to network specifically with the intention to support NDC implementation in Eswatini. I spoke to officials from Papua New Guinea who had developed the world’s first NDC Legislation, officials from Nigeria who are gender experts and who are working on NDC implementation, and others from Jamaica, Malawi and UK on a variety of topics that could be of use to Eswatini as we implement our NDC. There is so much to learn from other countries and COP 26 gave us a platform for this learning.

The start of the conference was quite upbeat with a flurry of pledges, with major countries pledging to reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, several countries coming together to pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% between 2020-2030, some major countries coming up with net zero targets and some new funds announced for climate action. However, towards the end of COP 26, the estimate was that in the best-case scenario, considering all the pledges and NDC commitments, the planet would be on track to reach 1.8 degrees Celsius which is not 1.5 degrees Celsius but it is certainly better than 2.7 degrees Celsius where we were a week before COP meeting began. There is still a lot of work ahead and personally for me, UNDP’s video ahead of COP 26 of the talking dinosaur that told humans “Extinction sucks” remains in my mind, emphasizing the urgency, need for transformation and action.

Mass protests and people power on the streets of Glasgow for COP 26

[1] Global emissions in 2018 was 45,873,85029 Gg of CO2eq. Eswatini’s net emissions in 2018 was 3240.10Gg of CO2eq, therefore Eswatini’s share of global emissions is 0.007%.