Agreements Fall Short in Glasgow, But Waste and Climate Activists Fight On

GAIA members stage an action at COP26 calling out Unilever (a corporate sponsor of COP26) as a plastic and climate polluter.

As the climate crisis continues to accelerate, more than 25,000 people from almost every nation on Earth came to Glasgow, Scotland for the annual UN climate change negotiations. They left bitterly disappointed. While negotiators congratulated themselves for finally finding the courage to even mention fossil fuels (“He who shall not be named”) and reference climate justice in the final declaration, real action that goes beyond words was sorely missing. Even while admonishing poorer countries for burning coal, the US and the EU continued to approve new fossil-fuel projects back home even as the conference was under way. Meanwhile, they steadfastly refused to open their wallets to help those countries already being affected by heat waves, floods, droughts, rising sea levels and the other consequences of their historic greenhouse gas emissions.

There were signs of progress at Glasgow, though — and they were mostly outside the negotiating halls. In the streets, thousands marched in a climate justice rally, and their demands, once marginalized, are now seen as the key to addressing climate change. The media, long fixated on the official process, gave unprecedented coverage and airtime to activists demanding rapid decarbonization, a just transition, and compensation to communities on the receiving end of climate injustice (“loss and damage” in the language of negotiators). GAIA and Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) were at the COP in full-force, with an international delegation of members hailing from Africa, Asia, Europe, the U.S. and Latin America delivering a united message: to solve the climate crisis, we must solve the waste crisis

14 year old Nina Azahra from GAIA/BFFP member Ecoton in Indonesia was one of many youth activists from the Global South and North who were visible, vocal, and driving the agenda. In a screening of the new documentary, Girls for Future, in which she starred, Nina exposed how waste exports from Global North countries were polluting her community and spurring climate change. The moral clarity of these youth activists’ voices can no longer be ignored. Even the official final text acknowledged that youth activism was now at the forefront of meeting the climate crisis. 

Governments did make some progress by forming smaller groups to push forward on specific issues. 110 countries signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, a commitment to cut anthropogenic methane emissions 30% by 2030. While the ambition could certainly be higher (see our public response), this is an important step toward reducing a very potent greenhouse gas, and one of the fastest ways to mitigate global heating. Since landfills are one of the largest sources of methane, this will have important implications for the waste sector. There has never been a more opportune time to remind governments that zero waste is an effective, affordable, and rapid way to reduce emissions while delivering jobs and investment. At the same time, industry will use this pledge to try to sell more incinerator and landfill gas systems.

Another promising advance outside the negotiations was the launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, a small group of countries committed to phasing out oil and gas and, crucially, not letting it expand in the intervening years. Plastic, of course, is a major oil & gas product and needs to be phased out along with fossil fuels. Through packed events and actions in Glasgow, GAIA and BFFP members made crystal clear the connection between plastic and climate. At the People’s Summit, we hosted a panel discussion, Plastic Fuels the Climate Crisis, featuring members across the world, and the plastic pipeline, from extraction to disposal. 

Yvette Arellano of the Texas organization Fenceline Watch recalled when a petrochemical plant explosion happened in her community. “Everything around you begins to suffer, and for what?… For that straw that someone uses at the end of their drink…We begin to absorb and subsidize the production of plastics with our bodies.” At the other end of the plastic life cycle, Betty Osei Bonsu, from Green Africa Youth Organization in Ghana, explained, “In Africa now, not only are we suffering from the burdens of climate change, we’re feeling immediate impacts from the direct transportation of waste from Global North countries.” 

John Young from Dovesdale action group, part of GAIA member UKWIN, explained how the fight against waste was taking place right in CO26’s host country. Young and other activists fought hard against an incinerator proposal in the Scottish town of Dovesdale, but they realized the need to go beyond local action to the national level, resulting in a moratorium on all incinerator applications as a step towards a permanent ban on incineration.

All this devastation from the plastic/fossil fuel and incinerator industries is being spurred by fast-moving consumer brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Unilever, who continue to rely on single-use plastic packaging. Unilever, found to be the third largest plastic polluter according to this year’s global Brand Audit Report, was perversely a sponsor of COP26. BFFP and GAIA staged an action right at the main entrance to the COP, calling out this hypocrisy and demanding that big consumer brands be held accountable for their role in fueling the plastic and climate crisis. 

There were some important developments from the official agenda. The creation of new carbon markets has been one of the most contentious issues in the official process; it was to have been resolved in Madrid in 2019 but spilled over to this year. In the end, the COP agreed to open most of the floodgates on new offset markets. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, where a single body (the Clean Development Mechanism) was responsible for certifying offset credits, this COP decision leaves the door open to many different offset programs, regulated (or not) by any number of agencies — including private, voluntary markets. While it did close one major loophole — double counting will not be allowed — it explicitly embraced others (carrying over Kyoto-era carbon credits that are no more than hot air). These new carbon markets have the potential to render national pledges virtually meaningless, because countries can claim to reach their emissions reductions objectives through offsets taken abroad.

Another important development is the request by the COP for countries to revise their national climate plans (called Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) by next year, instead of 2025. This reflects the fact that national efforts have been insufficient so far to check climate change, and countries need to find ways to make deeper emission cuts. GAIA’s analysis of revised NDCs found that most did not present adequate plans for reducing emissions from waste — including critical methane emissions — only 11 proposed measures to reduce plastic use, and most paid insufficient attention to related social and environmental justice issues. The revision of NDCs in 2022 is an excellent opportunity to bring zero waste and plastic reduction strategies to the attention of national governments. 

While the official results of COP 26 were disappointing, they merely underline the importance of engaging national governments in moving toward zero waste and climate justice. 

Statements from GAIA and Break Free From Plastic Members

Members of the GAIA COP26 Delegation from left to right: Prigi Arisandi (ECOTON), Emma Priestland (Break Free From Plastic), Babitha PS (Green Army International), Claire Arkin (GAIA), Betty Osei Bonsu (GAYO), Mariel Vilella (Zero Waste Europe), Eduardo Giesen Amtmann (Plataforma Latin-Caribe por la Justicia Climática), Delphine Lévi Alvarès (Break Free From Plastic), Nina Azzahra Arisandi (ECOTON), Albert Joe Bongay (Young Volunteers for the Environment), Daru Setyorini (ECOTON), Yasmine Ben Miloud (Zero Waste Tunisia), Mahesh Pandya ( Paryavaran Mitra), John Young (UKWIN), Desmond Alugnoa (GAIA).

Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director at Changing Markets Foundation: 

“By ignoring most of the potential for methane reductions from livestock industries, governments are missing a key piece of the climate puzzle and the significant environment and health benefits that an adoption of healthier, plant-based diets could bring. Governments must reform agricultural subsidies and support measures to fix their broken food systems.”

Yuyun Ismawati, Nexus3 Foundation and the Alliance for Zero Waste Indonesia: 

“We welcome the acknowledgement of fossil fuel and coal in the resolution of COP26. But we are disappointed that plastic is still excluded in the negotiations. Climate-related conferences should include plastic as a carbon emitter – from the production until the end of its life cycle. Moreover, plastic is a toxic carbon because it uses a lot of harmful chemicals at the production stage. These toxic chemicals will be distributed widely, especially when plastic is used as fuels. On methane issues, open dumping and uncontrolled landfills in many developing countries need to be tackled. Development funds need to address low cost, proper solutions and support a zero-waste approach instead of financing incinerator projects that are not economically viable for developing countries.”

Betty Osei Bonsu of Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO) in Ghana:

“COP 26 only achieved 60 percent of its target because it failed to fulfill its promise of being more inclusive. The informal waste workers who possess the key to waste management had no voice in COP deliberations. Thankfully we had GAIA and GAYO making sure their concerns were voiced when Just Transition and zero waste within communities was mentioned. It is time we redefine inclusion to have all present rather than just some.”

Desmond Alugnoa of GAIA Africa:

“COP26 was timely, it set the grounds for the discussion of crucial topics but it did not do much to ensure parties are committed to addressing the issue of waste, nor did it kick polluters out of the negotiations space.”

Jeni Mackay, PhD Researcher Feminist Political Ecology-waste at Queen Margaret University:

“It was encouraging to see the issue of gender take a larger space at the COP26 talks given its outsized importance in both the impacts of climate change, as well as the solutions. While women and young people had an increased voice, we still need to move away from the neoliberalist development approach that dominates COP, which is a large part of the problem.”