COP 26 key outcomes: Why is this important for education unionists?

published 8 December 2021 updated 13 December 2021
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COP 26, shorthand for the 26th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was touted as the most important climate summit since the Paris Agreement was established in 2015. Owing both to mounting public pressure and the disruption caused by the Covid 19 pandemic, this year’s climate talks faced high expectations on delivering key commitments on finance, adaptation, and emissions reductions—especially from Global North countries.

This comes after rich nations failed to deliver the critical $100 billion climate finance pledge in 2020, which was designed to assist vulnerable developing countries to transition to low-carbon economies and adapt to climate change.

The success or failure of the two-week conference is debatable. While it was able to forge the Glasgow Climate Pact, which committed to doubling the funding for adaptation and ratcheting up Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by next year, many were disappointed that the landmark financing mechanism proposed by developing nations that would deal with the economic and social costs of the irreversible impacts of climate change—commonly referred to as ‘loss and damage’—was once again denied. Additionally, this year’s decision text included the phrase ‘phase down of coal power’— the first reference to fossil fuels made in an official UNFCCC text since the Kyoto Protocol was established in 1997. Despite the seeming progress, it should be noted that this was a watered-down version of the original proposal to ‘phaseout coal power.’ How this ambiguously formulated phrase will be effectively translated into local and international policies remains to be seen, especially in terms of subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.

Hence, to round up this year’s Teach for the Planet campaign, this article shall provide a brief explainer on the key outcomes at COP 26 that are relevant for education unionists and their work.

The Glasgow Climate Pact: Does it ‘keep 1.5 alive’?

The central question at the Glasgow summit this year was how to drum up commitments to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century—the more ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement which poses less catastrophic climate impact scenarios.

The UK presidency from the start made the bold announcement that COP 26 aims to secure a deal that would give the planet a fighting chance to cap global warming by 1.5 degrees. Prior to COP 26, the world was on track to a 2.7 degree-temperature rise, with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that the world could hit 1.5 degrees warming by 2030 in its report last August.

Some 151 countries submitted new or updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) prior to COP 26, which if fully implemented, could shave 0.2 degrees off warming. Likewise, several emissions reductions pledges were made by high-level officials, multilateral coalitions and the private sector on methane, coal, transport, and deforestation. A new study suggests that, if fully implemented, these pledges could bring another 0.1 degrees less warming.

Amidst these developments, the Glasgow Climate Pact was adopted by the end of the summit. The 11-page document—the decision outcome text of the whole process—made a landmark reference to fossil fuels and called for an earlier raising of ambition in mitigation targets. Specifically, the text ‘requests’ countries to strengthen climate commitments in 2022 instead of 2025 as provided in the Paris Agreement and called for the ‘phasedown’ of coal as well as a ‘phaseout of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.’ The pragmatic translation of ‘phasedown’, however, looks to be capricious as officials are still debating its implications for individual country energy policies.

Another notable outcome in the decision text was the inclusion of ‘science and urgency,’ which highlights recommendations in the last IPCC report, reiterating the need for massive and deep emissions cuts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

However, despite these developments, it should be pointed out that the Adaptation Fund, currently pegged at $20 billion, will be doubled only by 2025. This is still insufficient in addressing the world’s adaptation needs, which has been estimated to be at $140-300 billion per year by 2030 and $280-500 billion per year by 2050 for developing countries, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme. The text also did not include a roadmap on how this commitment will be achieved. Similarly, Global South leaders and civil society actors were disappointed at the lack of action on arguably the most contested pillar of climate action: Loss and Damage.

Glasgow ‘Loss and Damage’ Facility

Loss and Damage, one of the major pillars of the Paris Agreement, refers to the destruction of livelihoods, infrastructure and loss of lives arising from unavoidable climate impacts such as sea level rise, extreme weather events, and desertification. In a nutshell, these are the economic as well as social costs of climate change that can only be addressed through compensatory acts.

At midpoint of the conference, Scottish prime minster Nicola Sturgeon announced that it will commit £1 million through the Climate Justice Resilience Fund to support those on the frontlines of climate disasters. While the pledge was nominally insignificant compared to what vulnerable countries actually need—which has been projected by campaigners to be at least $300 billion by 2030—it was a monumental recognition from a world leader on the necessity of compensation. Civil society actors praised the move and hoped that it would finally inspire other countries to follow suit.

However, the mood within the official negotiation space was starkly different. The debate at COP 26 surrounding loss and damage centered on the Glasgow ‘Loss and Damage’ Facility, which would have operationalized a funding mechanism. This was primarily championed by the G77 + China bloc, a powerful negotiating group composed of 134 nations from the developing world. Small island states as well as African countries also supported this initiative. Unsurprisingly, wealthy nations such as the US and EU, blocked its progress because of fears that allowing funding for loss and damage would open the floodgates to liability on climate change in the form of law suits. Instead, the final decision only included a phrase on ‘technical assistance.’ Global South negotiators decried the downgrade as a way to placate their demands for a plan to rebuild economies and compensate for lost lives and livelihoods from climate-induced disasters.

Climate Education at COP 26

At COP 26, climate education gained traction in becoming a more visible agenda. Specifically, education and environmental ministers from various countries, alongside youth representatives, held an event called ‘Together for Tomorrow: Education for Climate Action’ where over 20 pledges were made regarding teacher trainings, student participation and climate resilience in education systems. During the event, youth activists stressed the importance of teacher support and student collaboration in reforming curricula across the world so that climate change becomes an integral part of education.

However, climate education was not given as much importance in the formal negotiations space. Climate education is part of the mandate of the Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE), which was being negotiated under the Doha Work Programme. At the end of the summit, a 10-year work program on ACE was adopted—albeit without the critical mention of human rights in the text which has sounded the alarm for activists—where parties are ‘encouraged’ to include climate change learning into formal and non-formal education systems. It remains to be seen how ACE will move forward on the education agenda when it reconvenes at the intersessional in Bonn, Germany in June 2022.

Why is this relevant for education unions?

While there is resounding affirmation among teachers and education unions on the urgency to act on the climate crisis, there remains a chasm in the practical relevance of this issue to the sector. Owing perhaps to the nebulous nature of climate change and the indirect stakes of the education sector, it can be a challenge to translate these exigencies to union work. Thus, it might be pertinent to start with the education unions’ link to climate change through the concept of Just Transition, a growing labor rights issue.

Just Transition is the focal point of union engagement on climate change because of the implications a low-carbon economy transition will have on workers. In sum, Just Transition refers to a framework plan that ‘provides and guarantees better and decent jobs, social protection, more training opportunities and greater job security for all workers affected by global warming and climate change policies.’ While teachers might not be primarily affected by this, many educators and education professionals are related to workers who are, as Liam Rutherford of NZEI Te Riu Roa points out. Layoffs and labor economy changes have a ripple effect on families and communities. Hence, educators have an increased stake in heralding the training and knowledge necessary for low-carbon industry jobs today and in the future.

Likewise, the education sector has always been integral in preparing communities to adapt to climate change. Because of the centrality of schools in communities, schools have become sites of climate adaptation and disaster response. In many countries in the Global South, for instance, schools are evacuation sites during typhoons and other weather-related events. They are also venues for disaster risk reduction trainings; in many cases, teachers are also tapped by local governments to educate their communities. What happens then if teachers are ill-equipped to teach climate change and schools are not fortified to become climate-resilient?

In the negotiations for Loss and Damage, an early draft proposed by the G77 + China bloc included a provision for funding ‘public services’ in the wake of climate-induced destruction. This, in theory, would have included rebuilding and strengthening school infrastructures. Unfortunately, this was stricken off in the final text due to the insistence of wealthy nations.

This was another setback for developing nations, as well as for the education sector because of its role as public service. The education sector holds incredible potential for climate action. Not only are schools positioned to train present and future generations students for low-carbon industries, they are also physical spaces for climate adaptation trainings, and in some cases even refuge from the impacts of climate crisis. Schools are a communal point for climate resilience.

The challenge upon education unions, therefore, is to move forward with a comprehensive outlook on climate education. Armed with the understanding that climate change is a multi-sectoral and intergenerational crisis that must be dealt with utmost urgency and a clear sense of justice, education unionists are enjoined to integrate climate education advocacy in their campaigns.

Thus, educators and education unionists are called upon to fight for climate justice, premised on the belief that a better world is not only possible, it is also worth fighting for.