‘My colleagues have been blocked’: COP26 is shutting civil society out of climate talks

NGOs, Indigenous leaders, and climate activists are allowed into COP, but many are being barred from observing climate talks.

Why It Matters

Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel projects may have cut Canadian and U.S. emissions by 25 to 50 percent, according to a recent study. Civil society also plays a role in climate adaptation and mitigation. Yet, at COP26, Indigenous and civil society leaders are being ignored.

Eddy Pérez, the international climate diplomacy manager at Climate Action Network Canada, didn’t want COP26 to happen this year. 

Climate Action Network Canada, and the other 1,500 civil society organizations that comprise Climate Action Network International, believe holding the world’s most important climate summit in Glasgow during a global pandemic is irresponsible. Attendees from all over the planet, including the Global South, are mingling in a venue together at a time when access to COVID-19 vaccines is far from equitable. 

But the requests of Climate Action Network International to delay COP26 went unheeded — and Pérez and more than 100 other members of Climate Action Network Canada flew to Scotland anyways. “We came here because we understand how critical it is,” he says of COP26. 

Tens of thousands of delegates are at COP26 to negotiate national and global targets for emissions reduction, climate change adaptation, and mitigation. They represent UN nation-states, but also civil society organizations, Indigenous communities, academics, and the private sector. (At least 500 delegates from fossil fuel companies are also in attendance). Pérez believes civil society has an important role to play as observers of high-level climate negotiations — holding world leaders accountable for their pledges. 

But Pérez says his civil society colleagues, as well as Indigenous leaders and climate activists, are literally being blocked from entering the room at many of these negotiation sessions. 

At COP26, civil society organizations fall under the umbrella term of ‘non-state actors’, meaning they aren’t able to participate in negotiations directly. The same goes for Indigenous communities. They are allowed to act as observers to sessions, Pérez explains, but only if state actors approve. Many of the states at these sessions don’t want outside observers to witness what are effectively high-level diplomatic negotiations. “In that context, participation in this space is limited to our ability to observe,” Pérez says. 

And Indigenous leaders aren’t always afforded that chance at COP26. Rebecca Sinclair, policy and data analyst at Indigenous Climate Action, says Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, the secretary-treasurer of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and Chief of Neskonlith, told her she’d been kicked out of a room despite having an observer badge. “There are quite a few negotiations that are happening behind closed doors,” Sinclair says, adding that observer badges only grant very limited access to COP26 negotiating sessions. 

But Pérez says his civil society colleagues, as well as Indigenous leaders and climate activists, are literally being blocked from entering the room at many of these negotiation sessions. 

ICA arrived at COP26 with a delegation of around 18 and a mission to advocate for the sovereignty and self-determination of Indigenous communities, especially around climate action. Sinclair says there are also Indigenous ways of living that world leaders can also learn from.  “There are solutions within our communities that we can put on a global scale,” she says. “There are solutions that can change our relationship with the land and how we see ourselves and the sacred Earth.” 

Thankfully for Pérez, Canada has given him and other Climate Action Network Canada ‘party’ badges, meaning they have access to transcripts of climate negotiations and other documents. Sinclair also has a party badge. “Within the last year, we were leveraging our relationships with ENGOs that have accreditation and access to party badges that really understood the importance of Indigenous voices in these spaces,” she says. 

The many other civil society representatives with ‘observer’ status aren’t so lucky. Pérez says some civil society organizations, Indigenous leaders, and activists have found themselves unable to witness the talks they’ve travelled so far to see. The reasons for blocking their access are varied. “It could be governments that don’t want observers for civil society in these rooms,” Pérez says. Or it is COP26 organizers deciding that COVID-19 restrictions warrant blocking observers from the sessions they’re supposed to witness. 

Pérez says civil society organizations have, in the past, found creative ways of getting their message across to state actors nonetheless, but even those little gestures are impossible at COP26 thanks to COVID restrictions and capacity limits. Climate Action Network International used to hold a ‘Fossil of the Day’ ceremony, where the network awarded a fossil to a country blocking climate action efforts. “We have not been able to do that in this space,” Pérez says. “There are these things that, when accumulated, really create a disparity between whoever is in the negotiations and those who don’t have access,” Pérez says. 

Indigenous leaders and organizers are finding ways to be heard at COP26 despite the UN’s long history of limiting their access to intergovernmental negotiations. (Only in 1977 was the first Indigenous delegation allowed to visit UN headquarters in New York City). According to the BBC, Indigenous organizers led more than 100,000 people through Glasgow on Nov. 6 in a march for Global Day of Action for Climate Justice. And outside of the COP26 venue, a People’s Summit run by climate organizers and Indigenous leaders has run in parallel to the UN conference for the past week. 

Not including the perspectives of civil society observers, as well as Indigenous leaders, can have dire consequences for the contents of climate agreements. At one session about promoting climate education to young people in different countries, Pérez says participating state actors decided to remove references to language about the role of gender equality and the rights of Indigenous peoples in climate action. Members of Climate Action Network International weren’t allowed to be in the room during these sessions. When that happens, Pérez says, countries who want to get rid of human rights legislation can do so without any witnesses from civil society. 

Leaving Indigenous leaders and civil society organizations out of the loop at major summits like COP26 doesn’t need to happen. Pérez says other UN bodies allow civil society organizations and Indigenous leaders to not only listen to negotiations, but put forward resolutions of their own. And Sinclair says the U.K. presidency, which organizes COP, needs to provide more space for Indigenous peoples to play a meaningful role in climate negotiations. “I don’t think the U.K. presidency can just provide us a room,” she says. “I think they need to provide us a whole space where we can have our own traditional knowledge and our own ways of doing things…to give us space for that without having to push us into colonial systems.” 

Too often, Pérez says, international bodies get stuck on the idea of civil society or Indigenous Peoples as ‘observers.’ rather than active participants. Pérez points to one study that suggests Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure projects in both Canada and the U.S. may be responsible for between one quarter to one half of all emissions reductions in both countries over the past few years. 

“They are not observing,” Pérez says of civil society groups and Indigenous nations. “They are participating in the implementation of the Paris Agreements. Sometimes, they are the ones who accelerate climate ambitions.”