The New Global Case for People v Private Interests – Reflecting on COP25

When entering this year’s COP25, three words are pasted across every surface you look at: ‘Tiempo de Actuar’ (Time for Action). We are told that ‘don’t call it change, call it climate emergency’ and we hear endless calls for decisions, for leadership, for ambition. Yet this all seems to be greenwashing the crisis that we find ourselves and our planet in.

Despite half a million young people, front line communities and Indigenous Peoples marching through Madrid at last week’s climate strike, political ambition at the negotiating table is nowhere to be seen. One only has to look at the unprecedented influence of corporate interests during the course of these talks to understand that the environmental integrity of the Paris Agreement is being actively undermined by both Parties and major corporations.

On Wednesday 11th December, we saw hundreds of civil society protestors physically removed from the COP for calling out countries that are lobbying in favour of carbon markets riddled with loopholes. On the same morning, youth activists were reprimanded for their action calling for climate justice at a Presidency event. Yet the Carbon Majors, comprised of 100 fossil fuel companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, who have actively and shamelessly participated in the destruction of the climate, are allowed to roam the halls absolutely free.

The role of private interests could not be more evident than in the current text Article 6 rulebook – the crux of this year’s COP. Despite the urgency of the climate crisis, Parties failed to enshrine environmental safeguards into the final text passed to high-level political negotiations. The rulebook as it stands is little more than menu of loopholes for states, fossil fuel companies and the aviation industry to continue emitting greenhouse gases as usual. Crucially, references to human rights, including the rights of Indigenous Peoples, were removed completely. Given the gross violations of human rights under the Clean Development Mechanism (Article 6’s predecessor), it is essential that any mechanism including nature-based projects do not damage communities and livelihoods.

Yet as political ambition continues to dwindle, a rapidly growing legal movement is taking centre stage. On Monday 9th December, for the first time in history, a national human rights body identified a direct link between fossil fuel companies, climate change and human rights violations. The Commission of Human Rights for the Philippines concluded that  47 of the worlds’ largest fossil fuel companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Total, could be found legally and morally liable for the human rights violations inflicted upon the Filipino people for their contribution to causing climate change. The scale and magnitude of this outcome cannot be overstated; it is a precedent for tangible legal action to be taken across the globe.

The Philippines is not alone in their fight. At a side event co-hosted by the Climate Justice Programme and Germanwatch, we heard from six leaders of grassroots movements from across the Global South to discuss the role of law in the face of a global climate crisis. A full report of the day is available here.

We heard from leaders of multiple legal fights across the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia and South Africa. The stories we heard were ones of courage, of strength and of communities’ fight for survival in the face of a climate catastrophe. They transcend national boundaries and go beyond asking politicians to take action: they have begun to call out corporate actors for the indisputable role they play in the economic colonisation of communities and the environment they protect.

Climate justice legal action is on the rise – over 1400 cases are recorded by the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law. Litigation has become a powerful tool in provoking political action and holding companies directly accountable for their destructive pollution. More importantly, it has begun to trigger a structural shift in the legal institutions that underpin the rights and responsibilities that we are all entitled to.

Legal action also does not simply take place in a courtroom. Access to justice is crucial for those fighting at the front lines of climate change, whether it is through telling stories, enabling freedom of information or ensuring effective participation of local and Indigenous Peoples. This action is taking place now, and it is on course to win. This new phase of global action will force corporate actors to face the reality of their wrongdoing and place the concerns of people and nature at the centre of the climate crisis.

There will be no room for backdoor negotiations or greenwashing. There will be room for stories to be told, for polluters to pay and for human rights to be tirelessly defended. We can only go up from here.

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