Climate activist: Global North needs to step up at COP26 in order to stop deforestation

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), 350.org Pilipinas and Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (KPNE) staged a protest action at the Standard Chartered Bank office in Makati City to demand that the bank stop funding coal-fired power plants and other environmentally destructive projects in the Philippines [Leo Sabangan/350 Pilipinas]

This article is part of our special report Forestry at COP26.

Deforestation in countries like Brazil is driven by demand for agricultural products in the Global North. That colonialist system has to change, argues Mitzi Jonelle Tan.

Mitzi Jonelle Tan is a full-time climate activist based in the Philippines. She is the international spokesperson of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines and an organiser of Fridays for Future and Fridays for Future Most Affected Peoples and Areas, amplifying voices from the Global South. She spoke to EURACTIV’s Kira Taylor ahead of COP26.

How do climate activists in the Global South view COP26?

I think for several activists in the Global South, or in areas most impacted by the climate crisis, people don’t even know about COP26, especially young climate activists. It’s been kept away from people so much and it’s not talked about in our countries at all – or just barely.

Something that we’re campaigning on with COP is ensuring that the knowledge gap is bridged between activists from the Global North and the Global South because people often don’t even know what COP is. It’s so wild that that’s happening when it’s such a crucial event. It’s the 26th one now and still, not a lot of people know about it.

Do you see many media outlets, many people talking about it?

At least in the Philippines, it really isn’t being talked about. The first time I heard about COP was when I became a climate activist in 2019. I didn’t even know what happened after COP – I just knew that it got moved from Chile to Madrid.

I didn’t know what happened inside, what the resolutions were, what happened in the negotiations. I had to look at international news coverage to see it and just a few Philippine ones, but really not enough. Because, again, like the climate crisis isn’t being spoken about,  it’s not on the table.

We’ve heard a lot of concerns about access to COP26, particularly from the Global South – what issues do you see when it comes to inclusivity and diversity?

There are several issues. Conferences of Parties, in general, have always been very difficult to get to for activists in the Global South, just because of the location and economic challenges of getting there. There are so many barriers – just think of the money and visas required. Usually, activists in the Global South don’t have monetary support from NGOs because activism is frowned upon in our countries.

At COP26, we will still be in the middle of the COVID pandemic – a lot of people say we’re going out of it, but we’re still in it in our countries. A lot of people aren’t getting vaccinated. The UK government said that they would vaccinate, but they’re only starting to contact people now. We have so many people who were counting on that vaccination with the UK government, but it never came. Because of the lockdowns, a lot of visa centres are saying that they’re not giving visas even though they’re supposed to.

You don’t only have to look at the rules of COVID in the UK, but also in the transit countries that you have to go to when flying. Of course, the money and the access to badges have been greatly lowered for civil society. That’s not what we need, especially at this COP26, which is claiming to be the most inclusive, yet so many people still don’t have access to badges.

It took so long for them to say that they would support the quarantine hotels and everything, and now when they finally said that, it’s kind of a bit too late to start processing everything you need to process. A lot of people have already given up.

The UK Government and the COP26 presidency have not supported the delegates, especially from the Global South.

What do you want from global leaders at the summit? 

Honestly, it’s so simple. It’s just stopping prioritising profit over people and the planet.

But how does that look concretely? So it’s drastic carbon dioxide emission cuts and not these creative pledges and creative accounting that we’re seeing. But cuts with milestones, short term goals, an action plan and concrete steps towards it and how to achieve it.

A fossil fuel phase-out, especially in the Global North. Of course, reparations for the Global South in terms of loss and damages, so climate finance for loss and damages and adaptation. That is so crucial because it’s not being talked about enough. Everyone’s just talking about renewable energy and drastic emission cuts, but how do you expect the Global South to transition into renewable energy?

Just like how it’s happening with the COVID pandemic and vaccines, we’ll end up going into debt to the Global North countries because of the intellectual property rights, the patents that come along with the vaccines and the technology of renewable energy.

So when we call for a just transition, it includes technology transfer. It’s not financial aid. It’s a debt that the Global North owes to humanity and the Global South. There have to be reparations in finance for the loss and damages that have already happened so many times in the past and our countries for adaptation and renewable energy because it’s not just about the extreme weather events. It’s also about being able to bounce back after.

What challenges do you see when it comes to international agreements?

When it comes to finance for loss and damages, the countries that are blocking it are the ones that have historically caused the climate crisis: the US, Japan, Australia. We’ve seen that, in the past, when trying to fight for the 1.5°C or 2°C warming limit – again, it was the Global North countries, who are “transitioning already”, that were trying to hold back because they know they have the most to lose.

Again, you’re seeing the same system that prioritises the profit of the Global North and the overexploitation of the Global South versus the quality of people’s lives everywhere. I think that is the thing that’s blocking a lot of our negotiations. It’s that lack of political will from Global South leaders and the lack of political will of Global North leaders to prioritise again the most marginalised people.

That’s what’s been happening year after year, crisis after crisis – COVID, climate, all of it – it’s always been that product of the same system that led us to this climate crisis. So I think there is a possibility to change this, but it comes from the people demanding justice, being so loud that the leaders are scared that, if they don’t do this, they might lose their position. They have to do this because the people are asking for it.

What do you think Western countries, like those in Europe and the US, are missing when it comes to tackling climate change?

Everything. No policies are enough right now. Those policies don’t even have implementation plans. You have pledges, but the pledges aren’t enough because they don’t even have plans or action steps. None of the things that are being said is good enough.

Everything is still missing. Honestly what’s most missing in our political leaders is the leadership that is needed to bring us out of this climate crisis, the leadership that can stand up to fossil fuel capitalism and the leadership that can stand up to the multinational industries that are destroying the environment and say, ‘Okay, enough is enough. We’ve destroyed this enough, we will lose a little bit of profit, but that’s okay because people’s lives will be better.’

Many climate-damaging industries, particularly when it comes to deforestation are based now in the Global South – how do you think Western countries can tackle that? 

We also have to remember why deforestation is happening in a lot of our countries. In some countries, like Brazil, it’s because of their agricultural industry to provide food for the Global North countries. A lot of the destruction of the environment in our countries is to exploit the natural resources to be exported to the Global North.

That’s something that has to change. It’s not just about transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It’s not just about transitioning from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet. It’s really about the systems in place that are causing all of this destruction. That is the system rooted in this profit-orientedness and is very colonialist, where everything in the Global South is taken away and given to the Global North.

To help, Global North leaders need to change. We need trade policies that are actually fair for people. We need laws and rules that are listening to people. You have examples where in Indonesia when they stopped the paper plantation because deforestation was happening, they changed it into a palm oil plantation. It wasn’t exactly better. It was just a different form of exploitation of the land. It’s things like that that we really have to be careful about.

The EU is bringing in imported deforestation legislation. Do you think that’s enough or do they need to be working on the ground?

I think it’s so important that you talk to the people on the ground in any legislation, especially legislation like this. You work and collaborate with them so that you don’t end up leaving them behind.

Because of deforestation laws or because of conservation laws, you end up pushing out Indigenous Peoples; you end up locking them away from their ancestral land that they’ve been protecting and using sustainably.

There is a way to sustainably cut trees and protect the forests in a way that is in balance with the ecosystem. That’s what leaders need to learn from. We need to stop thinking that they are the leaders. The Indigenous Peoples who live off the land understand what it is like. They need to actively work with these people so that we don’t end up thinking that we have all the answers, and then you go there, and it’s like, ‘Oh, no, it’s so bad’.

[Edited by Alice Taylor and Frédéric Simon]

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