Farhana Yamin, one of the main architects of the Paris Agreement, is concerned about the lack of political will to comply with the climate commitments agreed in 2015 and the voluntary measures publicized as transformative by fossil fuel companies. For the lawyer and activist, this is not how we will be able to limit global warming by 1.5°C, as agreed in Paris.
"We have seen through the Covid crisis, we have seen now with the Ukraine and Russia war that when there is an emergency, when politicians really feel that there is a threat, then they mobilise all of the instruments that governments have: the army, the military, health professionals, money, the treasuries. And we have not done that with climate change. And that is why COP26 fell short and every other COP before it", she criticizes, mentioning the climate conferences organized by the United Nations.
"The solution is not any longer, in my opinion, voluntary measures or asking nicely."
Yamin, who grew up as a Pakistani immigrant in England, has been following the climate negotiations for decades, building political coalitions and offering legal advice to different countries and groups, from the European Commission to the Alliance of Small Island States.
In 2018, she joined the activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR), an international movement created in England and known for its performative protests. XR demands, among other things, that governments declare an emergency in relation to the climate crisis and citizen assemblies to be created for collective definition of priority actions.
In April 2019, the lawyer was arrested after sticking her hands on the sidewalk of Shell's London headquarters. This and other moments of her participation at the XR are detailed in the documentary "Rebellion", released in late 2021 and not yet available in Brazil.
Currently, Yamin is vice president of the expert advisory group of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a bloc that brings together 55 countries highly vulnerable to the climate crisis, such as Vanuatu, the Maldives and Bangladesh. In addition, she works with philanthropic institutions to support the strengthening of climate justice activism.
In this interview with Folha, Yamin defends the regulation of industries and countries, in particular those that have caused the greatest damage to the climate. "Those who contribute the least should not have to pay the biggest price, that those who should lead are the polluters", she points out.
The activist also highlights the need to involve the press and the creative industry in combating the climate crisis.
"I think the power of film, the media, the creative industry is what we need as much as just the scientists reports", she says. "They [scientists] only speak to one part of our brain, the intellect, and we are trying to use reason the whole time. And sometimes reason isn't enough."
Why did the last UN climate conference, COP26, in 2021, fail to deliver on climate finance ambitions? In a nutshell, it's a lack of political will. We have seen through the Covid crisis, we have seen now with the Ukraine and Russia war that when there is an emergency, when politicians really feel that there is a threat, then they mobilise all of the instruments that governments have: the army, the military, health professionals, money, the treasuries. And we have not done that with climate change.
And that is why COP26 fell short and every other COP before it, because this gap in political will, in addressing and tackling a problem that is so immense has been deferred, has been delayed every year. Every year the next politicians will take care of it. Every year, the next five years will take care of it.
So this mentality that it's a future problem that someone else will deal with is the main reason why we're now facing really horrific consequences and why the climate devastation is already here. You can see it in Brazil, in the higher wildfires, in changes in rain patterns, in floods, in droughts, and food instability and water shortages all over the world.
Many people are now saying that climate justice needs to be at the heart of climate solutions. How to make this work? It seems a good rallying cry and an obvious one that people on the planet should be at the centre of decision making processes. Everyone would kind of agree with that. But the truth is that people on the planet are not at the centre of decision making. They're not at the centre of economic systems. Growth and GDP and business as usual are.
And this is such a fundamental shift that needs to change that, saying it plainly, that climate justice demands that people and the planet's interests be put first. Those who contribute the least should not have to pay the biggest price, that those who should lead are the polluters. And so climate justice demands fairness be put at the centre, and that the people on the planet who did not cause the crisis should not bear any further burdens. But they should be part of the solutions.
But how can we make this happen, practically speaking? Practically. You can make this happen by regulating the industries and the countries that have caused the pollution, that have caused the biggest harms. We haven't said to the fossil fuel industry globally: we want a phase out of greenhouse gases, and therefore you should end exploration of no new oil and gas, for example, and coal. The coal industry is still a huge emitter. Rather, we've allowed them to carry on thinking that they can expand.
The same is true of agriculture, which is very destructive. We've said: oh, please stop ending the deforestation as if adding a polite plea will solve the problem. We have not regulated and really legally enforced rules that we already have, including, for example, in Brazil, that protect the land and the rights of indigenous people, that protect areas that are already meant to be under regulation.
And the solution is not any longer, in my opinion, voluntary measures or asking nicely. In a real emergency, the government says for tackling the Covid you have to have a lockdown, you cannot go out or you must work from home. It doesn't say please work from home.
You were one of the people who helped to craft the Paris Agreement. What are currently the most urgent actions to attain to keep the main goal of keeping global warming below 2°C, considering new challenges such as the war in Ukraine that you just mentioned? The rest of the seven and a half years that we have in this decade, we must cut global emissions roughly by half if we are to stay Paris aligned. And that means countries must come back now to the table every year with increased ambition, and not just leave it to 2025, not just leave it to 2030, not just leave it for other election cycles.
The second is recognising that climate justice demands that those who are vulnerable not have to bear additional impacts, and that the support, the financial support, the humanitarian support, the development support that is out there must be aligned. So is the delivery of the US$ 100 billion per year. And there are now negotiations that have been started, which is on what's called the new quantified collective goal, what should be the finance goals for the future after 2025.
And there is growing recognition that other new sources of funding like carbon markets, for example, like pollution taxes, must be used because there are many millions of people who are already at the point where they need urgent and critical support.
We also have an understanding, and, again, Paris started off this process, which is about the non-state actors. It sounds like a very big label, but really individuals, companies, networks, cities, regions, they're also playing a very large part from households to individuals to councils to mayors. You know, all of these are leaders in their own right, and they are delivering a lot of action and increasingly recognising that they have to do resilience, adaptation, as well as reduce emissions, all at the same time.
You have just mentioned market based solutions, but, if I'm not wrong, you have been critical of some of these market based solutions such as carbon markets and ESG and so on. Why exactly? Well, I was a very enthusiastic proponent of them. In my 30's and 40's, I became more skeptical of them as they were implemented, because they had very little environmental integrity and they did not deliver on that scale the benefits that they were supposed to deliver. There was a lot of greenwashing. There was a lot of misuse of credits. There was a lot of double counting, and that's why I've become more critical of them.
What was the Climate Vulnerable Forum agenda in the climate meeting in Bonn, last June? And what are their main priorities until the next climate summit? The Climate Vulnerable Forum is now a group of 55 countries, from the smallest and most vulnerable nations like Vanuatu, like the Marshall Islands, like the Pacific Island countries like the Maldives, as well as larger countries like Bangladesh, for example, and the Philippines.
They have about nearly 1.3 billion people in the world combined. In Bonn, one of the reports that they produced was showing how much their economies are suffering as a result of climate change already. So, for example, one of the headline findings was that they would be 20% wealthier if climate change had not happened.
Climate change is already impacting their economies. They are losing several percent of GDP, sometimes 5% or 6%, sometimes 1%. You know, a 1% decrease in GDP is a lot. And now they are asking all of the other countries to come back to the negotiating table as early as the next COP, which is in Sharm El-Sheikh, in Egypt, in November, with increased ambitions, including countries like Brazil.
What was the reason that you left the Extinction Rebellion and why were the main learnings from this unique experience? Well, I was tired, I was exhausted. Being in rebellion the whole time is very intensive. Being an activist is quite intensive. So I left largely because of that and because I knew that the COP was also going to happen in the UK. I wanted to come back and work with foundations and with philanthropy, which is what I'm doing right now.
I think the Extinction Rebellion is quite an incredible achievement, and sparked this wave of actions after the first year. We had thousands of cities and councils and non-state actors and countries that had declared a climate emergency, including the UK. And that is still continuing. I think Extinction Rebellion really helps that process along with, Fridays for Future, people like Greta and other movement leaders from the Global South. I'm very proud of my time in it and think that it really created a lot of disruption, which was good.
Why do we need more storytellers than scientists now to tackle the climate crisis? Oh, that's a great question. Yeah, I said that because, in my head, the old paradigm was that science would produce all these books and reports, we would have the truths, and then our politicians would realise that action was needed and they would act. And actually, that's not how the real world works.
The real world works because, in this case, the fossil fuel industry, the big corporations told a better story. They said, "yeah, yeah, the scientists are saying that, but that's all far away in the future, you know, really, you've got all these jobs to think about. You've got your own constituencies to think about, you've got your elections to think about". And that's the story that the politicians decided to believe and act on them.
So I think the power of film, the media, the creative industry is what we need as much as just the scientists reports sort of saying "we've got X percent of the carbon budget left". That doesn't make any sense to anybody.
How have you been trying to engage the cultural sector? Do you have specific examples of projects you are working on at the moment? So many, many different artists and organisations that work in the cultural sector, from museums to art galleries, they're thinking about an art COP. What would an art COP look like? It's not just artists who come to the COP and show a picture or read a poem or perform something. It's about imagining an entirely new, different governance and landscape. So, that is what I’m working on.
In the last few years, as I said, declaring a climate emergency, saying "what does this mean for me?, what does this mean for me as an artist? What does this mean for me if I'm the owner of a massive gallery?". I'm an advisor to the Tate Modern, which is one of the largest galleries. And here in the UK huge numbers of tourists come through.
Is that a viable model, blockbuster exhibitions that are quite high in greenhouse gases bringing in millions of tourists who will fly to London to do so? Is that our conception of art? Do we do that or could we have community based initiatives?
I think art in the end can engage all of the other emotions and bring our bodies to the fore in a way in which reports and scientists, they only speak to one part of our brain, the intellect, and we are trying to use reason the whole time. And sometimes reason isn't enough. We also need the heart. We also need sharing. We also need all of the other senses to come with us on this journey.
Farhana Yamin, 57
She studied philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford. Born in Pakistan, she moved to England at the age of nine. As a climate lawyer, she was one of the main architects of the Paris Agreement in 2015. She was also the political coordinator of the activist group Extinction Rebellion between 2018 and 2020. Currently, among other activities, she works with philanthropic foundations to strengthen climate justice activism and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. She is also an associate fellow of Chatham House and of the Royal Society of Arts.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Planeta em Transe (Entranced Planet) is a series of reports and interviews with new players and experts on climate change in Brazil and around the world. This special coverage will also focus on the responses to the climate crisis during the 2022 general elections in Brazil and at COP27 (UN Climate Conference to take place in Egypt in November 2022). This project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.