“Where’s the climate change meeting?” I boomed, a little too loudly. “Sshhh” whispered a bearded man draped in patterned blankets. He gestured through a door. Inside was a hushed circle of 40 or 50 people, seated and in a state of soft meditation. I was anointed by a lady who dripped water on my forehead from a fern, then wafted burning yew smoke gently round my head. The circle shuffled around to accommodate me. Someone quietly found me a chair. I no longer felt a stranger.
It was the middle Sunday of COP26, a crisp, blue November day in Scotland with the kind of brilliant light you only get after rain. I had taken time out from the grinding round of grey-suited presentations to visit a castle on the Ayrshire coast that was playing host to a group of activists, ecologists and indigenous peoples from the Amazon to East Africa to New Zealand.
The soothsayer stood and spoke – and her words really had a soothing effect. She led us in a ceremony to bless a flagon of holy water with which we were to anoint a pair of thousand-year-old yew trees in the grounds of the castle. She invited each of us to participate. One by one, people stepped forward from the circle to add their water, their prayers or their thoughts to the holy flagon.
A Maori woman rose, placed her hands on the flagon and said a prayer in her native tongue. Small children from half a dozen cultures wandered around wide-eyed inside the circle. A lady who had walked 400 miles from Glastonbury to Glasgow poured in her contribution from a sacred spring. She recounted how, when she finally reached the banks of the River Clyde after her month-long journey, she looked up into the sky and saw the private jets flying into Glasgow. “I just wept”, she said simply.
We were invited to say a prayer inside our heads – one for how we wished the world might change and another for how we might change ourselves. The atmosphere was one of intense reverence, for each other, for Nature, for the ceremony we were about to perform. The soothsayer picked up the holy vessel and we set off in a long winding procession towards the yews, among the oldest trees in the land. We circled them several times and the soothsayer committed the precious fluid to the ground at the yews’ feet.
I thought it was over, but then something extraordinary happened. People started pressing themselves against the trunks, they meditated beneath the spreading boughs, some hummed quietly, some held their foreheads to the bark, as if these trees transmitted some pre-conscious power over life itself. We were a diverse group that bright morning, from a multitude of different cultures and ages and backgrounds – united for a measureless moment under an ancient canopy, held together under a common spell.
After the yew-tree blessing, I fell into conversation with Mac Macartney, a tough-faced Scots writer and TEDx-talker in his 70s. He told me of what he had learned from his encounters with the indigenous Kogi people of northern Colombia, of what they understand to be the purpose of a human life: to care, for all living things. For the Kogi, everything is living, so they care for everyone and everything. “When a people don’t know their purpose”, said Mac, “when they have no sense of the storyline they are walking along, then how lost can they be.”
What struck me so powerfully at Kelburn Castle that day was how these two weeks – billed as a moment when our leaders held the future of humanity in their hands – were a tale of two COPs. One was the Blue Zone – a world of shiny-shoed businessmen and politicians and negotiators, barricaded behind barbed wire and armed security, where delegates haggled over the “phasing out” or “phasing down” of coal power. A world of numbers: 412 parts per million, the elusive $100 billion for developing countries, Mark Carney’s $130 trillion of assets aligned to net zero. The other was the Green Zone – a world of muddy-booted campaigners and thinkers and indigenous peoples, one hundred thousand of whom had just taken part in the largest demonstration the streets of Glasgow had ever seen.
How would these two communities, these two storylines, ever come together, I wondered, and does our collective future depend on that happening? I tried to imagine the suits sitting around the flagon of sacred water in our circle of prayer, hugger-mugger with original peoples, children and ecologists. If they could feel that sense of deep reverence – for Nature, for our fellow inhabitants on Earth, for those still to come – that we all shared that day, how different might their decisions be?
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I suspect most of us reading this article inhabit a middle ground between the extremes I encountered in Glasgow. We don’t fly to conferences in private jets, but nor do we spend a month walking there. We have one shiny-shod foot in the Blue Zone and one muddy-booted foot in the Green Zone. We enjoy the comfortable lifestyle that has, to date, been fuelled largely by coal, oil and gas. But most of us also yearn for a closer connection to Nature and fear a future where those natural systems on which we depend start to collapse. Our confused, myopic storyline lacks the clarity and long view of the Kogi’s sense of purpose. Ultimately the division between Blue and Green is one that each of us must heal within ourselves.
How indigenous peoples could help guide the planet towards a cooler pathway
For two weeks, the drab grey streets of Glasgow were lit up by the brilliant colours of indigenous peoples seeking to make their voices heard by the delegates inside COP26’s conference halls. Some made it into the Blue Zone – where they were mobbed by press photographers desperate for shots of anyone not garbed in grey. This was the first COP to see genuine momentum behind nature-based solutions to climate change and the vital role original peoples could play in this process.
Take the Amazon rainforest, one of the world’s most important carbon sinks. Accelerating deforestation – combined with warmer, drier weather driven by climate change – has led to Southeastern Amazonia emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Atossa Soltani – founder of Amazon Watch and global strategy director for the Sacred Headwaters of the Amazon initiative – told me the Amazon Basin had already lost 22% of its forest cover. “The Amazon is reaching a tipping point of collapse,” she said, “when the forest no longer generates sufficient rain to remain rainforest and tips into a downward spiral where, over the next 30 to 70 years, we see a massive dieback of the rainforest and it becomes savannah.”
But hope beckons from beyond the barricades. A study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that nearly half of the Amazon’s intact forests are in indigenous territories, holding more carbon than all the tropical forests of Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo combined. The study reveals that indigenous peoples protect up to 3.8 million square kilometres of forest, more than a third of Latin America’s total. Much of this forest remains healthy. But the protectors themselves need protecting. Over 1,000 environmental and land rights defenders, many of them indigenous people, have been murdered since the Paris accords in 2015.
To enable these local communities to continue playing their stewardship role, it’s vital to secure their rights over the land and to engage them fully in any nature-based solutions to climate change driven by developed economies. Protection is twice as valuable as afforestation, because old-growth forests lock in double the CO2 of newly planted forests. Carbon offsets provide one way of channelling much-needed resources from wealthy polluters to the original peoples who are stewards of the biodiverse ecosystems and carbon sinks on which the planet’s future depends.
Indigenous peoples have rightly expressed their concerns around being co-opted by rich, heavy-emitting countries and companies seeking to monetize their ancestral forests and spiritual spaces. Native communities are especially worried that any moves to turn rainforests into offsets are thinly veiled land-grabs that would prevent them accessing traditional territories over which they may have as yet no legal claim.
Joining the ever-louder chorus against offsets is Greenpeace, calling them a scam for allowing fossil fuel-powered business as usual to keep burning beneath a camouflage of greenwash. For Atossa Soltani, the concept of offsetting for current or future emissions is deeply flawed. “We don’t just need to get to a net reduction of carbon, we need to get to an absolute reduction”, she told me. “Offsetting just gives us a false sense of security.” In her view, the only role for offsetting would be to provide restitution for historic emissions.
However, equally passionate environmentalists stand on the other side of the argument. In a recent interview, Christiana Figueres – who as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was one of the key architects of the Paris Agreement – urged wider adoption of high-integrity carbon offsets: “We cannot afford to ignore any lever that will help accelerate decarbonization”, she said, adding: “If we are handed a mechanism by which the companies most responsible for causing climate change pay a share of the costs for solving it, and that can deliver rapid access to finance today, then it would be folly to ignore it.”
Previous attempts to reduce emissions through halting deforestation, such as the UN’s REDD+ initiative (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) have been blighted by inadequate funding from governments, a failure of carbon markets to materialise and a lack of support for indigenous guardians of the forests. But at COP26, delegates finally resolved their differences around Article 6, the part of the Paris rulebook that defines global carbon markets. This agreement has the power to unlock billions of dollars into carbon offsets, which – if closely monitored and conducted with integrity – could lead to major wins for emissions reductions, ecosystems and the communities that care for them. Significantly, the Article 6 text mentions the need to respect indigenous people’s rights – though it falls short of requiring the “free, prior and informed consent” of local people that campaigners were seeking.
The offset market has tripled since 2020, with volumes set to surge past $1 billion by year-end. Analysts predict the private carbon-trading market could be worth $50-$100 billion by 2030. Within a month of COP26 kicking off, nature-based carbon credit prices had already surged 45%. Perhaps most significant of all is that forest carbon credits (including REDD+) were trading in August at roughly double the value of other types of carbon credits, because of the social and biodiversity benefits that these projects deliver, in addition to absorbing or avoiding CO2 emissions.
However, three things must happen to ensure such offsets are “high-integrity”:
1. Companies and countries must decarbonize their activities as close as they can to zero, before relying on offsets to absorb their hardest-to-abate emissions.
2. Offsets must be proven to show additionality (benefits that wouldn’t have happened without the offsets) and permanence(regular audits to ensure benefits are maintained).
3. Resources must be channelled to those who can make the most difference – indigenous, Native and original peoples, who have conserved these ecosystems for centuries – not middlemen. Above all, offset projects must not threaten the rights of these communities to access their traditional lands.
There have been some notable successes. Native American tribes such as the Yurok have earned income from carbon markets to conserve their ancestral lands and buy back nearly 60,000 acres of traditional territory, enabling them to work towards larger cultural, social and environmental goals. The project is one of 12 under California’s state offset scheme that have sequestered over 56 million tonnes of carbon across the US in six years.
In Australia, the Aboriginal Carbon Fund pays indigenous rangers to use traditional fire management to reduce the frequency and intensity of large bush fires, protecting biodiversity, reducing emissions and generating carbon credits to support indigenous communities. Evidence shows these traditionally managed lands were less impacted by recent bush fires, creating calls to grow the programme to other parts of the country.
Nature-based solutions – including the protection, restoration and management of carbon-rich forests, peatlands and grasslands – can provide 30%-40% of the CO2 reductions required by 2030 to help keep global temperature rises beneath 2°C. Although we might hope rich governments would fund such solutions, rather than relying on market forces, Glasgow has laid bare their struggles to come up with even the $100 billion promised to help developing countries with both mitigation and adaptation.
Carbon markets have the potential to deliver a valuable resource stream, one that may eventually outstrip government funding. With proper management, such markets may offer the opportunity for a triple win: to soak up carbon emissions – bending the global heating curve down towards 1.5°C; to preserve biodiversity – in the face of degraded ecosystems that threaten a million species with extinction; and to empower indigenous people – protecting their rights over traditional lands and creating income to fund their education, healthcare and livelihoods.
If conducted with integrity, respect and rigorous auditing, could carbon offsetting close the gap between the suits and boots, between the number-centred logic of the Blue Zone and the Nature-centred reverence of the Green Zone? Perhaps. We must seize any opportunity we can to close that gap. But it will take those with their hands on the levers of power and policy and prosperity to listen with humility to the voices from the frontlines of climate change and find a way to act beyond profit and self-interest.
The Fire Master and Climate Change
After a day of extraordinary encounters at Kelburn Castle, dusk was approaching. I was about to leave when I noticed another ring of people in a field. In the middle of the ring, another bearded man – introduced as the Fire Master – was painstakingly building a pyre, which he lit with a single strike. Cradling the infant flames in his hands he blew them gently into adolescence as the gloom gathered around us. His long goatee and dreadlocks dangled perilously close to the flames and I became quite anxious he might also catch fire.
I was also musing over the irony of gathering around a fire during a conference on climate change. But the Fire Master had created it with such respect for his materials, harvested of course from a sustainable source, and the fire focused everyone’s attention so intently, that it seemed somehow right. He spoke of how this fire connected us along a great vertical axis from the molten magmic mass deep beneath the Earth’s crust to the blazing fireball of the Sun itself. This was no ordinary campfire, this was worship, this was reverence for the elemental forces upon which all life depends.
Then Mac Macartney stood up and told us a story and recited a pledge, thought to be Mayan in origin. Once upon a time, there was a community of villagers who were ruled over by a group of elders who became increasingly selfish, greedy and corrupt. Eventually, the villagers rebelled, turned out their leaders and appointed another ruling council. These new chiefs solemnly agreed that any decision they might make would only be made when seated around the Children’s Fire. And they would start their meeting with this pledge:
“No law, no decision, no action, nothing of any kind will be permitted to go out from this Council of Chiefs that will harm the children, now or ever, both human and more than human.”
Channelling the voices of the indigenous groups among whom he has spent so much time, Mac’s commanding words captured the drama of our times – this moment in which humanity holds its future in the balance: “We will always be frightened of you, for you see with dead eyes and your madness may be all it takes to tip the scales. There is no greater betrayal than the betrayal of the kin to come. Mend what is broken. Rekindle the Children’s Fire.”
Jonathan Walter is a British-based editor, writer and media consultant. He is also former editor of the World Disaster Report in Geneva as well as co-editor of the Crosslines Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan (Four fully-revised editions from 1998-2014).