Many Indigenous groups brought their voices to the largest ever climate gathering, COP28, which was held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from November 30 to December 12. About 84,000 people were registered for the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), nearly triple last year’s numbers.
While there were a record number of Indigenous attendees at the conference, that fell far short of the 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists registered. COP28 president Sultan Al-Jaber, who is also head of the UAE’s national oil company, caused some controversy by arguing fossil fuel companies must be involved in reducing greenhouse emissions.
Against the backdrop of the hottest year on record, countries tentatively agreed to create the world’s first climate damage fund, helping developing countries cope with impacts like floods, drought and rising sea levels. Amidst various pledges to reduce harmful emissions and expand renewable energy, many leaders emphasized inclusive action that empowers Indigenous peoples on the frontlines of climate change.
The Assembly of First Nations presented its national climate strategy, which connects self-determination with revitalizing the deep reciprocal relationship with land and water. As global warming is magnified in Canada, especially in the North, a growing number of First Nations have declared climate emergencies.
“Climate change is a global challenge, but it also manifests itself locally,” said Grand Chief Judy Wilson, who led AFN’s delegation. “Canada’s record-breaking fire season this summer, over 15 million hectares have burned affecting First Nations from coast to coast to coast, highlights the urgent need for action.”
With wildfire risk continuing to rise, the Haisla Nation in northern British Columbia completed a fire guard around their community earlier this year. Haisla environmental manager Candice Wilson told the Nation that this safety precaution was a priority and urged other communities not to wait for outside funding.
Wilson is part of BC’s Indigenous Climate Adaptation Working Group and the First Nations Climate Initiative (FNCI), which includes members from the Haisla, Nisga’a, Metlakatla and Halfway River First Nations. Connecting decarbonization with decolonization, the FNCI aimed to build on its participation at last year’s COP27 to present its vision for a just energy transition.
“I presented on nature-based solutions and will be doing an update in Dubai, highlighting the work we’ve done in the last year,” said Wilson. “Our focus is on restoration of the streams in our traditional territories and improved forest management practices.”
Wilson’s presentation features pictures of salmon hanging in her smokehouse, a longstanding tradition in which all the family’s women participate. The Haisla Nation’s restoration project has planted spruce trees to mitigate riverbank erosion. With the FNCI, they’re working on a carbon offset project that facilitates investment in ecosystem restoration.
“Our traditions are driving the process,” Wilson asserted. “We’ve been working with the provincial government on their forest carbon offset policy. If our carbon credit can go towards the compliance market, there could be an economic benefit and aid projects in our traditional territories.”
To advance both economic and environmental reconciliation, the FNCI has been pursuing renewable energy infrastructure and decarbonized fuel production facilities with emerging alternatives like ammonia, hydrogen and methanol. It recently supported a new collective between 11 Northern BC First Nations communities called K’uul Power, which means “coming together as one” in the Tsimshian language.
As it explores the development of fuels with either zero or negative emissions, the latter withdrawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during manufacture, the FNCI is supporting a project near the quickly growing Port of Prince Rupert, providing decarbonized fuels in marine-based transportation.
“The Nations want to position themselves to actually own the core infrastructure of the economy, in addition to recovering the ecosystems that provide for tradition and culture,” explained FNCI facilitator Alex Grzybowski.
As FNCI’s Haisla and Nisga’a Nations are building net-zero liquid natural gas (LNG) projects, its latest research report assesses the commercial prospects for exporting to Asia. While some see LNG’s methane emissions as worse than coal, others see an opportunity for global decarbonization.
“Our communities need this development to help us alleviate the poverty that has plagued our people,” stated Nisg’a president Eva Clayton. “This report has identified the pathways to help Asia decarbonize using our low carbon LNG.”
Ozawa Bineshi Albert, the Anishinaabe and Yuchi co-executive director of Climate Justice Alliance, was dismayed that nuclear energy was often touted as a clean alternative, demonstrating the complexity of reaching a consensus among so many divergent interests. While most agree that wealthy countries should be paying for climate impacts in the Global South, some question why dispossessed Indigenous communities don’t see these funds.
“Where are we going to see those kind of climate reparations and restitution for the damages that we are facing from the climate crisis?” asked Eriel Deranger, the Athabasca Chipewyan executive director of Indigenous Climate Action.
Although some Indigenous delegates are discouraged by prevailing power imbalances that sideline them from key discussions, many have been inspired by the unprecedented number of Indigenous voices at the summit. The Indigenous Peoples Caucus delivered a two-minute statement at the COP28 opening ceremony and several roundtables highlighted Indigenous issues.
The AFN delegation had high-level meetings with key government officials, both federally and internationally, working on creating concrete opportunities for First Nations people to demonstrate climate leadership. Besides ending fossil fuel reliance, Indigenous advocates wanted traditional knowledge to be highlighted as a climate solution and to ensure their rights are upheld.
While some have raised concerns that green energy developments and conservation deals are creating conflict in Indigenous territories around the world, an initiative called Act30 intends to partner with Indigenous peoples to support the 190 countries that have committed to conserving 30% of their area by 2030, under the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework created in December 2022.
Launched at COP28 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) and mapping-tech company Esri, Act30 brings together a wide network of scientific experts and Indigenous representatives to help governments chart an effective and fair route to conserving their biodiverse regions.
“It will be Indigenous peoples, local communities, women and youth who are the real changemakers,” said Lucy Mulenkei, the Kenyan co-chair of IIFB. “If governments work with us, we will make progress in fulfilling the Global Biodiversity Framework target.”