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In the wake of COP28, Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination are key for climate action

Australia’s path to a clean energy future must preface Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, and rights, writes Gumbaynggirr nyami Amba-Rose Atkinson.

Her reflections below upon the outcomes of the recent COP28 meeting deliver clear messages for the Australian Government’s bid for the COP31 meeting in 2026.


Amba-Rose Atkinson writes:

In the few months that have passed since COP28 was held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, I’ve been reflecting on many things. Mostly existential, but generally the chaos and utility of COP. In my previous COP coverage, I wrote about the importance of including Indigenous voices and solutions (at all levels), and where the interplay of competing worlds’ met in a policy, people, prospects piece.

The further into these systems of power I observe, the more I see the tightness of its grip. It is pervasive and highly adaptive. It could be the PhD affect that has my mind wandering (the more you learn, the less you know type-of-situation), but it feels more elucidative than that.

In this article – the final of the Croakey COP28 series – I will explore the role of COP, the transition to renewable energies, and put forward some recommendations.

At its core, the Conference of the Parties (COP) functions as the supreme decision-making body for the negotiation and adoption of legally-binding instruments responding to climate change (notably the Paris Agreement and it’s critical implementation).

COP28 was critical in that it was first global stocktake – essentially, what did Parties say they’d do in the Paris Agreement and what have they done.

The official ‘Outcome of the first global stocktake’ published on 13 December 2023 included:

28. Further recognizes the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5°C pathways and calls on Parties to…:

(d) Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science; and,

(h) Phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible.

Setting the scene at COP28. Source: the author

Not on track

In the aftermath of COP28, commentary was divided on whether the ‘landmark’ decision to call for the “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems” and explicit reference to coal was cause for celebrations or cause for dismay. Some noted the language was ambitious, while others noted it was not strong enough, and aspirational at best.

Presently, we are not on track to meet the goal of limiting rising temperatures to 1.5. In the month prior, the world experienced the warmest January on record, making it the eighth month in a row to keep exceeding this record.

Raymond Clémençon writes that “30 years of international climate talks have not prevented the globe from heating up more than 1 degree Celsius over post-industrial times”, as well as the yearly “extreme weather records around the world”.

The increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events has dire impacts on Country and people.

The ‘Production Gap Report 2023’, explained that in order to stay on track to limiting long-term warming to 1.5, governments should strive for a near total phase-out of coal production and use by 2040, while cutting combined oil and gas production and use by three-quarters by 2050 from 2020 levels, with reductions for all fossil fuels beginning now.

Paths forward

With the transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources a rapidly increasing movement, my concerns remains the same as at COP27 – how are Indigenous rights, peoples, and voices being prefaced, or even considered?

There are 195 ratified parties to the convention; Australia is one of them. I attended COP28 with an Australian Government party overflow badge. Noticeably, in contrast to COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, the largest contingency of Indigenous Australians attended, including the First Nations Ambassador Justin Mohamed. It was through such access that I began paying more attention to the negotiations, particularly Article 6.4.

Increasing the number of Indigenous Australians attending COP28 cannot be a surface-level scapegoat for tangible change.

With the prospect of hosting COP31 in Australia in 2026 looming, it is critical that the Australian Government wade carefully, respectfully, and appropriately in its engagement with Indigenous communities, Elders, leaders, and youth. This includes proper consultation, and the establishment of advisory mechanisms that reflect our cultural protocols, and diversity of stakeholders. As previously iterated, “to realise substantive progress in the climate crisis – and intersecting crises – such voices need to be at the forefront of policy, governance, and broader discussions”.

Australia’s path to a clean energy future must preface Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, and rights. We are major stakeholders – you are on our land.

With Australia being an export-dependent economy, and already committing human rights injustices in order to mine, it is worrying to think about the future of my peoples and our Country in this transition.

Indigenous-led NGO Cultural Survival wrote in a letter to COP28 delegates that “while we are at the forefront of the fight for climate action and clean energy, our profound connection to our ancestral lands also puts us on the frontlines to ensure that these lands will not be sacrifice zones for those companies and politicians who seek a quick fix in the name of climate solutions”.

Source of photo: the author

Days before COP28 began, the Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs released a report inquiring into the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) application in Australia.

While not legally binding, this does not mean governments are void of accountability. Article 32.1 of UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources”.

Governments and industry stakeholders must prioritise working with Indigenous Australians to realise and transition to a future that is equitable, safeguards our human and planetary rights, and shifts the colonial structures of our societies that have onset the most catastrophic threat to life on this Earth.

Darrundang.

I write this article from Boston where I’m a Visiting Doctoral Student at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. I left Australia bracing for the cold, only to find the weather unnervingly manageable. In the Northeast, winter-warmth is becoming the usual.

The author, in Boston

• Amba-Rose Atkinson is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Candidate at the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health Research and School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, the University of Queensland. Her PhD study looks at the relationship between Country, Climate, and First Nations Peoples’ Health.

• Croakey thanks and acknowledges donors to our public interest journalism funding pool who have helped support this article.


Previously at Croakey

2023: Policy, people and prospects: reflections on climate action and the unaddressed reality of stolen land

2022: At COP27 and beyond: First Nations voices and solutions must be “heard at all times and at every level of society”

2022: COP27: On Country, health and Indigenous knowledges


Follow Croakey’s #HealthyCOP28 coverage.