COP28: What is a Just Energy Transition for Indigenous Peoples?

Climate change is decimating Indigenous ecosystems and there are differing interpretations of what a just transition to green energy from fossil fuels looks like. For industry, a just transition means protecting the jobs of oil and gas workers as the economy shifts away from a dependency on oil and gas toward a decarbonized world. Whereas for Indigenous Peoples and allied climate advocates, seeking a global shift to green energy means asserting the importance of justice and fairness; this requires holding rich and industrialized nations accountable for reducing the use of fossil fuels and moving to cleaner sources of energy. Ultimately, if the survival of Indigenous communities’ is considered, what is needed is global renewable energy revolution to reduce the impact of climate change on “communities that played little role in causing [the] crisis.”

The International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate (IIPFCC), often referred to as the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, addressed the COP28 opening plenary session stating how they would influence negotiations and “assert their inherent, distinct, internationally recognized rights.” Indigenous Peoples representing seven socio-cultural regions of the IIPFCC (i.e., Africa, The Arctic, Asia, North America and the Caribbean, The Pacific, Russia and Eastern Europe) called for several strategies for a “just transition that respects Indigenous rights and knowledge”; these are:

  • A mechanism for presenting grievances when carbon trading and offset schemes might impact the rights and lands of Indigenous [P]eoples;
  • Strategies that prioritize the prevention of catastrophic loss and damage from climate change;
  • Direct access to funds when damage occurs;
  • Equitable phaseout of fossil fuels

All these strategies are part of an overall call by Indigenous leaders at COP28 to end false solutions to climate change in favour of nature-based solutions, and while keeping the aim to limit global warming central. As experts in environmental defense, Indigenous climate advocates have declared that “enough is enough.” Speaking at COP28 Dr. Myrle Ballard of Lake St. Martin First Nation, who is also an associate professor at the University of Manitoba and chief advisor for Indigenous science with Environment and Climate Change Canada, spoke to the CBC about the crucial role that Indigenous Peoples play in witnessing and documenting the impact of climate change on the land; she noted: “It’s Indigenous people’s observations that are really critical because … they’re the predictors of what’s happening in real time, what’s happening on the land. They’re the early warning system.”

At the time of writing this article, the UN was still negotiating a final agreement at COP28, extending the meeting time to reach a final deal, with a phase out or phase down to, ultimately, signal an end to fossil fuels. However, as reported, “[g]lobal consumption of oil is at a record high and is expected to increase further during the next few years at least” and, based on the first draft COP28 agreement, the requirement for a “just transition” to end the use of fossil fuels is looking like an optional one.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Eelco Bohtlingk, Unsplash)

COP28, the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference, takes place in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from November 30 to December 12, 2023. Given the thematic organization of the conference, Indigenous Peoples are highlighted on the sixth day of the conference. Meanwhile, Indigenous advocates are working to place Indigenous rights and self-determination at the forefront of all discussions.

The first two days of COP28, following the launch day, are devoted to the World Climate Action Summit, where a Global Stocktake response will be presented, as mandated by the Paris Agreement, and accountability will be sought from countries. After the opening Summit, COP28 is organized by thematic areas, where each day is focused on a set of themes:

  • Health/Relief Recovery, and Peace
  • Finance/Trade/Gender Equality/ Accountability
  • Energy and Industry/ Just Transition/ Indigenous Peoples
  • Multilevel Action, Urbanization and Built Environment/Transport
  • Youth, Children, Education and Skills
  • Nature, Land Use, and Oceans.
  • Food, Agriculture, and Water

The last two days of COP28 are devoted to final negotiations.

Indigenous Peoples are concerned that the COP28 talks will lead to an expansion of false climate solutions rather than nature-based solutions to climate change. World Indigenous leaders will continue to shed light on “how resources needed for sustainable energy threaten Indigenous land and people.” Indigenous Climate Action (Canada) intends to put Indigenous rights at the forefront of COP28 talks, while drawing from their 2021 Report Decolonizing Climate Policy in Canada. Furthermore, enhancing Indigenous participation in decision making at COP 28 will remain a priority for Indigenous advocates.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Kevin Long, Unsplash)

On March 4, 2023, the United Nations passed the High Seas Treaty to protect all parts of the world’s oceans defined by international law as “the high seas.” Up until then, only 1% of the high seas, an area where all countries had “a right to fish, ship and do research,” was protected from exploitation. It took over a decade for the UN High Seas Treaty to be developed as a legal instrument of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The treaty is getting praise from diverse groups for its potential to prevent further loss of species at risk, and biodiversity loss, in general; however, the treaty is not yet at the stage of implementation.

The area covered by the UN High Seas Treaty has significant impact on the climate. The high seas “takes up 90% of the excess heat and around 25% of the CO2  generated by humanity’s burning of fossil fuels.” The treaty intends to protect the high seas from the ongoing effects of climate change such as pollution and ocean acidification, as well as the threats of overfishing and other forms of resource extraction. The treaty also aligns with the UN’s COP 15 Global Biodiversity Framework, established in December 2022; member nations agreed to “30 x 30” – that is, protecting 30% of the ocean, coastal areas, and lands by 2030.

The Carbon Brief offers more details as to the development, content, and next steps for the Treaty.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image credit: Abigail Lynn, Unsplash)

On December 16, 2022, the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN), Csaba Kőrösi, proclaimed the start of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022-2032. The aim of the International decade is “to secure the rights of Indigenous peoples to preserve, revitalize and promote their languages.” In his speech, Kőrösi called upon the UN’s Member States to work with Indigenous communities to: “[s]afeguard [I]ndigenous peoples’ rights” to learn and access resources in their native languages; “[e]nsure that Indigenous peoples and their knowledge are not exploited…[and] meaningfully consult Indigenous peoples, engaging with them in every stage of decision-making processes.”

The Language Conservancy estimates that Indigenous languages are lost at the rate of nine languages per year and that “[b]y 2080 the rate will rise by [sixteen] languages per year – one every two weeks.” The Language Conservancy provides a series of maps that depict centuries of language loss from the 1920s to present, drawn from the research by Gary F. Simons. The “growing wave” of Indigenous language loss is caused by the impacts of colonization, the rapid development of human settlements and by choices to leave the countryside for the city. Language loss is further exacerbated by climate change, especially as Indigenous peoples are forced to migrate and resettle due to adverse climate events.

Policies and educational programs to revitalize Indigenous languages are crucial to fight language loss and to prevent more than half of all languages becoming extinct over the next century.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image credit: Satyam HCR, Unsplash)

During the UN Forum Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP27 and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Convention of the Parties (COP)15, held in late 2022, Indigenous advocates centred “the loss and damage to Indigenous rights” and the ongoing need for global action on climate change. While numerous challenges to climate change remain in 2023, Indigenous-led solutions to climate change are critical to ending further biodiversity loss.

According to the OHCHR, COP27 revealed that signatories of the Paris Agreement made little progress on their pledges to embed Indigenous rights in climate actions. The Paris Agreement included reference to Indigenous rights. However, for some Indigenous advocates at COP27, the emphasis on climate financing overshadowed any efforts to include Indigenous perspectives, and discussions about Indigenous rights in climate policy and decision making. For instance, according to Indigenous Climate Action, the development of a loss and damage fund “in which countries responsible for high carbon emissions compensate vulnerable countries suffering from climate impacts,” centered economics, and consequently, shifted attention away from Indigenous rights and further support for the role of Indigenous peoples in protecting biodiversity. And while the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) considered the establishment of the loss and damage fund to be a success, they hoped the funds would also “directly reach Indigenous Peoples.”  Cultural Voices recorded a number of Indigenous voices from around the world, sharing perspectives about key decisions made at COP27.

The Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework (GBF) was an agreement made by nearly 200 countries at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in December 2022. Nations committed to engage in activities that would prevent further land and ocean biodiversity loss, on 30% of the planet, by 2030. Although Indigenous leaders considered the GBF to be a landmark agreement, they were concerned by the lack of clear targets to prevent the extinction of endangered species. Furthermore, Indigenous leaders were concerned that the GBF would lump all Indigenous people in a global pan-Indigenous identity, as expressed through Indigenous rights, rather than recognizing the distinct cultural and social contexts and traditions of thousands upon thousands of Indigenous nations worldwide.

According to the U.S.-based United Nations Foundation Climate and Environment Experts, issues at the forefront of climate action in 2023 include climate finance, food systems, and subnational action on climate change. However, rather than focusing solely on general climate change issues and failed attempts at embedding Indigenous rights into UN policies on climate change, more attention should be placed on Indigenous-led climate solutions in the fight to protect biodiversity. For example, Canada’s Indigenous-led Natural Climate Solutions initiative shifts the focus from policy to practical on-the-ground efforts in biodiversity protection.

While some nations continue their efforts to pressure governments to embed the laws of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, at the bare minimum, in climate policy and climate action, local and national programs may provide more tangible support for Indigenous governance authority and nationhood and prevent further biodiversity loss into the next decade.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image credit: Benjamin Voros, Unsplash)