Friday, December 10, 2021

At the Walker Institute’s COP26 debrief session we were asked to summarise, in one word, how we felt about this year’s conference. A nigh on impossible challenge! Having been incredibly fortunate to have attended COP26 in person, my feelings mimicked the emotional and intellectual rollercoaster that is attending any COP; frustrated and disappointed but also optimistic, determined and inspired.

In this blogpost I don’t want to rehash the numerous other blogs and articles which sum up the pros and cons of COP26 (such as this relatively balanced piece by Greenpeace). I want to share some of my key takeaways and give a sense of my thoughts and feelings coming away from such an experience.

The intrinsic links between climate change and systemic inequalities. Although the landmark Paris Agreement was adopted in the same year that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set, I had, somewhat maybe naively, never fully understood how addressing the climate crisis (SDG 13) can help to address SDGs 5 (Gender Equality) and 10 (Reduced inequalities), and vice versa. Industrialisation has exploited indigenous people and their land, yet it is these people whose example we can be looking to, to help combat the crisis. The climate crisis disproportionately impacts vulnerable groups, including women and girls. Only a small proportion of the NDCs reflect SDGs 5 & 10 yet only inclusive policies and technologies will provide more robust, sustainable solutions; ‘Imagine how long it would have taken us to find a vaccine for Covid-19 if women hadn’t been involved’.

Every sector and industry can and should be doing something. The side events showcased the immense work being done, and yet to be done, by sectors which you would expect to see at a COP; including energy, transportation, food, finance and fashion. The breadth of topics beyond those however was eye-opening. From the role of sport and advertising, to the arts and culture, I was encouraged that individuals from a multitude of sectors were taking responsibility for how their field of work is contributing to the climate crisis and needs to change; ‘Every country, city, business and industry need to and can act’ (António Guterres UN Secretary-General).

Individuals can and should change their behaviours where possible, but we need a government-led policy framework with private sector collaboration. The step change in the Government’s view of the need for support from, and collaboration with, the private sector was one of the positives to come from COP26. Leaders need to lead and create that enabling environment for industries to work within but all industries, including academia, need to collaborate to make that change.

Although the message was clear that the onus should be on the leaders and not the consumer, I felt a distinct lack of focus or discussion around policy driven behavioural change. Until we have the technology at the scale required, emissions will still continue to rise: ‘The climate doesn’t care for words’. We need policies which promote behavioural change (such as charging for plastic bags) but without creating further economic divides, penalising and creating more eco-anxiety for those who can least afford it: ‘if we fear, we freeze, then we achieve nothing’ (Brent Loken, WWF).

The discourses of climate delay. During the WWF talk on ‘Understanding Networks of Climate Obstruction‘, moderator Timmons Roberts provided 4 discourses of climate delay; redirecting responsibility, pushing non-transformative solutions, emphasising downsides, and surrender and ‘doomism’. These I felt resonated from an individual right up to a leadership level and thought are really important to be aware of to make sure we are collectively supporting eachother (as individuals, industries and societies) in tackling the crisis.

So how did I leave feeling? With COP President Alok Sharma’s famous closing words apologising for how the process unfolded, the vast gap still between the science and the policies, it is easy to feel despondent about COP26. Despite the UK stating that COP26 was the most inclusive COP, it was far from it. I felt incredibly white and privileged walking through the conference centre and couldn’t help but feel that the participants did not even represent the diversity of London let alone the globe (the UK was awarded Fossil of the Day on day 1 for the COP’s lack of inclusivity). Although 77% more access passes were available to attend this year’s COP, there was a 232% rise in the number of available media passes. Observer access to negotiating rooms was harder than ever. Nothing will really change until the fossil fuel companies are kicked out of the negotiating rooms and the people of the world are let in.

To me Glasgow was a step in the right direction. It was not, but yet could have been, the giant leap for mankind which was required. As Nicola Sturgeon (one of the few leaders who did seem to lead in this process) stated ‘this is not charity that we owe to the global south, this is a debt’. Yet so many global north leaders still don’t act this way.

The pressure by governments for a collaborative approach including with academia and the private sector was a positive step forward. Ultimately however, we will only really know of any successes in the years to come if trust is rebuilt showing follow up on the promises and agreements made.

The immense and tireless swathes of action and energy from civil society to fight for climate justice provides hope. Having listened to the inspirational pleas from young activists and actors, such as Vanessa NakateElizabeth Wathuti and Vinisha Umashankar, I felt a wave of any PhD student’s favourite friend ‘imposter syndrome’.  I was so fortunate to have attended COP but what can I do and how can I encourage others to go beyond simply talking about the climate crisis? Former US President Barack Obama provided some good tips for how everyone can help: vote, use your purchase power, educate (especially those indifferent or opposed), and protest to raise awareness. As academics and scientists, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to continue to highlight the gaps between the science and the policy, as well as the methodologies used to reach those policies. As Harrison Ford recently said ‘reinforcements are on the way…writing thesis…learning to turn passion into progress…potential into power’. But as students we don’t need to wait until those thesis’ are written to act.

Some useful resource if you would like to learn more:

Written by Jo Herschan, COPCAS PhD Student