COP26: An imperfect result but the direction of travel is clear
David Symons, Future Ready Innovation leader at WSP, offers his thoughts on negotiations at COP26 and what it means for the future of sustainable business.
As work continues to clear the huge venue in Glasgow that hosted the world over two weeks of highs, lows and hard-fought negotiations, the debate will continue about whether COP26 represents a success.
The reality is though that whatever the parameters of the Glasgow Climate Pact, what’s most important is what all of us do next.
Nearly 200 countries struck a deal late on Saturday night, agreeing to the rules on implementing the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Last-minute blocks from India and China to water down the commitment to end coal use and subsidies for fossil fuels was a notable loss, though there were nevertheless rules agreed for a global carbon market and financial commitments to help countries adapt to climate change.
Huge deals were also struck on deforestation and methane emissions and many of the world’s biggest emitters set targets to reach net zero around the middle of the century.
But what does this all mean for us though? The result of COP26 was undoubtedly far from perfect but nonetheless it does represent a substantial move forward in terms of the direction of travel on climate action. Undoubtedly the dial has moved on, driven as much by the loud voices of businesses leaders and other non-state actors who were present at this COP in huge numbers, underlining their resolve towards a net zero and resilient future.
Yet none of these pledges mean anything without implementation. Keeping 1.5 degree alive only works if every aspect of these commitments is delivered as a minimum. And of course, we know we need much more than this – when countries report again next year on their Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) the expectation for action will no doubt have taken on a whole new level of urgency.
Therefore, what we need now from Governments, industry, businesses and communities is a focus on delivery, including on the Green Economy; Energy Transition; Transport & Infrastructure Decarbonisation; and Nature & Biodiversity.
Here in the UK, the Government published a number of key strategies and plans ahead of COP26, including the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, the Heat and Buildings Strategy and now the long-awaited Net Zero Strategy. During the conference the Environment Act was also passed which amongst other commitments makes the UK the first country to create a legally binding target to halt wildlife decline by 2030.
The clock is ticking fast and in the implementation of the Net Zero Strategy there must be clear metrics and funding pathways, along with appropriate incentives for industry, businesses and the public to make the changes required of them.
Transformational change is needed within industry and businesses for their part in reaching the UK’s 2050 net zero target. There has to be a determined focus on removing the embodied and operational carbon footprint of projects, so too confidence in integrating sustainable solutions in the supply chain as the default modus operandi. As a country, we must change our demands of industry and business and in turn they must re-position themselves to respond innovatively to these changes.
Investment in people and skills is also crucial now. Cultural change in the infrastructure sector is no longer optional; educating and technical upskilling on net zero and wider sustainable pathways is a must. This will enable smart decision-making on net zero and ensure we have expertise need to implement resilient, future-ready solutions. By working collaboratively, we can combine strategic policy with the very best engineering and environmental expertise the UK has to offer to tackle the most pressing challenge of our time.
It is also time that a meaningful conversation is had with the public on net zero delivery. At community and individual level there must be a recognition that climate change affects us all and so taking action is the responsibility of all. Domestic customers will have to make changes in the coming years on the transition to clean energy, for example installation of heat pumps. Also, in reducing our daily carbon footprint in such areas as: recycling and sustainable waste disposal; shifts in our dietary demands (diet typically represents 10-30% of a household’s carbon footprint) and the move towards electric vehicles.
By working together on climate action and changing the way we live, we will not only keep 1.5 degrees alive but also retain hope of preserving our way of life for generations to come. The time for action is now. COP26 is a launch plate, not a centre of gravity – we must now focus on delivery of meaningful change.