COP26: Why I’m remaining a stubborn optimist

Jon Khoo, Head of Sustainability at Interface, discusses why he is remaining a stubborn optimist following the first week of announcements at COP26.


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COP26: Why I’m remaining a stubborn optimist

We are now midway through COP26 and following the pledges and discussions so far – I remain a stubborn optimist.

What is stubborn optimism?

We know that we face a huge challenge in climate change. As an outcome of the Paris Agreement (COP21) the world pledged to work to limiting global warming to below 2°C, and ideally to 1.5°C, however, despite this, ahead of COP26 the United Nations (UN) noted that we are on track for a rise of 2.7°C, this century. As per my COP26 prediction, the world is behind on its climate targets (which really should not have been a surprise).

Stubborn optimism is an approach coined by former UN Climate Chief, Christiana Figueres, and political strategist & writer Tom Rivett-Carnac, that dictates that in the face of a huge challenge – such as climate change – we have a responsibility to believe that the world can be changed, and confidence that we have the ingenuity, innovative capacity and determination to resolve the problem. We cannot face the challenge and feel defeated, we need to commit to act.  

Stubborn optimism as a COP26 trend

In his address to world leaders, the naturalist and presenter Sir David Attenborough took a stubborn optimist view when asked world leaders to acknowledge the scale and responsibility the world has for global warming, and then choose a restorative path. He concluded that, “if working apart, we were a force powerful enough to destabilise our planet, surely, working together we are powerful enough to save it.”

Likewise, HRH Prince Charles highlighted that, “The recent IPCC report gave us a clear diagnosis of the scale of the problem. We know what we must do, we have to reduce emissions urgently and take action to tackle the carbon already in our atmosphere.”

Reasons why I’m remaining a stubborn optimist

At COP26 I’m seeing a trend for stubborn optimism amongst the delegates. To me, stubborn optimism requires balancing reality, hope and conviction. The science is clear on the increase in greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon) and that temperatures are rising – with the World Meteorological Organisation confirming that the past 7 years were the hottest on record. With this in mind – businesses, governments and society have to respond – and at COP26, these are the reasons for us to be hopeful:

1)  More than 120 countries commit to end deforestation by 2030

On Day 3 of COP26, over 120 countries signed a declaration on forests and land use, that included a commitment to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. It was extremely encouraging to see countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo join the pledge (which cover 85% of the world’s forests). That pledge includes providing some developing nations with financial assistance to support indigenous communities, tackle wildfires and restore damaged land. The proof will be in what steps are taken to support the declaration and the real-world impact that occurs – but it provides a useful focal point for environmental NGOs to keep the pressure on governments. In terms of financial support, another reason for optimism on this declaration was that the pledge included around £14bn ($19.2bn) of government and private funds.

2) A global pledge to cut methane emissions

Over 100 countries have signed up to limit methane emission levels by 30% by 2030. Methane emissions are important as this greenhouse gas is responsible for a third of current global warming linked to human activities – both industrial and agricultural. If achieved, the impact could be significant, with scientists predicting that this could help avoid 0.3◦C of warming by 2040 by removing 180 million tonnes of methane emissions. The pledge was not perfect, as the signatories did not include China, Russia or India – but it was a huge step forward, a significant stepping-stone.

3) Commitment from the global financial community

Day 4 of COP26 saw climate finance take centre stage, with delegates discussing who was going to pay for a net-zero future and the role of the world finance industry in helping countries transition to a green economy.

The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) – which includes over 450 banks, insurers and asset managers, located in over 45 countries – has committed to ensure over $130 trillion of assets will be linked to science-based net-zero targets. What’s more, GFANZ members will be required to set near term targets within 12-18 month of joining and commit to hit net zero emissions by 2050. Led by the former Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, who concluded that, “We now have the essential plumbing in place to move climate change from the fringes to the forefront of finance so that every financial decision takes climate change into account.”

An interesting angle here is that by requiring net-zero targets to be science-based will go some way to ensure credibility and trust in company claims and avoid greenwashing. At Interface, we fully agree with this and that’s why we have a ratified science-based target to reduce our Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 50%; our Scope 3 emissions from purchased products and services by 50%; and our emissions from travel and commuting by 30% (all from a 2019 base year). Then we will go beyond this to become a carbon-negative company by 2040.

4) More than 40 countries commit to support green technology

Over 40 countries have signed up at COP26 to the Breakthrough Agenda – which focuses on making sustainable solutions and clean technologies affordable, accessible and attractive options before 2030 in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The initial focus areas are on steel, road transport, agriculture, hydrogen, and electricity. My only ask here would be that the built environment, and in particular embodied carbon, would be a future focus area for this group. Speaking of which…

5) A new report on the built environment sets a stubborn optimist tone

Next Thursday (11 November) will see COP26 put a focus on the built environment. Ahead of this, over 200 businesses and groups have backed a report calling on world leaders to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Built for the Environment report, co-authored by Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and Architects Declare urges governments to take action now, set more ambitious targets and building codes, and embed sustainability within planning systems. Maria Smith, Buro Happold director and RIBA council member, stated, “This report represents a collective capability statement from the industry, but also a call for international climate justice: from monitoring and regulating embodied carbon, to reporting and targeting emissions reductions on a consumption-basis, this report aims to give confidence to all inside and outside the built environment that a better world is possible.”

Turning pledges into action

According to the International Energy Agency, should the promises and pledges made in the first week of COP26 be achieved in full, we would be on track to limit global warming to 1.8°C. This in itself is a reason to be hopeful. The reality is that climate change remains the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, and pledges only make a difference if they become action. That said, the stubborn optimist in me says we can and must try to achieve this, and even aim higher. It’s time to act!

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