Good COP, Bad COP?

With such media attention and expectation, as the dust settles on the COP26 climate conference perhaps the most difficult question is to define its success or otherwise. A new global agreement - the Glasgow Climate Pact - was reached, which although not legally binding has now set the direction for tackling climate change over the next decade.

The University of Nottingham sent its own delegation of staff to Glasgow as observers, as well as meeting policymakers, funders and leaders of industry - we asked them to share their own reflections on the conference.


University of Nottingham staff at COP26 in Glasgow: Chris Sims, Professor Dame Jessica Corner, Leonie Mathers, David Grant

Professor Dame Jessica Corner, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Knowledge and Research Exchange

After an extraordinary seven-hour journey by train to Edinburgh (an extreme climate event causing fallen trees in the Peterborough area) and an onward commute to Glasgow, I joined some 40,000 people from all over the world and a whole host of protestors to experience COP26.

Boris Johnson’s speech to the assembled world leaders in the opening ceremony drew attention to Glasgow, where James Watt developed the first coal-fired steam engine in 1765, a technology acknowledged as the starting point for the industrial revolution and from when the origins of increasing carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere are traced. This fact brought into sharp focus our very direct responsibility in the UK to act decisively as we stand on the precipice of climate emergency and catastrophe that will surely unfold if we hesitate.

I was struck, for all the criticism of the event and doubt as to whether meaningful and delivered action will be realised from COP26, by the extraordinary range of people, countries, organisations, businesses, NGOs, academics, activists, country delegations and indigenous peoples, all gathered in a single place to witness and shape our future actions to prevent global heating rising.

During the conference, we shared the university's discoveries to inform the debate. As Europe’s leading aviation research university, in particular we highlighted our research in support of net zero aviation.

We also highlighted the response of our six Beacons of Excellence to climate change. Two beacons, Green Chemicals and Propulsion Futures, are having a direct impact in progress towards net zero: securing a skills-rich bioeconomy and the greening of aviation, while Future Food is highlighting the challenge of feeding a growing population in the face of climate change.

COP26 may go down in history as a missed opportunity, with the world’s leaders failing to deliver a roadmap to keep global warming to 1.5 °C by the end of this century. But the conference did bring to the forefront the need to commit our resources, intelligence and capabilities towards solving the climate emergency.

By anticipating the hurdles ahead, our researchers will be ready to offer solutions. Our new research strategy, to be published at the end of this year, will enhance our ability to deliver strategic responses to the climate crisis and other great challenges.

As an institution we embed sustainability in all that we do, and I am proud of the contribution of everyone across our campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia as we continue to make a difference in addressing the greatest challenge of our time.

Lucelia Rodrigues, Professor of Sustainable & Resilient Cities Engineering

I came out of COP26 both hopeful and angry.

Ahead of the conference, the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2021 analysis suggested that even if the pledges in the 2015 Paris Agreement were implemented in full and on time, the world would be headed for 2.1 °C of warming by the end of the century, missing the 1.5°C goal.

Their latest Technical note on the emissions and temperature implications of COP26 pledges suggests that if all COP26’s pledges were met in full and on time global warming could be kept to 1.8°C. With India, Russia, Brazil and other countries joining in we now have 90% of the world committed to net-zero targets – this number was 30% pre COP26. So there was definitely progress. However, the pledges have to be met. In full and on time. And there wasn’t enough detail on how this will happen.

Let’s take the example of the built environment. COP26 was the first of the climate conferences to place the environmental impacts of the built environment high in the agenda. About time - the built environment is responsible for almost 40% of global carbon emissions according to the World Green Building Council. COP26 had a day dedicated to the Cities, Regions, and Built Environment theme, where governments made commitments for built environment climate action.

The UK Green Building Council took the opportunity to launch the first ever UK Roadmap for achieving Net Zero carbon built environment by 2050 detailing the necessary actions government and industry must take to achieve net zero across the sector. This is a commendable effort and I certainly agree with their proposed five priorities, the first being a nation-wide retrofitting of existing homes, which we hope we can inform through our new Nottingham Carbon Neutral Housing: Cost vs Carbon Retrofit Roadmap Community Renewal Fund project.

However, the current building regulations in the UK has not seen significant revisions since 2013 and does not come close to delivering low-carbon buildings. And these are the only compulsory standards to be met currently. This year the UK government has finally announced new building standards after an 8-year wait, which are out for public consultation.

The Future Homes Standard will regulate dwellings and proposes a ban on gas boilers and a decrease in emissions of 80% compared with current levels by 2025, with an interim the aim of achieving a 31% reduction in 2021. The Future Buildings Standard proposes a reduction of 22% through more efficient building services or a 27% reduction through services and fabric improvements in 2021; it does not have long term goals.

Neither take into account whole life carbon measurements and neither are ambitious enough to meet the net zero carbon targets. Through this example we can see that whilst the pledges are perhaps targeting (just!) the right levels, actual policies are often much further away.

Ambitions count for little if they do not become a reality. And they can only be realised through credible policy actions, clever financing, progress tracking and accountability – and sadly none of this is in place in the building sector in the UK. We need to take the next step and turn COP26 pledges into actions.

Key points of the Glasgow Climate Pact

  • A pledge from more than 100 countries to stop deforestation by 2030
  • A net-zero pledge by India
  • Agreement by more than 100 countries to cut 30% of methane emissions by 2030
  • A surprise agreement between the USA and China to work together on reducing emissions and transitioning to renewable energy

Chris Sims, Deputy Director, Institute for Policy and Engagement

COP26 was a wake up call for many people – both about the scale of the climate challenge we face and about the complexities involved in overcoming it. It was also a sharp learning curve for the University and those of us working to ensure our research helps shape our shared future.

The Institute for Policy and Engagement secured observer status for the University at this COP, and helped lead our contribution to the event. But attending the conference itself really brought home to me how challenging our role is. The sheer number of people involved, the competing voices and interests, and the massive diversity of ways in which our research could contribute to tackling climate change, creates a bewildering landscape through which we did our best to guide the many Nottingham academics who joined our delegation and contributed to our campaign.

We’re still processing the lessons learned from this complex and at times overwhelming event, but I see this as an important step in moving sustainability and tackling climate change to the heart of the University’s research impact agenda. History may denote COP26 a success or a failure – it’s too early to tell – but for the University of Nottingham I think it marks an exciting moment and one that’s full of promise.

Dr Sharmila Sumsurooah, Senior Research Fellow

A small blue planet hovers in space, bearing the words: “This is home”.

That forgotten truth, on a poster on a Glasgow bus stop in early November moved me deeply, encapsulating in three words my experience of COP26 with all its urgency and fierce hope. To hear so many voices from different countries, industries, scientific organisations, groups, genders and young people was exhilarating, pointing the way forward.

There was great commitment, dedication and alignment with a shared vision for the planet. The questions and discussions were no longer about direction of travel but about the actions to be taken towards common goals to achieve net zero by 2050. A number of international initiatives that were launched at COP26 reflected the massive drive to make net zero a reality. Mission Innovation 2.0, the Industrial Deep Decarbonisation initiative, and the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition are but a few I became aware of through the panel discussions I attended.

In a forest of main and side events, whether in the action zones in the blue zone or in exhibition halls of the green zone, diverse voices proposed bold global solutions to climate change. Dr Dushan Boroyevic of Virginia Tech, for example, was inspiring with his vision for creating a “global intergrid for sustainable energy abundance” using power electronics. And in the streets or dozens of fringe venues round the city, the demonstrators kept the heat up, singing and pushing for a shared goal of sustainability.

The established objectives from the conference are now well known. But they can only be achieved by the people who are working in the field - the doers - society, engineers, environmental groups, etc. The vision from the top must now meet the needs for resources of those at the bottom – this channel will allow knowledge and resources to flow and lead to needed action.

There are investigations being conducted every day and gigabytes of information published constantly – research publications by researchers and by organisations such as International Energy Agency, International Transport Forum to name a few. Can all the knowhow be harnessed and tracked? Who is there to connect all the dots around the planet and for the planet?

It is no easy task to agree and work with friends and colleagues, and daunting to imagine doing this on a global scale. Yet, from my experience of being at COP26, I feel that the momentum and drive are there. And I want to believe we are at a turning point where shared vision is now transforming into real actions to make our small blue planet a sustainable and happier home.

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