Before the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, National Geographic magazine wrote “Since 1992, when the world’s nations agreed at Rio de Janeiro to avoid ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,’ they’ve met 20 times without moving the needle on carbon emissions. In that interval, we’ve added almost as much carbon to the atmosphere as we did in the previous century.“
Unfortunately going into COP26, despite the hype, we know that of the 192 countries who signed the Paris Agreement only 113 countries, equating to approximately 60% of global emissions and around half of the global population, have submitted their updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) on reducing greenhouse gas emissions up to 2050. We also know from a UN report published in September, that the existing pledges made by countries in their NDCs, or lack thereof, will fall short of the Paris Agreement’s tougher goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C, allowing emissions to rise by 16% in 2030, putting the world on track for 2.7°C of warming by the end of the century.
What this tells us is that making pledges and being a signatory to international agreements is all well and good. As is two weeks of intense debate on climate change by politicians, diplomats, businesses, NGOs, journalists, and citizens. But the old adage that ‘actions speak louder than words has never been more true.
At Temple we believe the success of COP26 should not be judged on the size of the event or the scale of the commitments made – we expect, need, and demand more. We believe COP26 should be used to forge a paradigm shift in the way nations, governments, economies, businesses, institutions, communities, and individuals relate to each other and to the environment we co-inhabit and depend on.
For COP26 to be a success at the World Leaders Summit we believe there needs to be a re-framing of humankind’s understanding and response to the global environmental and societal challenges that we face, and of which climate change is just one. It is important that we rebuild our society post-pandemic in a way that protects planetary health and creates a resilient, sustainable and equitable future.
Complex challenges require complex solutions (and a holistic approach) – the scale and complexity of the challenges faced need to be properly framed to ensure we are formulating the right solutions. Our changing climate is a result of anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system, but the ways in which we have and continue to interfere with this system, and the cascade of direct and indirect effects of this interference are multiple and complex. This is just one of multiple dynamic, interdependent, and interrelated natural systems on which we and all life on earth depend, to sustain its existence. These issues simply cannot be tackled in isolation. For COP26 tackling climate change and focusing on the achievement of carbon net-zero cannot be the only goal. The goal should be contributing to building a better, fairer, more sustainable society through addressing the intertwined challenge of societal imbalance and natural systems interference, avoiding further environmental depletion or increase in societal inequalities.
The right time for the right action – given the accelerating rate of change from anthropogenic actions on the natural environment and the reaching and breaching of natural systems tipping points, the time for action is now not later. Ideally, we would have more time to plan and understand the challenges we face, as well as all the available alternatives and their respective costs and potential consequences. But we do not have this time and in taking action we will need to take a broad, precautionary, and more forgiving approach. We will need to remain vigilant, flexible, and agile, willing to play the long game with a balanced portfolio of higher and lower risk solutions, avoiding the allure of short-term political panaceas.
The quality, nature, and sustainability of human development – in accepting our entry into a new ‘Anthropocene’ age defined by the impact of humans on the world, and a period of greater climate uncertainty and instability, there is no successful option for continuing as we were. Developing and transitioning nations cannot seek to emulate the economic and consumption trajectories of developed countries as these were unsustainable built on the irresponsible and un-costed depletion of environmental goods and services and the exploitation of others. Through our actions, we have irreversibly changed the natural world around us. We now urgently need to reimagine and rebalance our relationships with the planet, change our social norms and rerun our financial models. Economic growth and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) should be called out as a poor indicator of the health of a
country’s economy and the well-being of its citizens. Instead, a new metric is required that captures a country’s ability to provide for its citizens, and its impacts on the natural environment and resources of doing so, relative to national and global capacity to sustain these levels of impact and consumption.
Collective behavioural change is key – historic actions, current consumption, and resource use, and further population growth means that we have changed our relationship with the natural environment forever and this means our societal norms are changing and will need to continue to change, at times rapidly. Already environmental movements are becoming mainstream, with a new generation of climate activists having emerged in recent years. People are heating their homes differently, adopting new diets and embracing new ways of life. The circular economy, carbon and biodiversity offsetting are all continuing to grow alongside the adopting of higher corporate ESG standards and the introduction of new green finance initiatives.
We have seen from our recent experience during the Covid-19 pandemic, the power of government to coordinate collective action in the face of a global challenge and the power of individuals to respond to this global challenge to reimagine pre-existing norms and effect positive change. To leverage such a response to the climate emergency is critical. This will need governments to enhance their commitment to and funding for the UNFCCC’s Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE). ACE calls on governments to develop and implement educational and public awareness programmes, train scientific, technical, and managerial personnel, foster access to information, and promote public participation in addressing climate change and its effects. It also urges countries to cooperate in this process, by exchanging good practices and lessons learned, and strengthening national institutions.
For COP26 the goal of the World Leaders should not be to outcompete each other on how stringent their carbon reduction targets are and the speed of their implementation. The goal should be the degree of realism they are prepared to bring around the uncertain realities we face, of the difficult paths we need to follow and the new beliefs, behaviors and norms we must embrace, or to put it more bluntly ‘real leadership’. This includes raising understanding on the level of behavioural change and curbs on existing lifestyle freedoms that may be required and exploring how this can be done in an inclusive way and without disproportionately discriminating against or marginalising individuals or groups of individuals. Ideally, the political rhetoric at COP26 and commitment to ACE should directly align with leaders’ environmental and social commitments and action away from this arena.
We believe adopting this reframing, will help create sustainable futures, ensuring the actions coming out of COP26 are environmental and socially just, and the outcomes they deliver do not limit the choices of future generations nor result in negative unintended environmental or social consequences.
Successfully done and with international knowledge sharing and collaboration, we believe that the common and past failures to cost environmental externalities can be positively leveraged to make a stronger, fairer more sustainable society. A society in balance with nature and a society where individuals, communities, science, and the arts have as much sway over our shared futures as big business, the media and party politics.
For many, not least politicians, this reframing is a big-ask. Elected leaders need to step back and recognise that their actions may not be rewarded with instant future success at the ballot box, but instead their reward will be the fulfilment of their vocational calling and being remembered for the role they played in representing and protecting the best interests of all people and not just the people with the potential to re-elect them.