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Collaboration, agitation and inspiration: observations from COP26

Lucy Yu   •   17 November 2021

net zero insights

Glasgow is a city I know well; I’ve been lucky enough to visit it many times over the last few years. In the past month, I found it thrilling to see the entire city transform into a buzzing hub of climate awakening — from the cries of Extinction Rebellion outside the blue zone to the palpable emotions of government ministers inside during the closing stages of the conference.

For those who weren’t on the ground at COP26, I wanted to share a few insights into the people, projects and plans I encountered that left a lasting impression.

I was struck by the words of a Glasgow City Councillor on the penultimate day of the summit, who observed that it had been a ‘tale of two COPs’, with world leaders negotiating inside the blue zone, and everyone else, including industry and civil society, left outside.

It was impossible not to notice that ‘everyone else’ included the loud and clear voices of global cities. Mayors from around the world attended, both in person and virtually, as well as prominent city interest groups including C40, to push for mechanisms that will allow their net zero ambitions to be realised.

Much of our work during the first year of Centre for Net Zero’s creation has focused on the decarbonisation of transport and buildings, because of their responsibility for high volumes of GHG emissions. These sectoral emissions are more concentrated in cities because of their dense populations — which means that decarbonising cities can offer a high ‘return on investment’.

Whilst we often focus on the threat faced by low-lying countries when it comes to climate change, many cities and their communities are incredibly vulnerable to the challenges ahead. For me, this was brought to life by Isabella de Roldão, Vice-Mayor of Recife, who spoke passionately and movingly about the threat to her ‘beautiful city’. Recife, located in eastern Brazil, was named by the IPCC as the world’s 16th most vulnerable city to climate change in 2007. It is home to over 3.7 million people.

So how can we protect these urban environments — and what was agreed at COP26?

Negotiations in the blue zone are led by the Parties, with almost 200 countries working to agree targets and commit finance that can enable these targets to be reached. It goes without saying that reaching agreement between a coalition of nations with very different cultures, politics and economies isn’t straightforward.

Conversely, though, city leaders have strong incentives to align their shared interests and work collaboratively — not least because at the level of the individual city, county or state, investment propositions may be too small to attract the capital needed, either at all, or on favourable terms.

But coming together to create aggregated propositions and robust business models can help to unlock investment that would not otherwise have materialised — and the investment that cities require to decarbonise sectors such as the built environment and transport is not insubstantial. This opportunity — amongst others — is driving forward the work of the UK Cities Climate Investment Commission (UKCCIC), led by Connected Places Catapult, Core Cities and London Councils and Chaired by Prof Greg Clark CBE.

In a move that will help deliver meaningful climate action around the world — and hopefully reassure the likes of Vice-Mayor of Recife — I was delighted to see the UK government announce £27.5 million in funding over the next four years for a new Urban Climate Action programme (UCAP) to support cities and regions in developing countries most impacted by climate change to accelerate their transition to net zero.

Energy had its own themed day at the conference, yet it’s hard to think about its role in isolation from other sectors such as transport. A number of discussions focused on the transition from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs), with many of the same questions we’ve heard before continuing to dominate the debate. Electric cars attract many critics, because a like-for-like substitution with fossil fueled vehicles won’t solve many of the other negative externalities associated with road transport, such as congestion and the need for large amounts of land for parking.

As someone with a long background in mobility, I have spoken many times about these things in the past. It’s worth remembering that other changes to the technology of cars are happening in parallel that will collectively unlock system transformation. For example, digital connectivity will pave the way for more sophisticated local and regional road pricing, ultimately reducing the number of kilometres we drive on the network. Meanwhile, the energy intensity of manufacturing EV batteries is regularly cited by critics, yet their important role in future energy systems continues to be overlooked. These batteries can provide short term storage and gigawatt scale energy flexibility, which is critical to supporting the integration of renewable energy into the grid.

Fortunately, the electrification of mobility is gaining more mainstream traction. COP26 saw a total of 34 countries committing to stopping the sale of non-electric vehicles by at least 2040, including several leading markets that pledged to do so by 2035. The agreement was also signed by cities, car manufacturers and financial institutions, but not by the governments of three of the world’s biggest car markets — the US, Germany and China.

Debates that focus on electric vehicles and renewable energy can often incite passionate arguments about supply chain (especially in relation to batteries and electronics) and whole-of-life impact.

These themes are not new, nor are they confined to these products or sectors. Yet in light of recent global events, including the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, attention and concern around the resilience of supply chains is growing — prompting new innovations and models of circularity. This progress is encouraging us to consider the issue in sectors that might not immediately come to mind when you think about sustainability. I was really pleased to take part in OpenUK’s discussion about sustainable data centres and the launch of ‘Patchwork Kilt’, their consortium blueprint for a carbon negative data centre. Data centres are highly energy intensive and account for around 1% of global electricity use.

During a break in proceedings we had a showcase of the ultimate in circularity, in the work of artist Frank To: a Scottish artist who makes beautiful artwork out of ‘humanium’ metal, made using melted down illegal firearms. If you’re looking for inspiration, I encourage you to check it out here.

This summit was never going to be easy. If Glasgow 2021 was about the ‘how’ to Paris 2015’s ‘why’, then we should all have been drawn into the knotty conversations about what’s stopping us, and what we’re going to do next. In this respect, it’s clear that many positive steps have been taken — from the numerous ‘side deals’ on international finance, mitigation and deforestation to the decision to return to the negotiating table in Egypt next year with stronger climate pledges. Before Glasgow, countries would not have had to resubmit new climate plans until 2025, leaving behind a shrinking chance to slow the rate of warming.

Yet with critics pointing to research by Climate Action Tracker that shows that full adherence to the commitments made at COP26 would limit warming to 1.8C, there is still a way to go and a huge amount to do.

The people of Glasgow are what make it the city of warmth, collaboration, creativity, guile and grit that I know so well. These are just some of the attributes we’ll all need to adopt to ensure that we overcome the next hurdle, and the following one, and the one after that — and keep going.

I took comfort in the words of George Monbiot, who reminded us in The Guardian over the weekend that ‘just as the complex natural systems on which our lives depend can flip suddenly from one state to another, so can the systems that humans have created’. If we’re able to trigger cascading regime shifts in both technology and politics, we stand a chance. Transforming social attitudes holds the key to this shift — and we only need a small number of people to trigger serious change. Compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, shows that just 3.5% of the population actively campaigning against the status quo can transform the shape of world politics.

So as I return to London, I feel more enthused and passionate about the fight against climate change than ever — and our work here at Centre for Net Zero. I’m grateful for my brilliant team, who collectively encouraged, convened and educated others across numerous important events throughout the duration of the conference. We’re a team of doers, and we’re all looking forward to doing much, much more in 2022 as we collectively push for better climate outcomes. As UN Secretary General António Gueterres rightly pointed out, we’ve got the fight of our lives ahead.