COP26 Dispatches

COP26 is over: and, no, it wasn’t all ‘blah blah blah’

16 November 2021

Martina Juvara spent a week at the COP26 Summit as a representative of the International Society of City and Regional Planners. While there, she posted a series of dispatches for LTT. Here she offers her final summary.

So, did COP26, to coin a phrase used by Greta Thunberg to describe the UN climate change conferences, end up being no more than ‘blah blah blah’? Absolutely not!

On Friday and Saturday last week I was hooked on the live meetings broadcast on the UN climate change platform, and I witnessed the whole drama unfolding. I saw the moment when Alok Sharma offered a heartfelt, and tearful, apology for having to accept a last-minute curve ball – with a commitment to “phase out” coal changed to “phase down” after opposition from India and China – in order to save the rest. Many island nations, the ones that risk disappearing under rising sea levels, also expressed deep disappointment but thought the rest was worth saving anyway. What does it all mean then? The agreement, even after being maimed for its flexible wording on fossil fuels, still calls nations to step up their domestic policies to significantly reduce carbon emissions. All countries, including the UK, will have to report on progress and republish their pledges on an annual basis until there is certainty that the 1.5 C limit can be secured: declaring a climate emergency and publishing a carbon budget will no longer be just words – it will be the yardstick of decision-making.

I am not sure if the UK will redraw the Ten Point Plan and Transport Decarbonisation Strategy: but the implementing regulations, funding streams and support will surely strengthen the resolve, accelerate innovation and promote more firmly sustainable ways of operating. This will be profound for the transport profession, as road schemes and assessment tools will need urgent revisiting – or maybe even reconceptualising entirely.

The agreement also supports, for the first time, the use of nature-based solutions (soon a ubiquitous NBS acronym) as a legitimate way to obtain carbon credits. Nature-based solutions include re-naturalisation techniques, traditional environmental management, and other soft-techniques, which were previously bypassed in favour of hard engineering solutions: for example, a carbon capture plant was easier to fund than a programme of traditional forest maintenance. This shift is very significant for our professional mindset: it is a move from high-cost, engineering-led dominance to the validation of lower cost, natural or community based interventions, some of which have been very effective in South American and Asian countries.

This new way of working should be mainstreamed in all professions as quickly as possible – and much learning needs to be done. For transport, we have already done a lot of thinking around walking and cycling, but we have to admit that community-led action and low-cost programmes are still not the way we operate: without a traffic model and lots of difficult technical work nothing moves. This approach is too slow, costly and divorced from communities to achieve its goals fast enough.

COP26 also achieved a great deal more: commitments were made to accelerate clean technologies, with a sea-change in the way businesses and financial institutions prepare for a different future. Regional and city authorities are also stepping up and committing to real change joining the Race to Zero and Race to Resilience programmes supported by UN Climate Champions.

New metrics will be developed for a common set of measures for resilience: allowing cities, for example, to assess how ready they are to withstand erratic climatic conditions. And the rights of young people, women and indigenous people to a safe and thriving future was not only officially enshrined in the agreement, but also given great emphasis in Glasgow.

Activists around the world are watching; Vanessa Natake, a young climate activist from Uganda and representative at the COP, said on the closing day: “It is hard to believe business and finance leaders when they have not been trustworthy in making their pledges a reality… We desperately need you to prove us wrong.”

Martina Juvara is director at consultancy URBAN Silence

COP26 Dispatches