Reflections on COP: We need for new partnerships and local action to keep 1.5 alive

Reflections on COP: We need for new partnerships and local action to keep 1.5 alive

Dr Rebecca Ford, Chancellor's Fellow, Departments of Government & Public Policy and Electronic & Electrical Engineering, University of Strathclyde

29 November 2021

During the first two weeks of November, I was lucky enough to attend COP26 in Glasgow.  During the first week I spent my time mostly in the Green Zone[1] and the City Centre at various fringe events, including the youth climate march. During the second week I took part in the Moving for Climate NOW bike ride, and spent the remainder of my time in the Blue Zone[2] attending side events and talks hosted by various pavilions. Looking back at my experience three key things stand out for me.

1) COP is about more than the international negotiations

Without a doubt the formal negotiations are the key aspect of any COP, but particularly this year as counties revisit their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), set out their pledges for taking action to limit global warming, and seek agreement on key legislation underpinning the international negations agreed at COP21 in Paris.

However, for me, it felt like there was so much more to COP than these nationally led negotiations. There has also been vast levels of huge action from city leaders sharing their successes, creating new networks, and setting climate goals (often more ambitious than their national level counterparts), from business and industry considering the role they have to play in adapting their strategies to align with delivering net-zero, and from wider society through civic engagement, expressed poignantly by the thousands of people participating in the Glasgow climate marches held on the 5th and 6th November.

So, while many may focus their post-COP attention on the outcomes of the formal negotiations, I think we’d be remiss to neglect the broader impact and role that both sub-national and non-state actors will play in advocating for and implementing change.

2) New forms of partnerships are key to deliver ambitions climate action

We have an unprecedented challenge on our hands if we are to deliver climate action in line with keeping 1.5 degrees alive. We need to see simultaneous and inter-related global transitions across our energy systems, industrial systems, land and ocean ecosystems, and urban and infrastructure systems, undertaken in a way that leaves no person, place, or ecosystem behind.

With a challenge this big, no one group can deliver the required changes alone. We need to dramatically upscale our ambition and implementation, and this calls for new types of creative partnerships to bring together the diversity of actors working together to deliver this.

We are in a new phase of working. No longer can we rely on simple private-public collaborations. Instead, we need to see innovation in our ways of working together to address these challenges. We need to accept that innovation goes hand in hand with failure - I mean, who gets it right the first time?! - and recognise the need to fail, learn, iterate, and improve. And underpinning all of this is trust. Between organisations working together to deliver change, and with the wider public who will experience the impacts of climate change and the impacts of transition first hand.

3) Local has a critical role to play

Local action will be key to unlocking the transformational change needed. It is a place where meaningful dialogues can be held between citizens and policymakers, and a place where context specific action can be implemented.

Cities are also the source of many emissions and provide scope for delivering significant mitigation opportunities. In the UK, local government has control or influence over 82% of carbon emissions, so change at this level simply cannot afford to be ignored.

Local leaders have local knowledge, they can build relationships with local stakeholders to drive local action to net zero. They are innovative, ambitious, and - as fabulously articulated by Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire, during a talk at the UK Pavilion - they are the speedboats, agile and swift, who can push government tankers into the right direction.

So, what does all this mean for EnergyREV and the wider Prospering from the Energy Revolution Programme?

For me, it showcases how important smart local energy approaches, and the cross-sector innovative partnerships they are creating, are more important than ever at helping deliver net-zero in the UK. But it also emphasises the need to now take our learnings from the programme and start to ask what this means in other parts of the country. How can different areas leverage our academic insights and learn what works in their context and for their goals? And this is exactly where we will be focussing our efforts across the EnergyREV consortium over the coming year.

[1] The Green Zone is where the public, civil society, Indigenous Peoples, youth groups, charities, academics, artists and businesses can have their voices heard at COP26, through an extensive programme of events, workshops, talks and exhibitions that promote dialogue, awareness, education and commitments.

[2] This Blue Zone is where the key negotiations between world leaders takes place. Only those accredited by the UNFCCC may access this space.