Looking Beyond Glasgow


The global climate summit in Glasgow this November (COP26) is being described as the most significant climate event since the 2015 Paris Agreement. It’s an opportunity to refocus policy makers’ and people’s minds on the environmental and climate crises that have not gone away during the pandemic. It is also the only forum at which countries might bring forward more ambitious emission cutting targets and show plans for how they will meet previously agreed goals.

However, we need to look beyond Glasgow if we are to turn things around. Consider the following five turning points that would enable us to move further, faster:

Carbon Zero Ambition

There is a world of difference between net-zero and carbon zero. The key word is ‘net’. Whatever you’re making or doing, you capture or offset as much carbon as you produce to become net-zero. Carbon zero, however, is where no carbon is emitted from what you’re making or doing in the first place, so no carbon needs to be captured or offset. This matters. Emission reductions that are net of other factors add delays to inevitable changes we need to make and provide less imperative to change what we’re doing at source. It’s also an issue of equity, as offsetting is typically pushed onto other countries while high-carbon lifestyles are maintained elsewhere. The real target should be carbon zero. With our incredible renewable resources in the UK, we should even aim to be an exporter of clean energy.

Joined Up Thinking

It would be a significant breakthrough if the existing UK framework of policies and incentives to address the ecological and climate emergency were joined up. Currently, contradictory initiatives hinder our overall progress. For example, local commuter rail services get people out of cars, but they are starved of funding while the cost of HS2 climbs to £98bn. Ministers urge people to cycle to improve health and reduce pollution, yet £30bn is spent on new trunk roads. Onshore wind is our cheapest clean energy source, but new onshore wind power in the UK has been virtually blocked. In the race to carbon zero, we don’t have the time to take backward steps.

Prioritise Local

Across the world, local authorities and regional governments have shown real leadership in moving towards carbon zero. In the UK, over 100 local authorities across the country have area-wide targets of becoming net-zero by 2030, two decades ahead of the national target. We need the UK government to share the power to tackle climate change with local authorities and to provide the money and resources for them to take action to deliver on their ambitious local climate action plans. Top-down policy announcements at COP26 should be accompanied by meaningful commitments to support this local leadership at a sub-national level.

Deeds Not Declarations

The UK is a global leader in making declarations. But more than talking the talk, we need our government to walk the walk. The under-reported truth is that the gap between rhetoric and reality is growing all the time. The UK has failed on 17 out of 21 progress indicators on climate (according to the Climate Change Committee) and has made insufficient progress on 14 of the 19 targets on biodiversity (according to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee). We don’t need more headlines about ambitious new declarations; we need to stick to the pledges that we have already made and to deliver on them.

Genuine Emissions Reductions

The road to COP26 is paved with good intentions. There is much talk of a potential link up of UK and EU Emissions Trading System ahead of the summit, so that future emissions targets can ‘be reached more quickly, easily and at better value’. Market-based climate solutions such as offsetting and emissions trading are false solutions that mask a lack of action on genuine emissions reductions. Selling carbon credits is reminiscent of the medieval practice of selling indulgences: there was no evidence that these remissions worked, but there was plenty of money to be made helping everyone feel better.

The good news is that we don’t need permission to take the lead on climate action. All of these turning points can be addressed locally as well as at COP26. We can strive for carbon zero; take a more holistic approach to tackling the environment and climate crises; make places the seat of the solution; have a bias for action; and reduce actual greenhouse gas emissions at source.

In looking beyond Glasgow, let’s look to where we live as the stage for turning things around.

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