Post COP26 Analysis: A Focus on Science & Innovation
by Leonie Schiedek and Emily Matthews
Science and innovation are critical in the battle against climate change: we need to fundamentally re-design our systems based on what research tells us and is essential to avert and adapt to the effects of climate change. This was visible at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Glasgow. In this article, we want to demonstrate how science and innovation shaped the 26th COP in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021.
Science Advocates For Action And Encounters Both Rising Ambition And Resistance
Science is critical in determining how and why the climate is changing, in assessing our existing systems in order to determine what needs to change to combat climate change and how we might adapt to an already changing climate. Assessments like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report or the Mitigation and Adaptation Gap Reports,released shortly before COP26, provided a baseline for the negotiations in Glasgow and will be considered during the Global Stocktake in 2023, a process for taking stock of the implementation of the Paris Agreement and assessing the progress made towards achieving agreements and long-term goals.
The results outlined in the IPCC’s reports were presented at COP26, for example, during panel discussions or side events at the science pavilion . In these pavilions more academic institutions were represented , for example, in the Cryosphere Pavilion organised by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative , presenting topics and research around the frozen part of the Earth system like the permafrost or glaciers. These pavilions were limited to the blue zone and not accessible for the public, but for blue-pass holders like party members, observers or NGOs.
A frequently levelled complaint is that world leaders failed to adhere to science-based objectives, such as limiting global warming to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels . This target was reinforced in the Glasgow Climate Pact . Nevertheless, according to the International Energy Agency the pledges made at COP26 – if properly implemented – could only limit global warming to 1.8°C by 2100 . As a result, all eyes were focused on the engagement of non-state actors who have a significant stake in action. It was therefore gratifying that the Science-Based Targets initiative announced on one of the last days of the COP that “more than 1,000 companies are setting 1.5°C-aligned science-based targets as part of a global campaign to rapidly scale corporate climate ambition” .
Unfortunately, there was also direct opposition to science at COP26. A leak revealed that nations such as Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia pleaded with the UN to downplay the need of swiftly transitioning away from fossil fuels, trying to influence the IPCC reports’ outcomes . Also, there was international outcry when it came to light that the fossil fuel industry had the largest delegation at COP26 , despite the fact that phasing out fossil fuels is one of the most important concerns to combat climate change by science .
Innovation Is The Future And Countries Are Competing In Being Innovation Leaders
One of the main announcements at ‘Science & Innovation Day’ was the 23 governments that agreed to new initiatives backed by global coalitions, nations, businesses and scientists. The four new ‘innovation missions’ are designed to accelerate development of clean technologies and target sectors responsible for half of the world’s emissions. These ‘missions’ address urban environments and energy consumption, carbon dioxide removal, construction materials and bio-based alternatives for replacing fossil fuel-based fuels, chemicals and materials .
Leonie, a COP Team Member at ClimaTalk, attended COP26 in 2021 and talks of her experience:
“While walking through the Green and Blue zones of COP26, one thing struck me deeply: we need to rethink and redesign our systems, and innovation will be critical in facilitating this transition. Almost all events or exhibition stands talk about potential solutions for the climate and other sustainability crises. Simultaneously, everyone positioned themselves as leaders by example through the use of innovation. For example, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Australia (all of which attempted to weaken the IPCC assessments) positioned themselves as climate leaders in their respective pavilions by doing things ‘differently’, while other countries that could serve as true climate role models using maybe traditional knowledge, rethink their economic system or show that an economy doesn’t need to exploit all its natural resources to thrive, lacked even a standalone pavilion. Nonetheless, cutting-edge technological innovations were thoroughly discussed, including the use of various types of hydrogen, carbon capture technology, and, of course, market instruments such as carbon markets. Although many of the events at COP26 have innovation in their core, the question remains, what sustainable innovation really is.”
A controversial topic that is at the heart of the discussion around innovation and clean energy is nuclear power. Nuclear power produces very few greenhouse gas emissions and can provide a constant stream of electricity, i.e., without the intermittency of solar or wind power. However, there is very little public confidence in nuclear power, which is primarily fuelled by negative media and the events surrounding the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear power can also disproportionately affect the livelihoods of Indengious people, which is often not a focal point in policies . Discussions on nuclear power have not been welcomed at COP, and the World Nuclear Association had all members’ applications for exhibits at the COP26 climate summit’s civil society “Green Zone” rejected . Despite this, there were side event discussions and a number of countries that released nuclear power plans during COP26 . The conversation on the role of nuclear power in reaching net zero is still up for debate and some opinions changed in favour of this currently neglected resource.
Whilst science and innovation play a key role in solving the climate crisis, do we rely on these tools too much? A statement made by International Senior Science Advisors ahead of this year’s COP said:“It [climate crisis] will require rapid, urgent and sustained action and significant behavioural, socio-economic and technological transformations across the world” . Yet despite that evidence tells us that changes to our lifestyles can have significant positive impacts on the planet this was not echoed in the week’s conversations , albeit behavioural change must not necessarily come from a purely top down approach. Education plays a key part in this too, so that individuals can make informed and hopefully more sustainable choices. An action plan was launched at COP26 to reshape climate education, designed to empower teachers and improve teaching about climate in UK schools .
Science And Innovation Is Part Of The System’s Transition, But A Holistic Perspective Is Necessary For Real Change
COP26 underlined once again the importance of research and science based targets, however, it became clear that although more countries state they are aware of scientific targets, they do not take decisions accordingly. Nevertheless, the agenda setting at COP26 shows that working on innovative ideas for system improvement seems to be more and more mainstream to a variety of stakeholders, for example, nature based solutions, technology or industry partnerships. Also, maintaining competitiveness in the global economy is a significant motivator for governments and the corporate sector to hop on the sustainability train, which is why innovation focussed on technology and the redesign of the economy. This also allows players who have long since been written off to re-emerge on the scene, such as the nuclear lobby, providing some questionable and simple answers to complex questions. Others try to circumvent real change and achieve their goals with greenwashing. Even though science has preached it for a long time, it has only slowly been understood that we are not in a linear process of solving a problem, but rather a transformation of our system, which is frequently confused with innovation.
What do you think? What does innovation mean in terms of solving the sustainability crises?
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