The herculean task for COP26 was to weld traditional practices with the disparate wishes of over a hundred represented countries. The passionate and compelling speeches that set the scene at the beginning of the conference were inspiring. But these were only the introduction, what followed was the intense negotiations matching these aspirations with the practicalities limiting each country’s options. 

We have a lot to thank Alok Sharma for, having expertly steered all parties through COP26. Limits were agreed on deforestation and methane emissions. There was some help with financing the poorest countries facing the worst effects of flooding, sea levels rising, droughts and fires. The inclusion to phase down the use of coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies was a significant success in the light of the number of major countries who still rely heavily on coal. Many felt it did not go far enough. I don’t think anyone can say ‘on course for 2.4°’ was a good outcome.

What were the UK’s new commitments? Little seemed to emerge that significantly changed our position; I felt there was a sense of resting on our laurels. Yet concurrent with COP26 was the passing of the Environment Bill in parliament. This is where many of England’s nature-based solutions have been enshrined. Legislation to improve air and water quality, reduce waste and protect nature are all included. Within this bill is the Local Nature Recovery Strategy something that can be clearly translated into local actions. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are the most likely beneficiaries of this legislation. It is up to local authorities to determine the designated area. Within this strategy they will need to describe the opportunities for recovering or enhancing biodiversity in terms of habitats and species. It is unlikely that we will see the Sid Valley designated, though the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty might be. The Sid Valley Biodiversity Group can emulate this format for our valley by mapping habitats for protection or development and targeting specific species for support. Natural solutions can provide resilience in our biodiversity, producing healthier environments for us and our children. They are the most popular way of combating climate change.

COP26 highlighted the even bigger role that the business sector had to play in reducing carbon compared to national governments. Carbon offsets were discussed extensively and can be purchased if a company cannot or will not decrease its carbon footprint. The funding from these schemes generates cash for nature. They are an important tool for generating nature-based solutions to climate change. However, there are two main problems with carbon offsets. Firstly, they have tended to undervalue carbon, so it has been a cheap way out for businesses. Secondly, these cannot be used as a substitute for decarbonising business. Given that natural solutions at best could only mitigate 25% of the necessary carbon, it must be that businesses significantly reduce their CO2 emissions for net zero to be possible.

Flood waters on the River Sid after heavy rain
River Sid in flood – Credit: Charles Sinclair

Having said all that, COP26 still felt like a success. To me the positives were not so much the measurable outcomes. It was that the motivation to avert climate catastrophe was demonstrated by so many countries, Heads of State, politicians and activists. Structures are now in place that will keep the ratchets gearing up year on year and the target of 1.5° is still a possibility, just.

We are moving towards a clean energy future, but will we be fast enough to combat the worst of climate change? Will we enjoy clean air, green spaces and animal abundance or will we be tormented by storms, floods, heat waves, migration, fires, tipping points and extinctions. We are in a race to prevent the latter.

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