COP26: an extraordinary range of people gathered in a single place to shape our future

November 15th, 2021

Professor Dame Jessica Corner reflects on the UN climate change conference

After an extraordinary seven-hour journey by train to Edinburgh (an extreme climate event causing fallen trees in the Peterborough area) and an onward commute to Glasgow, I joined some 40,000 people from all over the world and a whole host of protestors to experience COP26. I was accompanied by a small delegation of Nottingham colleagues sharing observer status.

Boris Johnson’s speech to the assembled world leaders in the opening ceremony drew attention to Glasgow, where James Watt developed the first coal-fired steam engine in 1765,  a technology acknowledged as the starting point for the industrial revolution and from when the origins of increasing carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere are traced. This fact brought into sharp focus our very direct responsibility in the UK to act decisively as we stand on the precipice of climate emergency and catastrophe that will surely unfold if we hesitate.

I was moved by Wayne Binitie’s 1765 Antarctic Air Polar Zero installation at the COP26 exhibition, which contained two cores of polar ice, one with tiny air bubbles from 1765, when carbon dioxide comprised 280 parts per million. In 1960 this had increased to 315 parts per million, today it is 415. The slow drip of the melting second core of ice from 1765 provided the soundscape for the display.

“I am proud of the contribution of everyone across our campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia as we continue to make a difference in addressing the greatest challenge of our time.”
Professor Dame Jessica Corner

I was struck, for all the criticism of the event and doubt as to whether meaningful and delivered action will be realised from COP26, by the extraordinary range of people, countries, organisations, businesses, NGOs, academics, activists, country delegations and indigenous peoples, all gathered in a single place to witness and shape our future actions to prevent global heating rising.

Dame Jessica with Chris Sims, Deputy Director of the Institute for Policy and Engagement, Head of Civic and Public Affairs Léonie Mathers and Professor David Grant, Director of the Propulsion Futures Beacon

It underlined the need to create, immediately, a new industrial revolution powered by sustainable innovations, while we mainstream restoration of biodiversity, develop new economic models that attribute value to natural assets, insure against climate disruption and mobilise recovery of communities and fragile environments and settlements and work only with supply chains certified to prevent deforestation.

COP26 may go down in history as a missed opportunity, with the world’s leaders failing to deliver a roadmap to keep global warming to 1.5 °C by the end of this century.

But the conference did bring to the forefront the need to commit our resources, intelligence and capabilities towards solving the climate emergency.

The conference’s draft agreement, which “recognizes the importance of the best available science for effective climate action and policymaking”, is a significant statement. It refocuses attention on research institutions such as Nottingham as drivers of progress.

Our mission as a hub of innovation and sharer of expertise has never been more important. In Glasgow, our researchers, supported by colleagues from the university’s Institute of Policy and Engagement, met policymakers, funders and leaders from industry.

We shared understanding that collaboration between government, academia and industry is the key to progress. We recognise that the transition to green energy will have huge economic and social dividends for the UK, while our international partnerships are committed to empowering and supporting societies across the world that are most vulnerable to climate change.

During the conference, we have been further sharing our discoveries to inform the debate. As Europe’s leading aviation research university, we are highlighting our research in support of net zero aviation.

The short video below highlights how our research, spanning clean aircraft technologies, propulsion systems and fuels, to advances in sustainable materials and manufacturing, as well as more efficient flight and airport operations, is addressing this challenge.

We also highlighted the response of our six Beacons of Excellence to climate change. Two beacons, Green Chemicals and Propulsion Futures, are having a direct impact in progress towards net zero: securing a skills-rich bioeconomy and the greening of aviation, while Future Food is highlighting the challenge of feeding a growing population in the face of climate change.

There is also hope in some of the progress made at COP26:

  • A pledge from more than 100 countries to stop deforestation by 2030
  • A net-zero pledge by India
  • Agreement by more than 100 countries to cut 30% of methane emissions by 2030
  • A surprise agreement between the USA and China to work together on reducing emissions and transitioning to renewable energy

Our strategic response to the climate crisis

And, significantly, there is a growing consensus that countries should negotiate their commitment to cut emissions annually at future COPs, rather than every five years. This will increase the demand for cutting-edge science and evidence-based policy and underlines the urgency of collectively working to address this global crisis.

For our part, we remain determined. By anticipating the hurdles ahead, our researchers will be ready to offer solutions. Our new research strategy, to be published at the end of this year, will enhance our ability to deliver strategic responses to the climate crisis and other great challenges.

As an institution we embed sustainability in all that we do, and I am proud of the contribution of everyone across our campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia as we continue to make a difference in addressing the greatest challenge of our time.

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