Comment: Where does Cop26 leave us?

Human Nature Founder & CEO Jonathan Smales on the successes and the failures of Cop26 in Glasgow – and what we need to do next

How to make sense of Cop26 or add anything to the deluge of information and commentary flowing through media channels?

Well, Glasgow was a curate’s egg really: good things and bad things… Good Cop, Bad… The good things are to do with the fact that finance, business, city governments have stirred and had a big presence, something that has also encouraged nation states to do more than they might have otherwise. The primary good thing is that Cops happen at all – governments assembling to debate the greatest issues of this or any other age is both necessary and urgent; change at speed and scale cannot happen without them. 

There’s a tsunami of virtue signalling and rhetoric of course – big-sounding commitments like ‘Net Zero’ that often have vague meanings and distant deadlines.This is the ‘blah blah, blah’ that the refreshingly forthright Greta Thunberg refers to and in the overall scheme of things she’s not wrong. We saw that some huge greenhouse gas emitters failed to show and didn’t offer much remotely either. But let’s remember these vast countries such as India remain poor and they lack the resources to transition at due speed. 

And when we celebrate the many commitments’ made we do need to remember that pledges are not the same as action. And ‘hope’, that warmest of politician’s words, has become almost irritating in its glib overuse and vacuity. 

Even if pledges made by governments are fulfilled we’re not on course for the Paris target of keeping global heating to an increase of 1.5 degrees, and that’s already extremely dangerous. And let’s remember that targets omit certain types of emissions, that we’re cutting the easiest things first – the UK and now the US switching to gas – and finding even that difficult; exporting production to countries with higher emissions and importing goods with high embodied carbon. We’re also still subsidising fossil fuels hugely, investing in their planned future extraction and spending billions on new roads.

So, government commitment is necessary but not sufficient; in fact, nowhere near sufficient. And let’s remember that we are government – it is citizens, civil bodies, businesses of all kinds that vote for and enact the changes needed. And it goes further than this: all of us as individuals need to make changes to the way we live – reducing our climate ‘footprint’ (emissions caused by our homes, our transport, the food we eat and the goods and services we consume), maximising our climate ‘handprint’ (that is the good things we can do) and addressing our climate ‘shadow’ (the greenhouse gases caused by governments, banks, pension funds, employers acting in our name). 

At Human Nature, our commitment is to make the changes we all need far easier than they would otherwise be, inspiring people to change and helping this process to be reasonable and fair and therefore more likely to happen in what is sometimes called a ‘just transition’. The Phoenix neighbourhood here in Lewes, East Sussex, is being designed to house people of all kinds well in efficient homes – naturally cool in hotter summers, warm in winter – use scarce brownfield land wisely through creating a compact settlement in a three-minute neighbourhood, design streets for people and greenery making walking and cycling safe, easy and enjoyable, organise other forms of mobility in a different way using shared co-mobility services with electric vehicles, build in new ways with low impact and even regenerative materials such as timber and hemp, and establish a renewable energy grid so that all people who live and work there have access to affordable clean heat and electricity. We will also determine which commercial and community enterprises are accommodated in the non-residential spaces we build and can give preference to those who operate in ways that can help regenerate climate and nature, not harm them.

In our view these types of actions, carried out at the local level – in our neighbourhoods – are the most urgent and effective of all. We can relate to them, experience them and see for ourselves at first hand how a commitment to a safer world can also create a far, far better world.