COP26 must bridge the gap between physics and politics

6 March, 2021
By Paul Allen

In an emergency, physical problems need physical solutions and no amount of talking will make them go away. This is not to say that talking isn’t important – it’s essential, especially in the run up to COP26. But the focus of our conversations must be rooted in the immediate actions at the scale and speed demanded by science.

Considering the climate emergency, virtually everybody agrees that a shift to net zero is the cornerstone of any solution to climate breakdown, but we must link this distant goal to what needs to happen now to get there in time.

We have adequate ways of measuring how much is required by when. For example, the UN Emissions Gap Report analyses the physical timeline rooted in our scientific knowledge.

However, we find that the scale of immediate action required does not fit comfortably into politics and economics as usual. On the other hand, if we consider a plan that is comfortable with the politics, we find it does not meet the requirements of the physics.

The Emissions Gap Report 2020 clearly states that the world is still heading for a catastrophic temperature rise above 3°C this century – far beyond the goals of the Paris Agreement. Rising to any emergency demands we cross the huge gulf between what is physically demanded by science and what is seen as politically palatable.

In the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain reports we call this the ‘politics-physics gap’. Many plans attempt to build bridges working within current political, economic and social boundaries to try and meet the challenge. We see plenty of ‘half bridges’ built to be politically acceptable, but none of them quite reach where we need to go on the timescale demanded.

Many of us recognise this, but it often remains unspoken.

Finding hope

So what do we do? – call for immediate actions in accordance with the science!

As the world grapples with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate and ecological emergencies continue unabated.

After a decade of austerity cuts, local governments, now find themselves at the front line of dealing with multiple impacts. These include rising poverty, poor air quality, high levels of flooding and storm damage.

Despite a wide range of pressing commitments, a great many District, County, Unitary, Metropolitan Councils and City Regions are showing new leadership and doing everything within their power to multi-solve several challenges at the same time, including getting their communities to net zero.

We need a UK-wide climate and biodiversity emergency response programme rooted in local democratic engagement and in multi-solving. Those dealing with this emergency need the knowledge, skills and resources to be able to act at speed driven by the science. We need to come together to make a radical transformative change that tackles root causes, as well as the values and behaviours which perpetuate them.

With limited time and finite resources, multi-solving several challenges at the same time is a no brainer. For example, as we remedy the economic downturn accelerated by lockdown, we can do it strategically in a way which also protects biodiversity and offers increased health and wellbeing.

By exploring visionary actions at ground level, we not only create meaningful employment and stimulate the economy, but we can also ‘future-proof’ humanity to be more resilient to both the known and un-known emergencies of the 21st Century.

Team Wales at COP26

We know Wales can take sustainability seriously – in 2018-19 it had the highest recycling rate in the world – while the Centre for Alternative Technology put forward its first Zero Carbon Britain report in 2007, long before carbon targets were adopted for the Paris Agreement.

Wales has always been at the forefront of innovation, from being an integral part of the Industrial Revolution, to now focusing on sustainability with innovative legislation like the Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015. This is a world-first that makes government legally obliged to improve Wales’ environment, social, cultural, and economic well-being. And, along with the Welsh Government, the vast majority of Welsh councils have already declared a climate emergency.

In the run-up to world leaders gathering at COP26 in Glasgow in November, a team Wales approach offers a powerful chance to call for the united urgent actions needed now to create a better future for our communities, both here and around the world.

We can respect local needs, traditions and culture, linking to important local opportunities such as agriculture, health or local businesses. This helps by linking the climate action planning to the key issues that are relevant to any locality.

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain Hub and Innovation Lab has already been providing local authorities, businesses, institutions and community groups with the confidence, skills and understanding to maximise the co-benefits in wellbeing, nature restoration, reducing fuel poverty and creating new jobs while reaching net zero emissions.

Based in Mid Wales, The Centre for Alternative Technology has nearly 50 years’ experience of providing environmental skills and education, backed by over a decade of thought leadership in how the UK can reach zero carbon emissions – we are very happy to partner with Climate.Cymru. 

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