Joseph Lewis
December 2020

STAGES on the road to COP26

Yesterday, hundreds of people came together at the IES’ annual Burntwood Lecture #Burntwood2020 to listen to this year’s guest speaker, Professor Jim Skea of IPCC Working Group III and Professor of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College London. Professor Skea kicked off the event with a short lecture, followed by a lively discussion with Chair Julie Hill, MBE and key respondents including Pankaj Bhatia, Deputy Director of the World Resource Institute's Climate Program, Sophie Marjanac, Climate Accountability Lead at ClientEarth, and Dr Peter Brotherton, Lead Director for Climate Change at Natural England.

What were the highlights of the 2020 Burntwood Lecture?

The discussion focused on the coherence of scientific messaging in a world which is seeking policy solutions to address the climate crisis, the related loss of nature, and socio-economic injustices. It was a reminder that the challenges posed by the climate crisis are as urgent as ever, especially over the next year as we prepare for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next November. For Professor Skea, the question of coherence had been highlighted by concerns in the UN Environment Programme that multiple panels and international bodies discussing the same topics with differing focuses may lead to incoherent or contradictory perspectives. The solution, as ever, was more cooperation and discussion, which Professor Skea highlighted with an anecdote about the different IPCC working groups using a shared glossary; a common language helped establish a common goal.

The lecture also touched on the different approaches to addressing the climate and biodiversity crises, centred around the case study of land-based solutions and their interactions with mitigation and adaptation. Professor Skea outlined the significant and real differences between the impacts of a 1.5°C increase in temperature and a 2°C increase, and looking at different model pathways, he set out the challenge that lies ahead. On one end of the spectrum, pathways required rapid and repeated reduction in emissions over the coming years.

At the other end of the spectrum, if those reductions are not possible, the pathways require the immediate overshoot of a 1.5°C increase in temperature to be met by a massive subsequent reduction of net emissions, relying heavily on controversial 'bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology. Two messages were clear: the challenge cannot be underestimated, and the solution may require an approach which pursues a combination of tools and approaches in order to succeed.

When the conversation opened to respondents and questions from the audience, the topic's breadth and complexity became even more apparent. Sophie Marjanac from ClientEarth asked whether the pathways which relied on BECCS were just 'a choice between spotted and striped unicorns', raising the question of if the focus of action should be on solutions which are already available and tested. Professor Skea had more optimism for BECCS in general, but no under-appreciation of the challenge involved in meeting any of the potential pathways.

The discussion moved naturally onto the question of policy, and the ambition that leaders would bring to the table. For Sophie Marjanac, it was a question of the potentially self-serving assumptions which some stakeholders may bring to the table, and Peter Brotherton of Natural England raised the point that while there is a strong case to be made for nature-based solutions and the multiple benefits they can offer for the environment and society, that case is not effectively being made yet. Moreover, Peter Brotherton pointed out that framing the rhetoric around various actions as shared solutions for different crises, from air pollution to biodiversity loss to climate change, could help strengthen calls for policy action. Professor Skea acknowledged the complex challenges involved, and in particular noted the cultural resonance which land has with many people, going beyond pure economics. In the face of such challenges, he suggested that case studies and enhanced knowledge sharing can go a long way to bridging the gap and bringing stakeholders on board.

Pankaj Bhatia from the World Resources Institute was the final respondent, taking the opportunity to mention businesses and the key role they play in driving decision-making, while also raising the unresolved issues associated with emissions accounting and competing definitions of anthropogenic emissions. Despite the seemingly technical differences, the definitions make a massive 4 gigatonne difference to the picture of global emissions every year, underlining the potential problems caused by a lack of coherence in understandings.

What were the key areas of debate for the audience?

As the expert discussion took place, the chat box was also abuzz with commentary and debate. Amongst questions which ranged from technical considerations about where we could get the most value from carbon capture and storage to very broad philosophical ones on the interactions between coherent science and sometimes incoherent policy-making, a handful of major discussions began to play out between attendees.

The biggest debate amongst attendees was the interplay between regulatory solutions led by Government, technological changes led by innovation, and behavioural changes led by individuals. Inherent to these discussions were the questions of how changes happen and whether or not the city-scale and sub-nations are a middle ground which could offer solutions. Professor Skea's response was that we will need both top-down solutions and individual action, and that governments need to lead to send a signal to the rest of society.

Another major discussion took place on the topic of solutions, questioning whether or not current approaches by global Governments were on the right path. Making the most of the evening, participants got quite technical in discussing the viability of electric vehicles, the scale of funding so far, and the lessons that governments will take from the COVID-19 pandemic. Three fundamental questions came from the discussion: how do we get governments on the right track, how do we encourage behavioural and political changes, and should we pick solutions based on what is likely to be politically-feasible, or based on what is most likely to succeed in combating the crisis?

One of the biggest challenges raised by Professor Skea was the different approaches, even within the science community, about how we should tackle the road ahead: should we focus on forecasting and modelling to find pathways to alleviate climate change, or should we take an approach based on nature-based solutions? These are the kinds of questions which are central to discussions across the sector, through our professional work as well as the conversations we have about policy solutions. They are especially pertinent for the IES, as an interdisciplinary body with members on both sides of the discussion.

The answer from the discussion was clear: both sides need to be heard and neither can solve the crisis alone. Professor Skea noted the simultaneous truths that land management must play a substantial role in our solution, and that it also does not hold all the solutions. The road ahead is one which requires many different ideas and many different kinds of knowledge to pursue them. Reflecting on the latest cycle of IPCC discussions, he also notes that more people had been brought together than before, with the result being better understandings of many issues for the next set of discussions.

What are the next steps for the IES?

Professor Skea ended his contribution with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It was a penetrating remark because it cuts to the journey we all need to go on together over the next year. We cannot afford to succumb to tunnel vision, and we need to leave space for different voices in the discussion and different approaches to the problems we face.

It should remind us of the importance of the scientific and professional community coming together with a shared vision and collective voice for how we should tackle the environmental challenges facing our society. As a leading voice for environmental science and the promotion of interdisciplinary working and systemic thinking, we believe that collaboration and communication is vital to success and that’s why we’re announcing our plans to set out a roadmap for communicating the science behind COP26 over the next year.

Our ambition is to work with our members, other professional bodies, and environmental scientists from across the sector to shape the discussion over the next year, and set out our roadmap to COP26.

For individuals, employers, or other professional bodies who have something to say and are looking for ways to be heard, we want to provide a shared platform to unite these discussions. For those who want to be part of the conversation on the road to COP but don’t yet know what they want to say, we are providing a series of themed discussions to inspire, engage, and shape the debate.

As we look over the next year at the STAGES on the road to COP, that’s the acronym we will be using to frame each of the discussions:

  • Sustainability
  • Transformation
  • Adaptation
  • Green Society
  • Economy
  • Solutions

Over the New Year period and into the start of 2021, we will be beginning the discussion on the theme of sustainability. Not only will we be using this theme as a starting point for setting aspirations for the year to come, it also holds a broader significance. If we are going to succeed in bringing together expert voices from across the profession and the sector, we need to utilise collaboration and partnerships to do so. It couldn't be any more appropriate to do so under the banner of sustainability, in line with SDG 17: Partnerships for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Some of these conversations, such as adaptation and economy, will be opportunities to examine certain COP26 themes in detail, while others, like transformation, will address the full set of themes and topics covered by COP. During each discussion stage, we will give more details about what to expect and who we will be collaborating with. If you want to be part of the conversation, there are lots of ways to get involved.

We will be establishing a new COP26 Community for members involved in COP and the themes outlined above, which will help shape our activities in this area over the coming year. This community will be focused on championing the work of experts and evidence around climate change and driving change to ensure adaptation measures are accurate, ambitious and achievable, through tailored discussions, events and resources. Find out more here.

If you aren’t an IES member, or you represent another organisation or professional body that could collaborate with us over the next year, please do get in touch and join the conversation.

Reflecting on this year's Burntwood Lecture, the overriding message of a night of intense and intelligent discussion was the crossover between so many different challenges in the crisis ahead, with relevance to a range of different sectors and specialisms. It was clear from the discussion that we need to bring forward the tools to address these holistically, bringing a multiplicity of stakeholders together to find compromises and solutions which work to solve problems in a coherent way.

That is the core ideal of the work which the IES will be doing over the next 12 months: working together in an interdisciplinary way to address the climate crisis, and bringing as many voices together as possible as we take part in each of the conversations in the stages on the road to COP26.