A successful COP26 can inspire progress on net zero at home

A successful COP26 climate conference next month should inspire the government to begin to tackle the more complicated issues so that the UK can make progress on meeting its commitments, says Matthew Farrow.

More than 30,000 people are expected at COP26 in Glasgow in a few weeks’ time as the world gathers to discuss climate change. Among these them will be hundreds of diplomats – the largest gathering of them on these shores since World War Two – as the conference gears up for two weeks of intense climate discussion and negotiation.

The international politics of the conference will revolve around two key aspects of perceived ‘fairness’.

First, how to split the emission cuts needed to ensure climate warming remains within a manageable 1.5 degrees between different countries, with particular debate over the expectations on rapidly growing nations such as India, China and Brazil to do more.

China has said it will aim to ‘peak’ its emission by 2030 and recently claimed it would stop building and financing coal fired power stations overseas. However, the Chinese government is determined not to make any climate commitments which risk causing unrest among its own people. For example, in response to recent power shortages, the government has ordered its coal power stations to maximise output and has been buying up natural gas supplies.  

Second, many of the poorest countries in the world are facing the worst impacts of the changing climate while not being major emitters themselves. They expect richer nations to transfer massive funds to them to help compensate for this. President Biden recently doubled US spending on ‘climate aid’ but expect major rows around this in Glasgow.

Whatever the final outcome of the conference, UK prime minister Boris Johnson will, of course, present it as a success and use it to demonstrate our green credentials internationally, reinforce our leading role in sustainable technology and to its fullest at home where it will boost his own standing on environmental issues.

However, there is currently a gap between the political rhetoric and reality on net zero in the UK. The truth is we’re currently not on track to meet our target. Let’s hope that a successful COP26 can inspire the government to begin to tackle the more complicated issues so that we can make progress on meeting our commitments. 

The construction and built environment, of course, has a key role to play in all of this. The Construction Leadership Council will be present at COP26 and represents the wider industry on Built Environment Day. I have no doubt that alongside the usual discussions on advances in building materials and a digital-first approach to design, we will also see conversation turn to the detail which is absolutely necessary if we are to make any real and tangible progress.

It will only be through constructive engagement with our industry that this can happen. If the political will is there for progress on international climate targets at COP26, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be there for tangible progress at home too.

Matthew Farrow is director of policy at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering and the Environmental Industries Commission.