Dr Katie Wooldridge explains why next month’s UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow will be crucial in how we tackle climate change.
Throughout most of my secondary education in the late 1990s and early 2000s climate change seemed like an abstract, other-worldly issue. In Geography, the hot topic was sustainability – we all knew the 1987 Brundtland Report definition by heart. Fast-forward 20 years and there has been a paradigm shift, the urgency of the climate crisis can no longer be ignored. This isn’t a problem for the future it is happening now! From catastrophic floods in Europe and raging wildfires in California, to the hottest month ever (July 2021): 2021 has felt like the opening scenes of Flash Gordon!
The UK is hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow from the 31 October – 12 November 2021. This was originally planned for 2020, but was postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is not the only way in which Covid-19 and climate change are interlinked. Climate change and new pandemics share common drivers: growing populations and the unchallenged pursuit of economic growth are pushing people and animals ever closer, increasing the likelihood of pathogens making the leap and passing to humans.
However, the response to Covid-19 has taught us an important lesson: the possibility of radical action and resource mobilisation by governments when the need is pressing. With evidence of the impact of the climate crisis being felt across the globe and disproportionately impacting the poorest and most vulnerable communities, surely humanity can tackle the biggest issue of our time?
Even if countries meet the targets agreed at COP21 in Paris in 2015, the world will warm by around 3 degrees by 2100. And if 2100 seems like some far-off date to you: your children/grandchildren/great-grandchildren will be alive and kicking and very much impacted by what action is (or is not) taken now. The range of impacts from 3 degrees warming is hard to comprehend: vast regions become uninhabitable, whole cities are lost to the sea and savage heatwaves are the norm.
Many desperately hope that COP26 will be different, no longer a talking shop, but a real call to action. One of the four key aims of COP26 is to secure global net zero by 2050 and to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The focus is on the key areas of energy (from coal to renewables), nature (protecting ecosystems, in particular forests and transitioning to sustainable agriculture) and transport (zero emissions vehicles). But will this be enough? Despite the cost to society of inaction being greater than the cost of achieving net zero, are governments now prepared to make the economic choices to see this through?
Dr Katie Wooldridge is Senior Lecturer in Geography, in the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Social Sciences.