The outcome of the COP 26 climate talks in November could not be more critical. As leaders from over 200 countries come together in Glasgow to agree action to combat the escalating climate crisis, it is essential that our appointed representatives show unprecedented ambition, commitment, leadership, and cooperation. They need to demonstrate the action they are taking within their own countries, commit to new long‐term plans, and set firm, unambiguous and ambitious collective targets alongside adaption and resilience measures commensurate with the enormity of the challenges we all face.
The impact of climate change is now being experienced around the world. Extreme heatwaves in America and Europe, forest fires in Russia, Greece, Siberia, the US and Australia, water availability and quality in Africa and catastrophic flooding in Western Europe and China have already inflicted huge devastation to human life, wildlife and economies. The sixth assessment report of the IPCC1, written by scientists and agreed by countries around the world, states that the evidence is “unequivocal” that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the main cause of these extreme weather events. This situation is only the start of a catastrophic trajectory unless we make immediate and radical changes to the way we live and work. The indivisibility of the UN Sustainable Development Goals2 means that such transformations must tackle multiple interconnecting issue at once, not looking to pick them off one by one.
Even if the world meets its net‐zero emission targets by 2050, it will take decades to reverse existing increases in global temperatures. The IPCC report notes that other changes, including oceanic warming and acidification, permafrost thawing and altered weather patterns will continue for very many generations to come. Developing countries are already being disproportionately impacted by climate change due to their more limited capacity to adapt, reduced access to resources, information and technology and high dependence on agro‐ecosystems for livelihoods. As is being witnessed, developed countries are far from safe from the severe impacts of extreme weather. Even in the best‐case scenario, adaptation and resilience plans are essential additions to ambitious decarbonisation targets if humanity is to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
We are already close to 1.5C of warming and will reach it by 2050. Nothing short of a transformation of our economies, lifestyles and choices is needed to cut the emissions and start to reverse the climate change trends. In addition to making the rapid, deep, and immediate cuts to carbon emissions, we need to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than we emit.
Despite the significant advances in the science of climate change and the now unequivocal conclusions that human activities have warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land, the biggest uncertainty in the future projections of climate change is how people will act.
Reducing this uncertainty in action is critical. At the Southwood Foundation, we are focussed on providing reliable approaches to carbon reduction and promoting biodiversity and functioning natural systems, which we see as being intrinsically linked and mutually reinforcing, as agreed by the IPCC and IPBES3 and the UNEP4.
Climate change is currently driving mass extinctions of life on earth and yet biodiversity and functioning natural systems are key to our survival, playing a fundamental role in the climate crisis, drawing down carbon and protecting the planet’s health. Reversal of the current destruction of the natural world and supporting the recovery and enhancement of natural systems are essential to climate mitigation and adaption. We must defend nature, restore its ability to sequester carbon and enrich life on earth. Joining up action on climate and nature recovery and enhancement is essential, and yet all too often these are addressed separately in negotiations and policy.
The world has failed to meet any of the Aichi biodiversity targets5 set in Japan in 2010, including goals to preserve natural habitats, reduce plastic and chemical waste to levels that do not damage ecosystems and protect coral reefs. The Zoological Society of London’s Living Planet Report 20206 found that mammal, bird, fish, amphibian, and reptile populations plunged by 68% on average between 1970 and 2016.
To see how this translates at the national level, England’s rivers, lakes, and streams have some of the lowest water quality in Europe according to recent research by the Wildlife and Countryside Link7, the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England. Every freshwater body in England currently fails chemical standards and only 16 per cent are classed as being in “good ecological health” compared to 53% on average across the EU. The report warns the climate crisis is creating worsening conditions for the already “beleaguered waters”.
Similarly, the State of Woods and Trees Report8, published earlier this year by The Woodland Trust, highlighted that only 7% of UK woodland is in good overall condition. This, combined with the loss of trees outside woods, has led to the decline of woodland wildlife. The data shows that woodland birds in the UK have declined by 29% since 1970, and woodland butterflies by 41% since 1990 ‐ statistics which demonstrate that the biodiversity crisis is real and current.
This decline is being allowed to happen even though we know forests remove about a third of man‐made carbon from the atmosphere. This could be doubled if old forests were allowed to thrive. Natural systems and processes – including soil and peat formation ‐ are often excellent carbon stores. Through human activities that destroy or degrade nature, we are switching off nature’s ability to store carbon. In defending nature, we are defending ourselves.
As a foundation deeply committed to participating in the drive to make the changes needed to address the climate and other linked crises, we believe some major shifts in thinking and behaviour are needed to meet the global challenge:
- Connected thinking – carbon and nature
Tackling the climate crisis requires us to consider carbon reduction and nature restoration as co‐contributors to the solutions we need. All too often the roles of nature and natural processes are forgotten in carbon‐ related negotiations. An all‐out war on carbon that fails to take in to account the vital roles of nature and natural processes in sequestration will not solve the crises we face. Nature based solutions need to be more prominent in carbon reduction and adaptation plans. This will require better systems of measurement and disclosure of biodiversity and natural capital impact and risk, just as is available across almost all sectors for carbon.
- Greater collaboration
Government, public authorities, private sector, third sector, civil society, funders, investors, and academics need to get much better at working together. Cross sector collaboration is essential as we have no time left for thinking in silos. Solutions will only work if discussions are inclusive and provide climate justice, recognising that those most affected by climate change are often least responsible for it. Not only is this the right thing to do, in terms of climate justice, it also the smart thing to do. Good ideas can come from any quarter – and no‐ one has the monopoly on wisdom. The more we work together, the better, more durable and fairer the solutions will be and all organisations and communities have a role to play, no matter where they are on the green transition. Strong leadership, a collaborative mindset and greater understanding of all the players and how they can best collaborate are vital.
- Long term thinking
There is a tendency for governments and business boards to operate for the short and medium term, responding to election cycles, economic fluctuations, and shareholder return. Our human systems are out of step with longer, slower processes found in the natural world, making us impervious to the often imperceptible but very real decline in our natural environment, and insensitive to the needs of future generations. We need greater emphasis on longitudinal studies that track the drivers of environmental change, the pressures these exert on nature and natural systems, the state of natural capital, the impacts on nature and wider social and economic systems, and the nature and effectiveness of the measures we take in response. We need to develop more reliable understanding of regional and local trends and possible causes, embedding a clear understanding of context and responses implemented. At the macro level, economic and political systems need to be rethought to build in and reward long term thinking, accountability, and action for the future. Developing effective foresight will generate valuable insights to drive continuing prosperity.
To take meaningful action, leaders, businesses, and organisations already need to be thinking beyond net‐zero and wherever possible find ways of removing even more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit. Similarly, halting the decline of nature and the degradation of natural processes is insufficient – nature positive approaches are required. Significant positive returns can be created through setting robust science‐ based targets, investing in nature and creating carbon markets. Businesses must reduce emissions and impacts on nature with trajectories that move them towards becoming carbon negative and nature positive.
- Eco literacy and environmental education
Current economic models and accepted thinking persist in placing us outside nature and yet our wellbeing and prosperity are bounded by the health of our planet. Unless and until we see ourselves as part of nature, part of the problem and part of the solution, we will continue to neglect and destroy nature at our peril. Literacy about the natural world and the value we need to place on biodiversity and ecosystems is needed across our cultures, from government departments to local authorities, from boardrooms to classrooms. It is an essential prerequisite for understanding the crisis we are facing and giving decision makers, leaders, communities and individuals the insight required to make the changes we all urgently need. The UNESCO Key Competencies for Sustainability9 provide a much‐needed framework that we must embrace to be able to lead the transition to sustainability.
The Southwood Foundation calls on those participating in COP26 to take bold action and reflect these priorities in their negotiations and discussions. For our part, we will continue to embed these principles into our work and collaborate with people and groups across all communities to do everything we can to drive action in response to the greatest challenge of our times.
1. Sixth Assessment Report – IPCC
2 THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development
3 IPCC and IPBES report on climate change and biodiversity Tackling Biodiversity & Climate Crises Together and Their Combined Social Impacts – United Nations Sustainable Development
4 Global Environment Outlook 6 | UNEP ‐ UN Environment Programme
5 Aichi Biodiversity Targets (cbd.int)
6 *The Zoological Society of London’s Living Planet Report 2020 LPR 2020 Full report.pdf (zsl.org)
7 *Wildlife and Countryside Link Official figures reveal not one river or lake in England is in good health (wcl.org.uk)
8 *The State of Woods and Trees Report by the Woodland Trust State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021 (woodlandtrust.org.uk)
9 Education for Sustainable Development Goals: learning objectives; 2017 (unesco.de)