Four Aston University experts reflect on COP26 and what it means for transport, community and global action on decarbonisation, support for small businesses and China’s coal consumption.
COP26 was the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference held in Glasgow from 31 October to 13 November 2021. The participating 197 countries agreed a new deal, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, aimed at staving off dangerous climate change. But will it be enough?
Dr Lucy Rackcliff explains why replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with electric ones alone is not radical enough.
The overwhelming message coming from COP26 transport day seemed to be that moving to zero emission-vehicles would solve the well-documented issues created by petrol and diesel fuelled vehicles. As noted at the conference itself, transport is responsible for 10% of global emissions, and emissions from transport continue to increase.
The WHO estimates that transport-related air pollution affects the health of tens of thousands of people every year in the WHO European Region alone. However, on-street pollution is not the only effect we should seek to address.
Transport is responsible (directly or indirectly) for a wider range of environmental issues, and a wider range of health impacts. Moving to electric vehicles will not address impacts such as loss of land for other activities, use of finite resources in the manufacturing process, the need to dispose of obsolete materials such as used tyres, and the health effects of sedentary lifestyles, facilitated by car-use.
In urban areas in particular, re-thinking policy to focus on walking, cycling and public transport-use could free up land for other activities. Car parks could become actual parks, in turn encouraging more active lifestyles, creating space for people and plants, and leading to a range of wider societal benefits.
Assuming that replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with electric ones will solve all our problems is a strategy which lacks ambition, and thus denies us the benefits that more radical thinking could deliver.
Dr Lucy Rackcliff, Senior Teaching Fellow, Engineering Systems & Supply Chain Management, Aston Logistics and Systems Institute, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.
"Assuming that replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with electric ones will solve all our problems is a strategy which lacks ambition."
Professor Patricia Thornley reflects on the role that Aston University and EBRI can play in empowering community action and informing global action with research.
COP26 energy day was a fabulous experience. I have never before seen so many people in one place with one ambition: to support and accelerate decarbonisation of the UK’s energy systems.
We ran a “fishbowl”, which allows people with different perspectives on a topic (experts and non-experts) to participate in dialogue around a common interest. Our researchers, local government representatives, industrialists and students shared their thoughts on what our future energy mix should look like, how it should be delivered and who needs to act. Without doubt the consensus was that many different technologies have a role to play and there is an urgent need to accelerate implementation. There were reflections on the importance of governance at different levels and an interesting discussion around the relative merits of centralized solutions and devolved actions. The reality is that of course we need both and that made me think about what Aston University and EBRI can do.
Of course we should implement centrally with initiatives like the impressively low carbon Students’ Union building, but we also need to raise awareness among our students. Our film showing with the Students’ Union a week later helped with that I hope, and many more of our courses are incorporating sustainability elements which is fantastic. But what we haven’t quite achieved yet is an empowered, proactive voice that would lead to wider community action. There are pockets of excellence but a lot still to be done.
My second week at COP26 was very different with police presence outside a building where I had three meetings with industrialists on the controversial topics of forestry and land-use. It was sad to be working with key players to improve sustainability and increase carbon reductions through UK bioenergy while listening to drumbeats outside from objecting protestors. There is a real lack of understanding around forest management and global land use and we need to work harder to improve that. It is a huge challenge, but one that EBRI will work hard to address.
Professor Patricia Thornley, Director of EBRI, Energy and Bioproducts Research Institute (EBRI), College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.
"There is a real lack of understanding around forest management and global land use and we need to work harder to improve that."
Professor Presanta Dey explores whether Government pledges on climate change will translate to practical support for small businesses
Following the COP26 climate change summit, the UK Government led the way in making a series of pledges and policy commitments to combat climate change. The question is: how will this translate to practical support for SMEs?
Large corporations often take centre stage at COP, which is welcomed, but if we are to see real change, everyone needs to be involved. COP26 provided a refreshing voice for UK small businesses which featured panel discussions on the ‘SME Climate Hub’, highlighting net zero opportunities and challenges for SMEs.
The momentum of COP26 has already inspired over 2,000 UK small businesses to sign up to the UN's Race to Zero campaign, which is designed to accelerate the adoption of credible net-zero targets. A long journey ahead still awaits us, however campaigns like these will hopefully start a ripple effect inspiring the remaining six million UK SMEs to take climate action.
Small businesses have been crying out for more assistance from the government in the form of ‘green’ grants and financial support to enable them to make the necessary long-term changes. The timely announcement of HSBC’s £500m Green SME Fund at COP26 marks a promising first step towards making it easier for SMEs to fund their green ambitions.
In summary, COP26 provided some comfort to UK SMEs seeking a higher level of commitment from government, financial services and businesses. This moment must act as a catalyst for policy makers to continue removing the barriers that are holding small businesses back.
Professor Presanta Dey, Professor of Operations & Information Management, College of Business and Social Sciences.
Professor Jun Du explains what China’s deal means for the rest of the world following its own energy crisis earlier this year…
Despite the many disappointments expressed around the COP26 outcomes, important progess has been made for the world economy moving towards carbon neutrality. Among the noticeable achievements China and the US, which together emit 43% of the total CO2 in the air, have agreed to boost climate co-operation despite many disagreements. This includes China’s pledge to more actively control and cut methane emissions during the next decade - even when the country did not sign up to the global methane pledge made in Glasgow.
Reaching net zero will be an unprecedented challenge for all countries. China will need to do the heaviest lifting among all. The country’s energy crisis earlier this year has shown just how hard it will be to reach net zero. The exceptionally early and cold winter this year will demand even more coal, so China’s willingness and resolve for climate commitments are good news to all.
While lots of attention was turned to the absence of China’s president, Xi Jinping, from the COP26 climate summit, what is less appreciated is the fact that China is serious about decarbonisation. Few countries invest as much as China in that area, nor grow as fast in finding alternative energy to coal and in green industries like electric cars. China has set specific plans in its 14th national five-year plan for economic and social development to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.
COP26 could be an additional driver for “an era of accountability” for China.
Professor Jun Du, Professor of Economics, Finance and Entrepreneurship, Centre Director, Centre for Business Prosperity, Aston Business School levy.
Patricia Thornley Director of EBRI, Energy and Bioproducts Research Institute
Patricia Thornley works in assessing the environmental, economic and social imapcts of renewable energy technologies.
Dr Prasanta Dey Professor in Operations and Information Management
Prasanta Dey specializes in low carbon supply chain management and project management.
Jun Du Professor of Economics
Jun Du's main research interest is to understand the driving forces and impediments of productivity enhancement and economic growth.