How can academic research support COP26? Reflections from Climate Exp0

Artwork: Dr Cécile Girardin

Last week Climate Exp0 saw more than 5,200 people in 150 countries convene virtually for a five-day conference to discuss how research and academia can support the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) with six months to go until Glasgow.

UK and Italian Government Ministers and senior officials joined us to make clear the case for action and how we can support the COP26 Presidency Goals. In this piece, we distill their key asks to help us shape the actions we can take for COP26 and beyond.

The conference was opened by the Rt Hon Alok Sharma, COP26 President Delegate President, and Minister Roberto Cingolani, the Italian Minister for Ecological Transition — Italy are co-hosts of COP26.

Alok Sharma acknowledged the role that research and academia has played so far in shaping decisions on climate action, from the IPCC to the Stern Review. He called for the academic community to help governments and the public to see clearly the scale of the threat posed by climate change, the solutions available and the co-benefits of action. He asked attendees to make the case for commitments to net zero and ambitious, early action around the COP26 campaigns.

Minister Cingolani called for innovative technological strategies to decarbonize all sectors, in particular the most energy-intensive ones. To achieve this he asked for investment in research, technologies and education, and clear communication of the financial implications of meeting the net-zero target. He called on universities to support research staff in finding new and innovative solutions to the challenges posed by climate change.

Nature

The second day of the conference explored the concept of Nature based Solutions (NbS) and why they must be designed, implemented and managed with local communities. The Rt Hon Lord Zac Goldsmith, Minister for Pacific and the Environment for the UK, set out the UK’s commitment to place nature at the heart of its response to climate change.

Zac Goldsmith set out various international collaborations for Nature at COP26, which academic research can inform, evaluate and strengthen: the Forest, Agriculture, and Commodity Trade (FACT) dialogue for the transition to sustainable supply chains and international trade; and the Leaders Pledge for Nature on commitments to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. He spoke of financial mechanisms to ensure public and private finance flows to the places that need it: asking large multilateral development banks to mainstream nature across their entire portfolios; establishing a global framework for nature related financial disclosures; and helping businesses understand and reduce environmental risk and exposure.

Lord Zac Goldsmith ended his speech with a new announcement: the Global Centre of Excellence (GCOE) for Nature-based Solutions (NbS), which aims to bring academics, researchers and practitioners together to identify gaps in evidence, data and technology for NbS, with a view then to filling them. Lord Zac Goldsmith then extended an invitation to join Defra’s Early Market Engagement Event for the GCOE later in the day.

Mitigation

The Mitigation day explored how technological innovation is creating opportunities for rapid, affordable and effective greenhouse gas emissions reductions (mitigation) towards net-zero emissions. We heard from experts on the need to understand mitigation solutions, with speakers from the UK’s COP26 Unit setting out the need for focused, sustained collaboration in each of the major emitting sectors of the economy — in particular the land use, power and transport sectors.

Minister Giovannini, the Italian Minister for Sustainable Infrastructures and Mobility, emphasised the need to invest to achieve the net-zero objective, and illustrated how Italy is planning to use the Next Generation EU funding to accelerate the transition towards a more just, sustainable and de-carbonised future.

Adaptation and resilience

The fourth day of the Conference focused on the need to adapt and become more resilient to climate change now and into the future. Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan, COP26 Adaptation and Resilience champion, and Minister Maria Cristina Messa, Italian Minister of University and Research, spoke about the need for science, research and innovation to inform adaptation solutions and effective practices.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan called on research and academia to inform governments and businesses on solutions and effective practices that respond to the local context and meet the needs of local communities. She emphasised that solutions should be inclusive and diverse, scalable, and have a transformative impact for the poorest and most vulnerable to climate change.

Minister Trevelyan highlighted the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment and work of the South-North led Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA) a new, international research collaboration that reflects these values on adaptation research. Minister Trevelyan called on the research and academic community to join in the ARA.

Minister Messa said that there is no doubt that the consequences of a changing climate are visible in our daily life. She said that adaptation measures must be both effective and equitable, and that in implementing adaptation and mitigation measures we need to avoid further marginalising the poorest countries and discriminating against people. We heard from leading international voices on the need to expand green finance, including making funding to make more funding available to developing nations.

A movement for change

Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, set out the need for Britain to view climate change as part of its legacy as the Industrial Revolution’s birthplace.

The conference was brought to a close by Nigel Topping, High-Level Champion for Climate Action COP26 at COP, Nigel set out the critical role young people are playing in helping create a net-zero world. He called for students and academics with a platform to be specific with their demands of state and non-state actors and to use resources such as Climate Exp0 to help inform discussions on solutions. Nigel also called on Universities to join the Race to Zero Campaign.

As requested by Alok Sharma in his opening speech, we will work with the international academic community to make knowledge on risk, solutions and co-benefits support decision-makers all over the world in taking ambitious climate action, and the connections made during this conference put us — and many others — in a strong place to do this.

Next Steps and policy impact

In the coming weeks, we’ll be releasing a detailed report setting out the policy recommendations and lessons from Climate Exp0. Still, we felt it important to reflect on some of the lessons for the research and university sector in the interim.

One of the most striking messages from Climate Exp0 was the importance of the local dimension to delivering climate change action effectively and in a way that also provides essential benefits alongside tackling climate change — often referred to as co-benefits. In communities around the world, policies will need to be formulated and implemented to affect the transformative plan set out at COP26. As is so often, Universities will play a vital role in the development and implementation of the ideas and innovation needed at a local level. We already play a central role in the economic and cultural lives of our local communities. We operate as a hub of innovation and economic activity. We need to bring those unique aspects of creativity and energy to the challenge of implementing the CO26 agreement at a local level. We call on Universities and researchers to work with local and regional parties, be they civic or business, to bring about the change required.

Climate Exp0 saw attendees from across academic disciplines. The quality of conversations showed the extent to which excellent research, across the natural and social sciences, is vital to continue to steer the ship of effective climate action to deliver a zero-carbon, resilient world. As Universities and research institutions, we must find new ways to break down the barriers between disciplines. It is only this circular approach that can achieve the outputs required to meet the climate challenge. The very existence of the COP26 Universities Network and Climate Exp0 is a testament to what can be achieved when researchers are empowered to work across institutions and disciplines. We hope this conference marks a moment for continued collaboration; with the support of government and sectoral organisations, we can take up our vital role in the fight against climate change.

We’ll be releasing a detailed policy report in the coming weeks, setting out in more detail the learning from Climate Exp0 and the next steps in the drive for net-zero.

How can I get involved?

  1. Read COP Explained
  2. Listen to our podcast series
  3. Read our COP26 briefings
  4. Join the COP26 group on LinkedIn
  5. Enroll on the Climate Solutions MOOC
  6. Visit and send resources to the COP26 Knowledge Portal
  7. Share details on future climate change events

For those who missed it, conference content will be freely and permanently available on Cambridge Open Engage from June. For those who attended Climate Exp0, you can view all sessions from Climate Exp0 via the Climate Exp0 homepage using your conference login. You can also watch the highlight videos from our Green Recovery day, Nature-based Solutions day, Mitigation Solutions day, and Adaptation and Resilience day here.

From the Chairs of Climate Exp0

Emily Shuckburgh is director of Cambridge Zero and reader in environmental data science at the University of Cambridge. Roberto Buizza is co-chair of Climate Exp0 and a professor at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies representing RUS Rete delle Università per lo Sviluppo sostenibile. Alyssa Gilbert is chair of the COP26 universities network and director of policy and translation at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change.

We’d like to thank the 500 researchers from over 80 UK and Italian Universities and over 2,000 student volunteer helpers who gave their time to make the event a success.

Climate Exp0 is the first virtual conference from the COP26 Universities Network and the Italian University Network for Sustainable Development (RUS).

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