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Focus on climate justice at COP26

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:


The Industrial Revolution was driven by the active pursuit of profit. This time we are driven by the emergency facing our planet, coupled with the need to ensure a fair and just recovery of our world economies from the pandemic.As principal of the University of Glasgow and a member of the Scotia Group an international, independent network working together to help the COP26 process.All nations must play their part, both in partnership with others and in terms of their own actions and policies. We have an opportunity in Scotland and the UK to lead from the front: to show focused government leadership, to show our willingness to collaborate across borders and to maximise our enormous capacity to innovate and drive the technologies needed for a cleaner and greener world. Research shows the transition to renewable energy can only address 55% of emissions; the remaining 45% comes from producing cars, clothes, food and everyday products. Circular economy models offer a clear pathway to achieving our collective climate goals, tackling emissions tied to extraction, processing, manufacturing and landfilling of goods.Many innovators are addressing today’s challenges, while policymakers are looking at ways to help close the loop on our valuable materials through legislation and incentives. Leaders across the globe will gather next month for COP26 to collectively accelerate action toward the Paris Agreement and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.During a milestone event in 2015, 197 countries signed the Paris Agreement to limit temperature rise to 2°C, with an agreement to aim for a 1.5°C limit. In addition, nearly one-fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies (representing $14 trillion in sales) have committed to net-zero emissions.

We depend on our planet’s natural resources for sustenance, protection and basically everything we need to survive. Which is, We’re using more than the Earth can provide. Today, we are using about 1.6 earths; meaning we’re using about 60% more of the earth’s resources than it can regenerate every year. By 2050,with an increased global population and a resulting rise in consumption, that “overshoot” could get to 3-4 earths, which is clearly unsustainable. Over-extraction harms people, the planet and economies. Our current linear system depends on extraction including of rare natural resources – and is responsible for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss, according to a study done by UN Environment. In our linear take-make-waste economy, we too quickly dispose of products and materials during production and at the end of use. Our reliance on waste systems becomes even more challenging as more people enter the middle class and companies produce fast consumption products: Our waste is out of control. Today, the world produces over 2 billion tonnes of solid waste, and that’s expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050. About one-third of that waste is not managed properly. By volume, global waste includes 44% food and organics, 17% paper and 12% plastic  all valuable commodities.Landfills are even deadlier than we thought. Why are landfills especially insidious? In addition to taking up otherwise productive land, this explanation from Waste Dive is especially helpful: “When trash is packed into a pile, the oxygen-free environment supports bacteria that thrive in those conditions. As the microbes degrade the waste, they release carbon dioxide and methane. The latter is 84 times more potent of a global warming agent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years of its release.

We waste food every day, even as millions go hungry. 22% of global emissions and 30% of energy consumption come from the food sector. At the same time, nearly one-third of all food produced is wasted, and food waste continues to be the top product found in landfills.A circular economy eliminates the concept of waste altogether, moving us into a more closed-loop system where materials and products are kept in use as long as possible. In doing so, the circular economy tackles some of our greatest social and environmental challenges while unlocking $4.5 trillion in economic value by 2030. Two examples: Tossing textiles. We will throw away 148 million tonnes of clothing each year by 2030. $500 billion in value is at stake by adopting circular fashion solutions, keeping valuable materials out of landfills and reducing our reliance on virgin commodities.The gold in our trash bins. Today we’re throwing away over 50 million tonnes of electronic and electric goods, worth over $62 billion, every year, including rare earth minerals, gold and copper.A circular economy eliminates the concept of waste altogether, rethinking how we produce and consume. It moves us toward a zero-waste system where throwing away valuable goods is no longer an option.A circular economy creates economic, social and environmental wins.By keeping materials in play, circular economy business models offer a clear pathway toward achieving our collective climate goals, and tackling the greenhouse gas emissions tied to the extraction, processing, manufacturing and landfilling of goods. In doing so, these business models create economic value, building local resilience and spurring innovation. And the good news is that companies championing circular business models are gaining traction, rapidly.

Already, there are a plethora of innovators addressing today’s challenges, with companies like Thrilling fostering markets for second-hand vintage clothes, Algramo implementing reusable packaging systems for household staples like detergent, and HomeBiogas turning food scraps into clean energy. Even global corporations like Unilever are on board, with Unilever’s Sustainable Living Brands outperforming other brands in their portfolio. And leading governments and policymakers are looking at ways to help close the loop on our valuable materials through both legislation and incentives. By seizing the opportunity and momentum seen today to scale a truly circular economy, we can accelerate our pathways toward a sustainable and prosperous future and achieve our collective climate goals

COP26 and the Real Economy: Climate Change Solutions at and beyond Glasgow.As many of us prepare to descend on Glasgow for the once-delayed, badly needed COP26, the world is facing serious questions. While it may be hyperbolic to say that these next two weeks represent the “last chance” to avert climate disaster, the urgency of action is blindingly clear, as the UN’s declaration of a Code Red for humanity makes clear.At the core of this COP, and indeed all our collective efforts to maintain a stable climate that sustains humanity, is this dilemma: actions and commitments continue to increase, but the trajectory of the planet’s warming is headed in the wrong direction. Breaking this dynamic is objective number one in Glasgow and is very much worth navigating the welter of COVID-19 precautions adding a layer of complication on top of what is a highly complex event to begin with. First and foremost, it is essential that we continue to expand ambition.An explosion of net-zero commitments has been made since Paris, an idea that remained at the fringes in 2015.

More than 3000 companies have now committed to net zero before mid-century, including one-fifth of the world’s largest companies. More than 130 governments—representing 61 percent of global emissions, 68 percent of global GDP, and 52 percent of the global population—have made comparable commitments. The Race to Zero is one of the centerpieces of voluntary action in Glasgow, which is assembling commitments in several hard-to-abate sectors. What’s more, there are nearly 2,000 companies that have expressed support for science-based targets. Many governments are coming to COP with strengthened nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Investors are making commitments through Climate Action 100+, adoption and use of the TCFD framework, and other means. The ambition loop must continue and expand. All this is crucial, to be sure. But it is far from sufficient. The science tells us that we are not yet turning the corner. It is well past time to translate ambition into action. Doing this means setting not only 2050 targets, but also 2025 objectives, which are measured and reported transparently. As one article put it,  a 2050 pledge is “six CEOs from now,” meaning that long-term commitments may not lead to necessary changes. Ensuring that commitments deliver tangible, meaningful results requires not only changing business models, products and services, and incentives, but also an urgent call for strong policy solutions. This continues to lag, not least on the part of many companies and trade associations in the US recently, with insufficient support (albeit with some exceptions) for the climate provisions of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation.

It is also essential that governments keep their Paris promises on climate finance.

Some governments Germany, for example have done exactly that. But far too many have failed to do so. This is a matter not only of justice, but also of generating the widespread support required for transformative global action. The need could not be clearer. We have learned the painful lessons of the financial costs let alone the devastating human costs of the global pandemic. In the wake of COVID’s destruction, it is therefore sobering to see The Lancet, one of the world’s foremost medical journals, call climate change the defining narrative for human health. The fact is that the human costs of climate change come along with financial costs, which also makes clear that climate finance is an investment that will pay off. Business has unique credibility in making the economic case for such investments; it should use its voice to make sure governments make good on their pledges at long last.Bring Climate Justice to the Fore.My strongest hope for COP26, however, is that it will be a turning point towards a more just and inclusive world as we go through the energy transition. Climate justice has too often been relegated to the sidelines at COPs and beyond. We have seen such changes before. At Paris in 2015, very few companies or political entities had committed to net zero; today, it is rapidly becoming commonplace. Can the same dynamic be embraced on climate justice? Of the 3000+ companies setting net zero aspirations, how many have included commitments to climate justice? BSR’s estimation is that the numbers are closer to 1 percent than even 10 percent, let alone 100 percent. As the treatment of climate finance shows, there is insufficient public investment in investing in inclusive climate solutions. In a world that is brutalized by extreme weather with increasing frequency, it is indefensible not to make climate justice a priority.

The world is facing a serious test at a time when international cooperation and democratic institutions are under significant pressure. There is also great cynicism about whether the many commitments made by business and government are more than empty words. It has never been the case that any COP could turn the world in the right direction. Many of the exciting partnerships, investments, and innovations that we need happen far from the COP Blue Zone where the negotiators trade text. The world outside COP relies on commitments inside COP, but the work to make good on those commitments happens in the real economy the rest of the year. With ongoing ambition, resolute pursuit of that ambition, the right level of investment, and a focus on climate justice, we can turn this into a catalyst that shifts the economy in the right direction.

Writer and Columnist