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Sussex Energy Group panel question COP26’s focus on unproven technologies & discuss hopes for local action
By: Francisco Dominguez
Last updated: Tuesday, 23 November 2021
Over the course of the recent COP26 negotiations, the SEG@COP26 seminar series presented the breadth of sustainability topics explored by both SEG and the wider Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School.
Last week, in the closing SEG@COP26 panel discussion, Sussex Energy Group researchers discussed their reactions to the outcomes from the COP.
The panel observed that unproven technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and new nuclear reactor designs, dominated discussions both globally and in the UK, despite serious concerns that they can be deployed in time to reach net-zero targets. They also noted the major success stories of the negotiations, including the Global Methane Pledge and Declaration on Forests and Land Use, and outlined the ways that COP declarations can translate to local action.
Panellists sent a clear message that, despite COP26’s shortcomings, there’s real hope to be found at the local level, where upward pressure through ongoing political mobilisation can drive increasingly aggressive climate targets on the global stage.
Selected quotes from the event participant’s views on the COP26 outcomes can be read below. We encourage you to watch the full discussion here. Recordings from the rest of our SEG@COP26 series can be found at the bottom of this post.
Marie Claire Brisbois, Senior Lecturer in Energy Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit and Sussex Energy Group co-director said at the event:
“On another level, I really felt that the conversation at COP was completely disconnected from reality. The formal conversations really focused on unproven technologies and on rapid development in sectors that still have a long way to go, and this is the focus even though we have all sorts of other technologies ready.
The things that we should be talking about are things we're already familiar with, because they're ready: things like solar, like batteries. What we ended up talking about was small modular reactors, we were talking about carbon capture and storage, we were talking about hydrogen.
“All this stuff that's happening at the global level is good, we 100% need everybody possible working on making those global agreements happen. We need action at all levels, but really where I’m finding hope and where I’m finding genuine progress is at decentralised levels: so, cities, regions, decentralised bodies that have a bit more flexibility - they're not tied to corporate lobbyists from the oil industry in the same way as national governments. They have the flexibility and the initiative and the motivation to be doing things like putting in bike lanes, putting in rooftop solar, trying to get community financed home energy retrofit programs off the ground, because these are the technologies that we have available.”
“The most important declarations at COP26 were the Global Methane Pledge and the Declaration on Forest and Land Use.
Declarations on Forests and Land Use and the Global Methane Pledge were the major highlights in terms of land-use based mitigation. There are also promises of increased funding for the developing countries for emission reduction and adaptation to climate change. 100 billion dollars was targeted by 2020, which never happened, but they said they would continue to increase funding for the developing countries.
In my view, COP26 is not a breakthrough event, but it has big promises which are creating hope for the future. We can say is it one stepping-stone to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal for reducing net emissions. But the success of COP26 depends on how these pledges are realised in the coming years, otherwise, although there will be climate policies, mitigation policies and targets, countries will continue to damage the atmosphere.”
Ralitsa Hiteva, Senior Research Fellow working on business models, innovation and net-zero for the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), highlighted the importance of how Net Zero is achieved, alongside our perceptions of uncertainty in the implementation of net-zero, and their potential impact locally.
Ralitsa specifically addressed her work understanding net-zero concerns in the Sussex context, and how these findings, and her work on the “element of translating value locally” related to outcomes of the COP26 negotiations:
“The Net Zero Strategy does support industries that already exist, following a well-recognised way of accumulating economic growth or recognising existing capabilities, power and agencies, and incumbent sectors and practises. What is missing is that recognition that these kind of investments in infrastructure alone do not actually translate automatically into value, particularly value, which can be created and captured locally.
This really matters when it comes to thinking about Net Zero as a project which has to manifest at the subnational, regional, urban and local level, and to actually be able to attract the necessary levels of investment and take up, translating into mass scale behavioural change.
It is linked to the ability of places, of people, of industries to be able to recognise the values that they associate with net-zero and to be able to capture them locally. And this is where I think this missing link is really important. We need to figure out what is it that we need to put out into the world in order to help this translation, to lower the levels of uncertainty and to make sure that people actually are able to create and capture more value locally, so that net-zero actually works on a much grander scale.”
Phil Johnstone, Senior Research Fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit, discussed his views on the three ‘D’s: directionality, discontinuation, and defence.
“From the perspective of Pacific Islands and many indigenous groups, things don't look good. The gap between pledges and current actions does seem to be considerable. But for others, things are a bit better; for the first time we have the term fossil fuels in a statement. And there's this new emphasis on urgency, and the 1.5°C 2030 horizon, which is significant. You have the South African coal phase out, and a just transition plan, which could be a template for further action. But I remain sceptical about what these global agreements can deliver. It depends on whether national commitments are adhered to or not.”
“If we take the UK as an example, there's this constant rhetoric where we ‘need everything in the mix’ for low-carbon. Yet in the context of the urgency regarding 1.5°C and 2030, this really does seem a bit silly. The short timeline to 2030 suggests the need to prioritise certain technological trajectories, and not others. The fastest and cheapest, most job intense way to decarbonise is massive demand reduction and renewables. The UK housing stock is a mess, for example and lot can be done on that front in terms of demand reduction. Things like new large nuclear reactors as well as small modular reactors are a waste of time and money detracting from rapid solutions that we know work. In the context of the urgency surrounding COP, I would say that every pound invested in immensely costly and much delayed nuclear actually detracts from the 2030 goal as they can’t be built fast enough.
Yet governments like the UK are obsessed with these kind of technologies that are not going to be ready in time. Rather than magical technological solutions, in rich countries we should be taking our responsibilities seriously and changing behaviour. I’d say this involves us radically doing less and discovering a new abundance not based on materialism and consumption, but rather seeing the benefits of a slower, more local, less intense lifestyle. The benefits of less work, less travel, more time with family and community, more leisure time. These benefits could be part of a positive vision for rapid CO2 reduction.”
Recordings for the rest of the series can be watched here: