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How can Bristol lead on climate action as COP26 approaches?

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Rich Pancost grew up on a small farm in Ohio and studied Geology at Case Western Reserve University and Penn State University, where he developed tools based on organic compounds to reconstruct past climate. He worked at the Netherlands Institute of Sea Research and joined the University of Bristol Organic Geochemistry Unit in 2000. He helped found the interdisciplinary Cabot Institute and became its Director in 2013, stepping down in 2018 to become Head of the School of Earth Sciences. With Ujima Radio and the Partnership, he co-created the Black and Green Ambassadors programme. Throughout it all, he has most enjoyed bringing brilliant, diverse people together to stimulate the creation of new ideas. In the blog post below, he reflects on the importance of COP26 and what it means for Bristol.

In 2015, I joined the Bristol delegation to COP21 in Paris, where the world agreed to limit warming to less than 2C and aspired to limit warming to 1.5C.

Six years later, COP26 comes to the UK, and delayed by Covid, it comes in the aftermath of an IPCC report that starkly highlights how inadequate our efforts have been to meet those Paris 2015 aspirations.

The step change yet to happen

It would be a mistake to argue that nothing was achieved in Paris. The agreement – and the subsequent increase in ambition of the UK Climate Change Act to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – appears to have had an impact on governments and legal decisions. Although the declaration of Climate Emergencies, starting in Bristol and spreading widely, is largely symbolic, the political recognition of climate change and on-the-record commitment to decarbonisation exerts a pressure on policy. Most obviously, it has (for the time being) prevented the expansion of both Bristol and London Airports. These government commitments have also exerted pressure on energy infrastructure and contributed to the UK’s decreasing carbon emissions. Globally, even though CO2 emissions and concentrations continue to climb, they are ever so slowly bending away from the worst case scenario, which tellingly was once called the Business as Usual scenario.

No nature no future placard

Photo credit: Markus Spiske

Most importantly, however, the Paris Agreement has invited and legitimised a long overdue surge in activism. Friday Strikes, marches, and rallies on College Green as well as the more disruptive interventions of XR have forced climate action onto the media and political agenda. We also see this in the more activist intervention of climate scientists. Our activism is not just driven by government inaction on our warnings for over 50 years, but also because those same governments have now established their objectives in law and international agreements. Is taking to the streets really ‘activism’ if it is just asking governments to do what they are legally as well as morally compelled to do – by their very own admission?

But let’s not deceive ourselves. By necessity the Paris Agreement was non-binding. Globally, emissions still increase; bending away from 5C of warming to perhaps 3C of warming is not reassuring. Moreover, very little meaningful transformative change has happened. We have achieved a decrease in emissions largely by switching from coal to gas, but we still fundamentally rely on burning things to generate our heat, electricity and transport. We have made incremental gains by grabbing the low-hanging fruit. This is true of the UK and it is true of Bristol. And our delays mean that the window of time for driving emissions to zero has shrunk dramatically.  Even the most optimistic scenarios of the most recent IPCC report lean heavily on carbon capture.

Community, collaboration and action 

As we approach COP26, therefore, where can Bristol lead? Are we powerless as a city if national governments fail to act?

view of Bristol with grass and houses

Photo credit: Clara Fung

In this it is worth reflecting why Bristol was awarded the Green Capital honour for 2015. It was largely because of the number and variety of organisations, from volunteer groups of two to three people to civil society organisations and CICs to charities to businesses and to local government, united in their pursuit of an environmentally sustainable future. Bristol cannot solve climate change, but it can show the world that we are not powerless in the face of national government prevarication. Too often the climate debate is split between those arguing for individual action vs structural change at a national level. Not only is this a false dichotomy (clearly we need both), but more importantly it misses the most important agent of change: communities.

Communities amplify individual action.

Communities create pressure for wider political change.

Communities come up with novel solutions and the solutions that will be most effective for them. In doing so, they learn fast, learn hard, fail, learn again. And then they share.

Climate action that centres environmental and social justice 

Community leadership and collaboration is also vital in addressing the other major theme that has emerged in the climate movement since COP21: It is not just about the climate. Of course, we always knew this, but the past five years of Ecological Emergencies and Black Lives Matter have shown starkly that nothing exists in isolation. We must not devastate nature to achieve our climate solutions, i.e. by taking land from wildlife and devoting it to the capture of carbon. We must not ignore the injustices of climate change or the potential injustices of our environmental solutions; fossil fuel colonialism must not be replaced by green colonialism just so we can continue exactly as we always have, albeit in electric cars.

Bristol can do this.

Through the Green Capital Partnership but not only the partnership, we have the capacity to connect, cooperate and mobilise. The Black and Green Ambassadors, for example, have challenged organisations to recognise their lack of racial diversity and inclusion as well as its consequences; and they have supported those organisations to become stronger by addressing those issues. Crucially, although the Ambassadors Programme is proving successful, we must not forget that it is not about our ego but about community, it is not about promoting itself but rather celebrating the fact that Bristol’s Black community is already active and engaged in environmental issues. It has elevated those groups and challenged other organisations, including my own, to recognise that the lack of engagement from the black community with our initiatives did not mean that they were not leading their own.

Diverse Natures workshop SlimbridgeI can give so many other examples: Voscur, Ujima Radio, Black 2 Nature, Avon Wildlife Trust, Locality, Babbasa, the Black Southwest Network, the Bristol Zoo, 91 Ways, the Bristol Energy Network, Bristol Ideas, Feeding Bristol…  I am so impressed by what they have accomplished, while being supported by Bristol City Council in concept but largely starved of funds by nearly a decade of austerity. They have championed projects in a profoundly intersectional manner, decreasing carbon footprints while alleviating fuel poverty, growing food while creating green spaces in marginalised neighbourhoods. What could they achieve with empowerment and a sustainable budget? What new transport schemes, community energy projects, car or tool sharing, allotments, youth training, community gardens and more could they bring to our city if they were supported with finances and freedom that matched their passion??

As COP26 approaches, I have expectations for our national government, our regional authority, Bristol City Council and the Mayor. But for Bristol as a city, my hope is that its citizens are afforded the opportunity to do what they have always done: argue but also collaborate; innovate and fail but also succeed and create; and then share.

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