Stantec’s Lucy Wood reflects on what was said at COP27, as well as some potential solutions, outlining a desperate need for urgency and innovative thinking in the journey towards net-zero.
As we all reflect on COP27, what is its legacy likely to be? From the headline agreements and announcements, we don’t seem to be much further on from COP26 in Glasgow.
But I’m pleased to report there are reasons to be cheerful, even if the task ahead is still a mammoth one. It’s all about looking beyond the black and white.
It would be easy to be disheartened. The UN secretary general set out a stark warning that humanity is on a ‘highway to climate hell’. The ‘climate clock’ hung over the conference menacingly, showing that only 13.25% of global energy comes from renewables – with less than seven years left to keep within 1.5 degrees of warming and avert climate disaster.
But my main takeaway has been one of hope. It is clear that the knowledge, skills and technology all exist to achieve our goals, with general agreement on the action needed – if not the pace of change.
The innovative ideas of the future vary in scope and size. Some are products: plastic replacements made from chalk, protein made by cultivating microbes, or even apps for tracking and verifying carbon sequestration. Some are projects, leading the way in how we must rethink our world.
More than anything though were the lessons taken for the international built environment – the shared challenges, and what is needed for solutions.
The hurdles we face in the UK to greener, more liveable communities are not unique. Across the talks many international speakers and business leaders mentioned planning consents as the number one challenge to delivering renewable energy and other green projects.
There was agreement that we need to decouple this from party politics, and really push for a massive acceleration of sustainable energy and building solutions.
In the UK we have a chance to make a leap forward through the ongoing review of National Policy Statements – if a cross-government and cross-party commitment to prioritising renewables could be achieved in legislation, it would significantly boost the ability of the sector to energise this progress and deliver the change we need.
Co-creating a greener world
The cooperation across the planning and development work discussed at the conference was inspiring – particularly in showing how where consent is concerned, engaging and collaborating with communities is a vital part of the solution, not a barrier to consenting sustainable projects.
From the Netherlands to Algeria, excellent examples were showcased where communities have rapturously embraced nature-based solutions when they’ve been offered, and when local people have been involved right from the concept stage through to delivery and maintenance.
Fundamentally, sustainable, nature-based solutions tend to be popular – and so ‘co-creating’ proposed projects with communities is a method of achieving the green schemes we want and need.
Concepts as simple as new urban green spaces bring climate and biodiversity benefits, but also access to exercise and play, and practical benefits like rainwater storage, greywater recycling or carbon sequestration.
And that is just the beginning. Particularly in the UK there is still a large, untapped potential for a more inclusive planning and development process that can help to create a greener, more prosperous, and more popular built environment.
Looking deeper into offsetting
One very controversial topic receiving a lot of attention at the conference was offsetting – fuelled by John Kerry, who announced a carbon offset plan for the US to move away from fossil fuels and accelerate green projects in the developing world.
Anyone looking at realistic solutions for a net zero transition is aware that offsetting will have to form at least some part of it, especially in carbon intensive sectors like infrastructure. Where the conversation instead focused was on how this could be robust and fair.
This means offsetting only the less avoidable emissions from some industrial processes, ensuring that any offsetting is genuine, and looking at where other community benefits might be able to be gained across the world from a carbon credit market – especially in countries where the communities are custodians of our planet’s most valuable ecosystems.
It’s clear from COP27 that digging into the nuance is rewarding. It’s not about NIMBY versus YIMBY, or simple ‘offsetting equals bad’ statements. We need to take inspiration from these events – and use them to urge acceleration in the progress being made. The ideas and solutions are here. We need to grasp them without delay.
Lucy Wood is UK climate solutions leader at Stantec.