QMark: COP26’s implications for UK nature recovery

9th March 2022

Web COP26 CREDIT CC BY NC ND 2 0 Karwai Tang UK Government

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Henry Collin

Henry Collin discusses the relevance of COP26’s outcomes for nature and biodiversity in the UK

The closure of the COP26 conference with the Glasgow Climate Pact last November met a varied response across the political and institutional spectrum. Media coverage focused on the last-minute watering down of commitments on fossil fuel use, and the importance of reparations for loss and damage caused by climate change in lower and middle-income nations.

During week two of COP26, Climate Action Tracker analysed the effectiveness of nations’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs), identifying that global emissions-cutting efforts were still well below what was needed to limit post-industrial global warming to 1.5°C, as set out in the Paris Agreement. The ensuing round of frantic negotiations and diplomacy did not move the dial on this target, instead falling back on an agreement to continue to revisit and strengthen NDCs over the next two years.

Leaps forward

Behind the headlines and the hyperbole, however, the final agreement does include important features that represent tangible progress. Importantly, the Glasgow Climate Pact’s text and scope venture into some of the critical details that often get lost in the media’s narrow focus on targets and temperatures.

These details include the establishment of a framework for exchanging carbon credits between nations. This is likely to add impetus to the scope and veracity of carbon pricing, which many independent observers consider essential for driving corporate and consumer behaviour towards low-carbon and circular economies. Since COP26, there has been heightened scrutiny and debate over offsetting as part of corporate strategies to achieve net zero. This underlines the complexity inherent in net-zero targets, and the potential for progress to be obfuscated by organisations that see offsetting as an easier route than genuine emissions reductions.

The COP26 narrative included the biodiversity crisis to a larger extent than we have seen at previous such conferences. This is perhaps complicated by the fact that a parallel but separate COP process exists for biodiversity: the first part of COP15 was held virtually last year, and a follow-up is scheduled to take place in Kunming, China, later in 2022. In a year when UN and NGO reporting has underlined the parlous state of global natural systems, it is critical that we tie together climate and biodiversity emergency responses.

Focus on nature recovery

International conferences are raising the profile of nature recovery – the COP26 pledge on ending deforestation by 2030 made headlines – but they belie the scale of the effort required to halt and reverse biodiversity decline. The climate agenda’s narrative tends to under-report the considerable complexity involved in reversing ecosystem health in a system of ever-increasing consumption. Many mooted solutions to emissions reductions will drive biodiversity loss if we do not undertake equivalent revolutions in the way we extract, process, manufacture and re-use materials – the so-called ‘circularity gap’.

Nevertheless, the increasing focus on nature recovery is a welcome boost to efforts to integrate nature-based solutions into UK planning and development. The passing of the Environment Act last November should support action across planning and development, land use and rural economies, so that they follow a ‘nature-first’ approach. In the same week, Scotland published its consultation draft National Planning Framework 4, which includes apparently increased policy commitments around biodiversity enhancement.

These programmes provide a welcome framework that could spur a more considered approach to sustainable development: one that genuinely responds to the need for integration between the critical agendas of emissions reduction, climate adaptation, and the health of our ecosystems and communities. Delivery remains the challenge at all levels, from top-down government targets to the integration of effective climate and nature considerations into appraisals, designs and land management decisions. Environmental impact assessment practitioners and environmental planners have an increasingly important role to play in pushing the envelope for nature enhancement in new development, and in joining up the climate, biodiversity and health agendas in practical terms.

Henry Collin is technical director at Ecus Ltd (Scotland).

Image credit | CC BY NC ND 2.0 Karwai Tang-UK-Government

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