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Brunel at COP26: On the ground at the historic climate change conference

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Having gone long into extra time, COP26 didn’t ­so much finish with an enthusiastic cheer as it did with an exhausted sigh. While agreements were reached and backs slapped, the UN mega-conference, which finished in Glasgow last week, left a lingering mood of missed opportunities.

As one of the UK’s leading research universities, staff from across Brunel University London attended to follow their interests in everything from art and indigenous rights, to chemistry and business.

With the post-conference dust now starting to settle, we caught up with three Brunelians who went along to get their thoughts and find out what it was like at the historic event.

Dr Shona Paterson, Director of Global Lives Research Centre

Dr Shona Paterson, a Global Challenges research fellow and Director of Brunel’s Global Lives Research Centre, had planned to take her multimedia art installation Catching a Wave, but uncertainty over COVID and time pressure meant she ultimately attended in her academic guise.

While she had access to the ‘Blue Zone’ – where the high-ranking delegates present and hold discussions – Dr Paterson found her discussions with other delegates the most eye-opening.

These included a chat with the Director of the Pacific Region for the WWF, part of the delegate from Fiji, the South Pacific island nation which stands on the front line in the battle against climate change.

“It was a really neat insight into the politics that go into some of these discussions,” said Dr Paterson. “You get the impression that everyone is driving in the same direction and then the more conversations you have, the more you realise it’s so disjointed and so driven by nationalistic ideals.

“When you look at the Pacific Islands and a lot of small island states – or big blue states as we could think of them – they are crying out for help with sea level rise. A lot of countries are just going to disappear, and Fiji very much have that in the back of their minds.”

Although COP26 was billed as the ‘most accessible’ ever, Dr Paterson said she was underwhelmed by the representation of certain groups – such as young people – who should have had a much broader platform as the generation that will shepherd the planet through the climate crisis. Most young people there had only given ‘observer status,’ which stopped them sharing their views.

Dr Paterson said it was though particularly pleasing to see indigenous groups well represented at the talks, with delegations from the Amazon, Pacific Islands and the Arctic.

"It was interesting to hear from indigenous communities about the dramatic impact of climate change and how those changes affect their lives, cultures, livelihoods especially since these communities are very much key stewards of critical environments,” said Dr Paterson.

“If you look at the Arctic and the amount of ice they’re losing – they use the ice in lots of ways, including for transport. So, if the ice is too thin, they can’t move.”

Looking back, Dr Patterson said that despite going into COP a bit pessimistic, talking to the other delegates had at least made her feel a bit more positive about it.

“I think at the end of the day, it’s so difficult to get any sort of consensus, especially when you only have two weeks. National interests always outweigh global interest,” said Dr Paterson.

“Was it the best they could do? Probably not. Was it a step forward? Maybe. But it certainly wasn’t as much of a step backwards as I thought it might be.”

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Dr Paterson was pleased to see indiginous groups represented

Prof Rob Holdway, Innovation Director at Co-Innovate

Prof Rob Holdway, Innovation Director for Co-Innovate and founder of environmental consultants Giraffe Innovation, was at COP26 as a delegate of the Environment & Climate Change Working Group of West London Business, a business forum which includes Brunel.

Prof Holdway said he hoped to better understand what the outcomes will mean for organisations such as Brunel and the local businesses it works with.

“If you look at COP, it’s about collaboration,” said Prof Holdway, an industrial designer by trade. “And Co-Innovate is all about collaborative innovation”

“A lot of the issues talked about aren’t technical issues – they’re social issues and cultural and anthropological issues. But it’s not just about how partners can work together, it’s also about how we engage the broader public in what all this stuff means.”

Universities such as Brunel have a key role to play in the global response to climate change, believes Prof Holdway, not only because much of their research aims to address environmental issues and has an international reach, but also because they’re responsible for fostering and encouraging the scientists, engineers and politicians set to carry the torch in decades to come.

“We’re educating some really bright, thoughtful students and researchers, and they’re the ones who will bring energy to this whole complex issue and provide the solutions,” said Prof Holdway.

“As an organisation, we’re bringing great people into the government, the business world and the NGO arena who no longer see climate action as an add-on, but central to what they care about and are passionate about.”

Despite the somewhat lacklustre final result, Prof Holdway said that it was vital that this sort of conference continue to take place and that “even if the outcomes are timid, compared with what people wanted, some progress is better than no progress.

“It’s very easy to be negative and cynical, but we brought together 120 world leaders to discuss the issue. It democratised it and gave a very powerful voice to those nations that may not be economically powerful, but who will be most affected by climate change, with the displacement of populations and rising temperatures that it causes.”

Prof Stefaan Simons, Emeritus Professor of Energy Systems

This wasn’t Prof Stefaan Simons’ first COP, having been in France in 2015 when the famous ‘Paris Agreement’ was reached.

As in 2015, Prof Simons was there a delegate of Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), a professional membership organisation representing 35,000 engineers in about 100 countries.

“One of the many advantages of my attendance at COP21 (in 2015) was meeting other engineers involved in addressing climate change, including members of a consortium called Future Climate – Engineering Solutions (FC-ES),” said Prof Simons. “This is a global alliance of engineering institutions working to share good practice in national energy and climate planning, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil energy.”

Since then, IChemE has played a role in FC-ES and started its own journey to encourage chemical engineers to demonstrate their key role in decarbonisation with its statement on climate change in 2020.

“I believe we delivered a statement that was both bold and clearly laid out the responsibility of the profession to deliver action on climate change. I was delighted that over 80% of IChemE members supported the commitments,” said Prof Simons.

Half a decade on at COP26, one of many events Prof Simons took part in was a discussion with media organisations including the BBC’s international charity BBC Media Action. Talks covered topics including the importance of community action to influence national energy plans and the vital the role of chemical engineers in addressing climate change.

“In the transition to a low carbon economy, it is essential to transform skills and competences among the workforce and it is vital to support our peers to do that,” said Prof Simons.

“This clearly applies to those working in traditional sectors, including oil and gas, where there is still a need for the product, but also an opportunity to improve.

“As we set out in the position statement, action must start now. We must work together as a profession but also with others, including governments, industry and wider society.”

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Prof Simons (right) taking part in a panel alongside BBC Media Action, the Global Ecovillage Network and the Nordic Folkecentre for Renewable Energy

Reported by:

Tim Pilgrim, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268965
tim.pilgrim@brunel.ac.uk