COP26: What the public sector can do next

We asked leaders at the event ‘What COP26 means for the public sector’ for one word each to describe what they hoped to gain from attending. In our word cloud, the top four choices were ‘knowledge’, ‘insight’, ‘learning’ and ‘inspiration’. Other suggestions were ‘understanding’, ‘new contacts’ and ‘new ideas’.
We asked leaders at the event ‘What COP26 means for the public sector’ for one word each to describe what they hoped to gain from attending. In our word cloud, the top four choices were ‘knowledge’, ‘insight’, ‘learning’ and ‘inspiration’. Other suggestions were ‘understanding’, ‘new contacts’ and ‘new ideas’.

We’re better at tackling climate change when we all work together. Individual actions feel small but, with so many organisations making new efforts, the public sector can make a difference. That was a big reassurance from our recent National Leadership Centre event ‘What COP26 means for the public sector’.

The event opened with a keynote speech from COP26’s Director of Partnerships and Engagement, Matt Toombs, who drove the point that “coordinated action, particularly at a global scale, significantly reduces the risk and increases the return”.

He explained that the goal of COP26 was to build on the commitments of the Paris Agreement, showing that those who had signed up were serious about making changes to help the planet.

Among the main things to focus on were a commitment to Net Zero, where emissions and carbon reductions are evenly balanced, and the 1.5 degrees climate target that scientists agree global warming should not surpass. On the latter, Matt referred to COP26 President Alok Sharma’s recent article in The Guardian, where he said: “The 1.5 celsius limit lives … But its pulse remains weak.”

Matt described how delegates from across the world committed to making huge changes. For example, nations that were heavily reliant on coal, such as Vietnam, promised to phase down its use.

And most importantly, his key message was the shift from viewing climate change as just a government policy challenge to something that sat across sectors including transport, finance, energy and local government.

Following Matt’s talk and a short question and answer session, we heard lightning talks from three network members and how they’re working to reduce carbon emissions.

Kate Kennally, Chief Executive Officer of Cornwall Council discussed how the county is vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Yet, 80% of emissions can be influenced by local government. That’s why the council is taking steps to adapt to be more environmentally sustainable and also to be more resilient against climate change. This means following a net zero strategy and taking part in joined up action alongside other teams across government working towards the same goal.

Productivity Lead for the East of England Region of NHS England, Terry Huff, then explained how changing certain things could make a big difference to our carbon footprint. In this case, he focussed on inhalers. They contain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and, with 60 million issued annually in England and Wales, can lead to over 1.3 billion kg of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. That’s according to the NHS Business Services Authority’s quarterly statistics from April to June 2021. Terry proposed a greener option that still suits patients but reduces emissions.

He also touched on how sustainable investments in the health service can sometimes save costs, such as by spending less on single use items and more on reusables.

Finally, Maggie Sandison, Chief Executive Officer of Shetland Council, spoke about the Orion Clean Energy Project and how it would lead to Shetland becoming a green energy island. With its history in oil and gas, she recognised the island’s contribution to carbon emissions but said the infrastructure could be used for cleaner alternatives. She touched on plans for green hydrogen production, as well as wind, wave, and tidal power. These are changes she suggested would help residents in the long term by creating jobs and reducing fuel poverty.

As COP26 and our National Leadership Centre network members showed, there are plenty of avenues that public sector leaders can explore to help tackle climate change. But what to focus on? This is a question that Nick Baker, Deputy Director of Business and Engagement at COP26, answered during his overview of public sector initiatives.

The Race to Zero is a central point, bringing pre-existing climate initiatives under one umbrella as something to be done. It means halving emissions by 2030 and putting forth a five to 10 year action plan on how to achieve it. Science-based targets are key to measuring success and having that accountability will build trust in your actions.

As well as the Race to Zero, Nick discussed the Race to Resilience. This means adapting to climate change and its consequences. For example, at COP26, the mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone outlined plans to plant one million trees as a defence against landslides and torrential rainfall. Other plans could include flood defences and developing early alert systems.

Nick outlined 5 campaign areas to look at:

  • Clean transport.
  • Cleaner energy: committing to sourcing electricity from 100% renewable sources.
  • Adaptation: providing technical systems for people who will be most greatly impacted by climate change.
  • Finance: increasing funding for climate-related projects, including ensuring pension funds make environmentally friendly investments.
  • Using nature-based solutions and commodities that reduce deforestation.

There are organisations around the world working to reduce their carbon footprint, sometimes in places and sectors you might not expect. Having Nick and Matt outline this at our event, alongside contributions from our network members, showed that we are not alone in tackling this huge problem. There are so many ways for different organisations to help.

While the promises made in Glasgow were positive, there is still a long way to go. And this decade is the one where we all must take action. As long as we collectively follow our commitments, we can make big changes and preparations for the future.

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