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University expert: How COP26 almost brought me to tears

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Published on 11 November 2021

Dr Alex Lockwood
Dr Alex Lockwood

Dr Alex Lockwood is a Senior Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Sunderland, as well as a climate change activist and exponent of veganism. 

This week he has been at COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow. Here he gives a first-hand account of how the conference has inspired him – and left him on the verge of tears. 

 

COP26 is the major international climate conference that began in Glasgow on 1st November and ends this week.  

World leaders, negotiators, delegates and observers have all been here to reach an agreement to avoid the catastrophic declines of our nations, cities, and entire civilisations within young people’s lifetime.  

It is strange times we live in that this is not the script for a science fiction film or James Bond escapade, but factually correct. 

I have worked in and around the climate emergency for exactly twenty years now. Yet when I entered the field in 2001, warnings about greenhouse gases were already at least three decades old. In 1965, the United States President’s Advisory Committee warned that greenhouse emissions were a worrying problem. That is 56 years ago. 

Seven years ago I wrote a book, The Pig in Thin Air, drawing the connections between climate change and the food we eat. So, I have been thinking about this for a long time now. And I can only be honest. This is probably the most depressed I have felt about the climate emergency in the last 20 years. I have spent time at this conference on the edge of tears. 

But let me say straight away. This does not stop me trying to make a change—in my own life, but more importantly, asking local councils, employers, institutions, and our government, to make the big changes that we individuals cannot make. In some ways, this feels better. If we all have to focus on our own behaviour, things won’t change fast enough. That means everyone, all of us, if we care and want to make a difference, the most important thing we can do is this: pressure governments to act. 

The conference is a huge, impressive, fascinating, sometimes chaotic event. Well over 20,000 people are all rushing around trying to get to the next relevant event in tiny spaces—and all with negative lateral flow Covid test checks every day.  

Nearly every country in the world is here, from Australia to Zambia, to meet, discuss, network, and build better global systems that reduce emissions. People here are professional, positive, multicultural, and polite—mostly. And Glasgow is a great choice, as a lively but most of all friendly city to welcome people from all around the globe. 

Discussions have focused on gender, inclusivity, and nature. Today it is cities. And of course, there has been a lot of focus on decarbonizing the fossil fuel industries. And there have been minor successes so far, on a pledge to cut methane, a pledge to stop deforestation, and promises to pay for climate damages and losses that many countries around the world are already facing from the impacts of the climate emergency now, not in the future, but now. There has been some life, energy, and positivity around these announcements. 

But let me tell you why it has been a difficult conference for me. 

Here representing both the University of Sunderland - although the views expressed in this piece are my own – and The Vegan Society, for who I recently authored a major report on the policy we need to transition toward a fairer, sovereign food system, I have been paying attention to the discussions around farming, food and agriculture—and also the food served to conference attendees. 

We know that global agriculture is responsible for nearly 20% of the entire planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. The whole food system is responsible for one quarter, 25%. Say your house was losing 25% of its energy through a big hole in the roof—you’d fix that hole in the roof, wouldn’t you? 

But while the food system causes 25% of emissions, here at COP26 it is less than 0.1% of discussions. It doesn’t have its own ‘dedicated day’, like transport, even though agriculture releases more emissions than all aviation and transport combined. There is something seriously wrong with this picture. 

What I find almost worse is this: it has been widely reported that the food at the conference is all labelled with its carbon footprint, so delegates can make a choice about the climate friendliness of their breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

We know that some foods—especially beef and other red meats—have a huge climate footprint due to their methane emissions as well as the very long and inefficient lifecycles of production.  

For example, huge amounts of crops that could be fed direct to hungry humans are instead fed to animals. It takes around 31kg of feed to produce 1kg of beef. And a massive amount of water. That is terribly inefficient. As I’ve written many times, if we were beginning from scratch with a fresh sheet of paper, no one would design the food system we currently have. Animals would not appear at all in our Western food system if the criteria were economic, environmental and health impacts alone. 

So, at the conference, there are options for plant-based meals with low carbon footprints; and meat-based meals with high carbon footprints. But even these good people—remember, people who work in and know about the dire consequences of climate change—are still purchasing the high impact breakfasts, lunch, and dinners. If they can’t be bothered to eat the more responsible meal, why should you? And if a climate conference cannot offer the most climate friendly menu, why should you change your plans for Christmas dinner? 

This has maddened and saddened me in equal parts—just as much as it did when our Prime Minister Boris Johnson flew in a private jet from the conference back to London rather than take the train. (It wasn’t for important business, but to attend a dinner with an old boss.) 

Politicians are afraid of making decisions to do with what they consider ‘personal choice’ such as flying or eating. But it is these kinds of tough decisions that governments have to make. If the COP26 conference had only served low carbon footprint foods, people would have eaten what was on offer. If it has been tasty, they wouldn’t have grumbled. If this conference has shown me anything, it is that even well-informed people make choices not based on better decision-making for the planet, but what they—and their taste buds—desire. 

Is it really worth burning the planet down for the next beef burger? Because that is what we are doing. As David Attenborough said at the opening ceremony, we only have left a “desperate hope” to make changes in time to stop catastrophic warming. And these changes have to come at the structural level. 

The Labour MP, Barry Gardiner, speaking at a food event organised by the American think-and-action-tank Brighter Green, spoke of the need for all governments around the world to “step up” and take hard choices before it is too late. But if Boris Johnson said we are at one minute to midnight, others are saying, after this conference, we are now past midnight. The conference has not done enough. 

So is there anything we can do? 

Yes. We can. And must. And let me tell you why. 

The most inspiring talk I saw involved five people, three of them under-18. A 14-year-old young person from Africa who was there with the youth organisation TakingITGlobal spoke about the need to build more platforms for the voices of young people, who have no official representation at these conferences, despite being the people who will live longest with the worst impacts of climate disaster. 

He spoke alongside a woman from the Amazon, whose community is protecting the rainforest—which provides oxygen for us here in the UK to breathe, let’s not forget—who pleaded with us to fight alongside them for the planet we all live on. And she spoke alongside an African woman who is campaigning for safe energy for everyone. Did you know that 2.6 billion (yes, billion) people do not have access to ‘clean’ fuel such as the gas that comes through pipes and means we can cook safely.  

Covid has killed 5 million people in this pandemic. But 5 million people die every year from having to breathe in the fumes of unsafe cooking fuels, just to cook dinner for their family. 

So while you are cooking your Christmas dinner safely, can you not make small changes so it is a climate friendly dinner, so that 14-year old boy has a future? If people in the Amazon are defending the forest with their lives, can we not stop eating the beef from the cattle that are grazed on the land where the forest is cut down? (The biggest cause of deforestation in the Amazon, and other rainforests, is to clear land for beef cattle.) 

Remember, though. Yes, it would be great to make these changes. But the most important thing you can do is ask your local councillors, local MP, and the government in your country to make big changes that you cannot make alone. Ask your employer to be climate responsible, even declare a climate emergency (as so many have already done). See where you can make things climate fairer as a work team, a community, or institution. 

Don’t do this alone. But do something.

 

The North East's biggest science centre, Life, has created a series of special climate videos featuring individuals from across the region, who are playing their own unique roles in measuring, mitigating against and adapting to the climate crisis.

In one of the videos, Dr Alex Lockwood talks about his own research and work on the impact of food supply chains on the climate.

Watch the video here

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