Chester Zoo

Blog: What, if anything, did COP26 achieve?

Posted: 16th November, 2021

Simon Dowell, Science Director at Chester Zoo, reflects on the outcomes of COP26 and what it means for zoos and aquariums.

The eyes of the world have been on Glasgow for the last two weeks as the twenty sixth Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, (or CoP26 for short) took place.  Over 25,000 delegates from the 197 countries who are signatories to the convention have spent a fortnight discussing, debating and negotiating, culminating on Saturday 13th November with the publication of The Glasgow Climate Pact eventually agreed by all the parties.

Climate and the environment has been daily news as world leaders, scientists and activists alike highlighted the extreme urgency of the situation we now face. Whilst the headlines have tended to concentrate on the soundbites it can be hard to make sense of it all.  So what, if anything, did CoP26 actually achieve behind the headlines and what does it mean for us working tirelessly for wildlife in our zoos and aquariums?

Across the environmental and conservation sector there is a general feeling of dismay that despite all the rhetoric on the extreme urgency of the situation, the promises made in the final Pact and associated agreements do not add up to ‘keeping 1.5 alive’, as the Prime Minister put it. Indeed CoP26 President, Alok Sharma himself made an emotional apology for the last minute climb down on coal and environmental analysts agree that the commitments made at CoP fall significantly short of achieving the target of keeping average global temperature rises to ‘well below’ 2oC and ideally within 1.5oC as laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

For wildlife this is catastrophic. For example scientists predict that coral reefs will disappear by 2050 if global average temperature rises in excess of 2oC. The part of the agreement that requires the Parties to return to the table next year and review their goals more regularly at least offers more opportunities for a re-think and it is incumbent on all of us to step up the pressure on our leaders. In the meantime the maintenance in zoos and aquariums of examples of these beautiful ecosystems and populations of some of the key species that they contain is ever more vital, as is research that goes into understanding how species such as corals can adapt and survive.

But there were some positives in areas where zoos and aquariums have a particular part to play.  Clause 38 of the Pact ‘Emphasizes the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal, including … by protecting biodiversity’, explicitly acknowledging the link between nature and climate that has for too long been side lined. This link and our particular understanding of it positions us well to be part of the solution.

One of the most significant moments of the two week meeting for me was the Declaration on Forests and Land Use which promises to ‘halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation’.  Following this declaration there was new interest from the business and finance sectors in supporting tried and tested ‘nature-based solutions’. This was particularly evident at a fringe meeting I attended in Glasgow where business leaders talked openly about assigning proper value to and investing in nature and the services it provides. Many of the field projects designed and supported by zoos protect and restore habitats for wildlife that in turn sequester carbon and support local communities. But there remains a gap to bridge between grassroots conservation projects, providing those nature based solutions, and the business and financial industries willing to provide the finance to scale them up. It is clear that new partnerships need to be forged to ensure the ambitions of CoP26 are realised and this presents new opportunities for our zoos and aquariums.

Another important element of the Declaration on Forests and Land Use that will be vital to realising its ambition is breaking the link between deforestation and supply chains of widely used commodities such as palm oil, soy, cocoa and wood.  This is something we at Chester Zoo are already influencing directly through our campaigns on sustainable palm oil and soy that highlight the origins of many of the commodities that go into our food and demonstrate the link between the destruction of habitat for the wild counterparts of the animals we care for, and our weekly shop. Here in the UK, the passing of the Environment Act into law during CoP26 means our Government is now committed to secondary legislation on deforestation risk commodities in the coming parliament. We are uniquely placed to bring this message to a wider public audience, brought to life by some of the iconic animals that we care for who are affected directly by deforestation.

Indeed, informing the wider public on sustainability is something we can do more of, using the species in our care to tell stories that will draw attention to the unfolding crisis and the part we must all play in averting it. UK Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi used his speech at CoP26 to announce a range of measures to put climate change at the heart of education and empower young people to take action on the environment. It is vital that the inextricable link between climate change and biodiversity is fully realised within these curriculum developments. We have a particular part to play in ensuring this and in delivering innovative education and engagement programmes in our zoos and aquariums that inspire people to make the transformative changes in lifestyles that are desperately needed.

And the need for transformative change brings us back to the central theme of CoP26 and the dramatic steps needed to prevent global warming above 1.5oC. As Alok Sharma said in his closing speech, ‘the pulse of 1.5 degrees is weak’ and some might argue that CPR is already required to keep the patient alive!  After all the talking and headlines, however, the simple fact remains that we all have to stop emitting greenhouse gases in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, and this requires dramatic changes to how we live and operate. Many of our zoos and aquariums are already working towards targets for achieving net zero emissions and waste within the next few years, guided by the recently launched BIAZA Sustainability Policy, and some are leading the way with innovations like the biomass boilers powered by animal poo at Marwell for example. But we must do more.

If CoP26 has done anything it has captured the public attention in the UK and brought the climate and biodiversity crises into people’s lives and living rooms as never before.  With 35 million people visiting a zoo every year and our wider reach on social and conventional media, the public are looking to us for leadership, inspiration and direction. We must not fail them or the wildlife we care so passionately about.

By Simon Dowell,

Science Director at Chester Zoo

All blogs reflect the views of their author and are not a reflection of BIAZA's positions.