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Post COP26 – tackling carbon emissions from energy and transport is only half the answer

It was an extraordinary two weeks at COP26 in Glasgow, where the eyes of the world were focused on leaders, charged with finding a way forward on tackling climate change. 

Iain Gulland | 24 Nov 21

As the politicians, technocrats, and climate activists packed-up and headed home, there were (very) mixed feelings about what had been achieved.

At the end of the first week, I was in the press room as Alok Sharma, the COP26 President, gave an update to waiting journalists on the progress of the negotiations. In another part of Glasgow, tens of thousands of Friday protestors were making their voices heard as they marched through the streets to a rally in George Square.

“We have heard you, loud and clear,” said Alok, “and, believe me, we are getting on with the task.”

But now, after the conclusion of COP26 and the announcement of the final agreement is made, I have a sense that those inside the negotiations were only half-listening to those outside.

As well asking for the world leaders to “get on with it”, the marchers were also asking for system change. Not just a change to the linear system - which is, undoubtedly, contributing to the dire situation the planet has found itself in - but also the system which continues to exclude and ignore many parts of our global society such as the young, the poor, and those in the global south where the impacts of climate change is being felt the most.

This was echoed in Zero Waste Scotland’s day of discussions around tackling consumption, which took place mid-summit, on Monday 8th November. The day was packed with intriguing and thought-provoking panels, featuring esteemed experts from a plethora of national and international organisations, and ended with a deep discussion on the need to consider the wider economic system. The consensus was not just to ensure we address climate change, but also create a more equal, fair, and participatory global society.

There was understandable focus in the COP26 debates on the phasing-out of fossil fuels, however protracted and complex that will be. But only half of global emissions come from the energy systems.The other half come from the extraction, production, consumption, and ultimate wasting of products and materials.

This linear system also accounts for 90% of biodiversity loss, which is the second-greatest crisis of our time and which is intrinsically linked to our over-exploitation of the earth’s natural systems.

Around four fifths of our carbon footprint here in Scotland is caused by our huge consumption habits and it can’t be fixed by tinkering around the edges. Zero Waste Scotland calculates that the average Scot consumes 18.4 tonnes of materials every year – that’s the equivalent of 50kg per week on average. Academics agree that a sustainable level of material use, which would still allow for a high quality of life, is about eight tonnes per person per year.  

Consumption habits are where individuals and businesses can make a real difference. If we think about what we use and make a conscious effort to use less of it, we can contribute to stemming the tide.

But as well as reducing the demand for ‘stuff’ in the first place, we need to make better use of the things we already have and ensure that we design products and services in such a way to keep materials in use for as long as possible. Products need to be easily repaired, re-manufactured and repurposed, again and again, as part of a circular economy – which, as well as preventing waste, also creates jobs and better integrated and resilient supply chains.

The success of the circular economy requires some new thinking. We need to think about how our economy works and ensure we are facilitating interactions and collaboration across supply chains, sectors, and stakeholders. But we also need to involve wider society within the workplace, within schools and universities, as well as our communities.

We need a system-wide change across whole ecosystems of commerce and society and the involvement of young people.

Zero Waste Scotland is in a unique position to help with this. We exist solely to help businesses and citizens operate and live more sustainably. We have the ear of the government and the voice of the people. Together, we can move towards a circular economy, restore our natural systems, and regenerate our communities in a more fair and equal way. But to do so means seeing the full picture and not accepting half measures.

Watch our short video on Reimaging Scotland.

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