18 Nov 2021

After the dust has settled, what can we really take away from COP26? Reasons for caution and reasons for hope.

By Jonathan Briggs – Innovation Strategy Manager, Gentrack

COP26 concluded on Saturday, with what many would argue was an underwhelming outcome. Having had some time to digest these outcomes this week, I’ve reflected on why it mattered to me personally, what the bigger picture could mean for us all, and why I think some of the consequences are of significance to Gentrack and the wider utilities industry. 

The deals which were negotiated during COP26 are potentially crucial for anyone working in the utilities industry throughout the supply chain. However, they’re equally (perhaps even more so) crucial for anyone concerned about the future of this planet we call home. Climate change is undeniable, as is the notion that humans have the power to take actions which can improve the situation. What is concerning though, is that nearly all scientists agree that the time to take action is running out.  

For me, like many others, the thing that plays on my mind the most when I think about climate change is what kind of world could be left for future generations, including my sons, nephews, and nieces if action is not taken now. But I also believe that improving the way energy is generated and consumed is a win-win situation. Living more sustainable lives, on a cleaner planet sounds better anyway, doesn’t it? 

In my personal life, I must make some lifestyle changes and I’m trying. I already eat less meat than I used too but I could go further. I try to walk or cycle whenever possible so as I use my car less and I’ll certainly ensure that the next car I get will be an EV.  I talk to my sons about the importance of switching off lights, using no more water than required, and as they get older, I’ll start talking to them more about sustainability. It’s a start.  

In my professional life, I’m proud to work for a company like Gentrack. I joined precisely because I believed in their vision; “We see a world where people understand and are empowered to responsibly use precious energy and water resources. That’s why we aim to be the go-to innovation partner to leading utilities and service providers globally.” I wanted to be part of a company developing cleantech solutions. This company is full of people passionate about cleantech solutions, and I believe we have the capabilities, technology, and scale to transform utilities. This will be a complex transition for the whole industry and for consumers, but with the wealth of experience at our disposal and the platforms under development, Gentrack can be at the heart of enabling that transition.  

It’s exciting. One particular opportunity that springs to mind is the proposal from COP26 to mandate all large UK firms and financial institutions to publish their pathways to net-zero by 2023. As some of our customers in the UK start developing their decarbonisation plans this is highly likely to trickle down the supply chain, pushing more and more firms to decarbonise both in the UK and globally. If our customers go green, that will mean what they need from their supplier (our customers) will change. From EV fleet solutions and flexible products to data and insights supporting their reporting needs. Gentrack will be ready to support in shaping and facilitating those plans. 

As for Gentrack, we’re going to have to go on this journey too. We’re working with consultants and our people to help put in place rigorous, stretching and meaningful Net Zero goals for the business, and to ensure that our reporting is robust. 

So, what of COP26, was it a success?  

Many climate activists and scientists are voicing deep concerns. They believe that the deals made are not enough to get to the 1.5C limit and that the magic 1.5C is actually too high anyway. Even at that limit they believe there’ll be severe global consequences. They are concerned that; as the agreement is not legally binding, there is a risk of a lack of real delivery on the part of politicians. And of course, the last-minute play by India and China to soften the wording on coal has left a sour taste, which most likely contributed to the previous optimism being dampened at the final hurdle.  

But I think there are reasons to be cautiously hopeful.  

This is the first time coal has been explicitly called out at a COP conference in plans to reduce emissions. Despite the weaker wording, this must be viewed as a significant step forward and each nation is expected to go back next year with strengthened emissions reduction plans (though there are clauses that could allow countries to avoid this). Then, there is the unexpected agreement between China and US to co-operate on reducing emissions and switching to cleantech. These are the world’s two biggest emitters and global rivals, so while the detail is not yet clear the deal could be viewed as a strong acknowledgement from both powers as to just how serious a situation the planet is in.  

Crucially, there is also a “money angle”, with an initiative designed to ensure two-fifths of the world’s financial assets sit under agreement to back clean technology and be directed away from fossil fuel burning industries. This is, rather cynically, the world we live in. There has to be some commercial incentive for everyone – from the consumer who can access finance for low carbon homes to the big renewable energy generators. But, in my opinion, it’s also the key to success. Once the commercial models start to emerge more widely and consumers increasingly demand sustainability from brands, the drag of staying in “old dirty energy” will lessen and lessen.  

So, was COP26 successful? Was it the watershed moment being predicted? 

I’d say it underwhelmed on expectation or ambition but in the cold light of day, it’s a practical and realistic improvement from where we were before. Now we can only hope that things accelerate and I’m very much looking forward to Gentrack and all of us playing our part in it.  

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