Duncan Cameron, Professor of Plant and Soil Biology and co-director of the University of Sheffield Flagship research institute, the Institute for Sustainable Food, discusses why the upcoming conference is more important than ever.

In a matter of weeks, Glasgow will host the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP). This meeting brings together the 197 members of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for crucial talks on our climate emergency. 

The core themes of this conference have been identified:

  • To secure global net zero by mid-century and keep the 1.5 degrees celsius target within reach
  • Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
  • Mobilise finance
  • Work together to deliver

These aims are crucial to our collective health, wellbeing and livelihoods. Frankly, our entire way of life depends on the success of our action to tackle climate change.

In 2015, I attended the COP21 meeting in Paris where I helped to sound the alarm for our soils. As a Professor of Soil and Plant Biology, I have been investigating ways to secure a sustainable global food system for a number of years. We used our platform at COP to highlight how our soils are being destroyed; nearly 33 per cent of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion or pollution in the last 40 years and vital action must now be taken to prevent the devastating knock-on effects.

COP26 is another chance to sound the alarm bell. Colleagues involved in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released barely two months ago,  highlighted that we are now at “code red for humanity” in our fight against climate change. In the words of UN Secretary General António Guterres “[the] report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses. I count on government leaders and all stakeholders to ensure COP26 is a success.”

This is a crucial observation. COP26 is a space for negotiation between countries for climate solutions, but our focus must now be strategies that will allow us to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

When I attended COP21 in Paris, it was the small nations of the world that led the historic commitment to target a 1.5°C rise above pre-industrial temperatures. Previously, 2°C had been the explicit target. As we are already seeing with the increase in extreme weather events, drought, wildfires and the devastating loss of species, an increase in temperatures above 1.5°C will be increasingly intolerable.  

Five years on from COP21 (COP26 has been delayed from last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic), COP26 is even more crucial. Not only is the fight to ‘keep 1.5 alive’ desperately needed, but after five years, countries attending the talks are supposed to increase the ambition of their targets and provide the mechanisms for delivering them. 

Despite the historic gains of Paris, current policies are set to see a truly catastrophic 2.9°C worth of warming and the ‘nationally determined contributions’ that each country has pledged aren’t much better. If we are to truly ‘keep 1.5 alive’, then we need to put pressure on governments to act in line with the science.

This will require us to use every lever at our disposal. Political leadership will be crucial, as will the buy-in of the private sector, the crucial research of universities and research institutes alongside the engagement and activism of voters. 

There are some greenshoots of hope in our fight against climate change. Working at the University of Sheffield, I see transformational research into sustainable food systems, clean energy solutions, green technology and so much more. Students are leading the way in the campaign for a sustainable future. For example, nationally 91 per cent of students believe that their place of study should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development, something we have been at the forefront of providing to our students

Research has the power to be transformative. At the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield we are looking at the solutions to our food crisis from farm to fork. For example, we led a unique investigation into the potential for urban food growing, showing that urban based gardens could provide 15 per cent of a local population with their ‘five a day’. As a major contributor to climate change, the agricultural system is a sector in need of overhaul. 

In the face of the immense collective challenge of climate change, universities, working together with our partners in business and civil society, can play a key role in any future transformation. They are just one set of tools we need to mobilise for and beyond COP26 if we are to create a just and sustainable world.