Dr Richard Randle-Boggis is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield and an official ‘observer’ of COP26 with access to the inner blue zone of the conference. His research bridges disciplines to tackle global challenges and take multidisciplinary projects from research and innovation through to development and impact. He writes about his experience of COP26. 

My very first day at COP26 was an exciting one. After several pass checks and airport-style security to enter the conference, my experience began sitting on a panel debate in the UN Innovation Hub discussing approaches to achieve climate change resilience in crop farming systems. On the panel, the importance of crop genetic diversity to provide a buffer for environmental shocks and the need for co-design with local communities for climate initiatives was presented, while I introduced the work we’re conducting on agrivoltaics in East Africa that aims to create a more resilient crop growing environment. We then had a fruitful debate considering a wide range of climate threats and potential adaptation solutions.

The hour flew by, with some fantastic questions from the audience and an enjoyable yet critical conversation between the panellists. Then I was off to find my bearings.

After just a few hours at the COP my feelings were very mixed. There are so many exciting and innovative projects going on, yet also some really hard hitting facts presented that really drove home just how serious our situation is. And I really mean “our”, as this affects us all.

I couldn’t help but shake my head in despair during one talk by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Their models show that if we, as a global community, put all of our pledges in place – pledges heralded as the successes of the COP – then we still won’t avoid catastrophic increases in average global temperatures and consequential natural disasters. The rate that we achieve Net Zero is crucial, not just getting there at some point; it’s the rate that will determine the actual temperature increase, and bear in mind it takes years to implement colossal changes to infrastructure and industrial processes. This is a grave message to share, but it’s the reality of the situation. And for many people around the world, that reality of disastrous climate impacts is already here.

On a more positive note, it was encouraging to see many of the wonderful initiatives going on around the world. A biologist at heart, I couldn’t help but avert my eyes from the Nordic Energy Research emission pathways charts to the Pakistan stand displaying wonderful footage of their snow leopard conservation programme. Whilst COP26 is hard hitting, it is a joy to see successful conservation efforts such as these protecting our global biodiversity as part of the drive to protect our planet.

Queuing for a spare ticket to Obama’s talk was one of the more dramatic moments of the conference. Standing at the front of the barrier, I was fortunate enough to be given a ticket, but as soon as it was in my hand an arm flew over my shoulder and grabbed it from me. The crowd then surged forwards, pushing over the queuing barrier causing the security handing out the tickets to move back past the gate, and that was that. Those that managed to get tickets (and keep hold of them!) got in, but, unfortunately, I was not one of them. Clearly it’s not just the planet that’s heating up, scientific conferences are too!

At the close of the first day I went back to my hotel and tried to nap after the early start to beat the morning queues ahead of my panel, but my head was spinning. So much going on, so much to take in and so much to process. 

Despite the tough realities shared, I very much enjoyed my first day at COP, and I can’t wait to get back in for day 2.