With COP26 fast approaching, Forum’s Dhaval Negandhi, Associate Director for Climate, and Hannah Pathak, Director - Forum UK/Europe, call out five key elements the Climate Summit must address if we are to achieve the deep transformation needed to meet the Paris Agreement and deliver a just and regenerative future.

The highly anticipated COP26 Climate Summit, starting this weekend, is a key inflection point for deciding the level of global ambition in responding to the climate crisis, with many nations currently revisiting previous emissions reduction pledges. 

The current suite of commitments include some deeply problematic elements: plans for natural climate solutions that create carbon offsets and sequester carbon, but risk entrenching inequality; a potential global land grab race; assumptions about carbon capture and storage technologies that are as yet unproven at scale; the simple but striking fact that the current number of net zero commitments by businesses and governments is insufficient to limit warming

The decisions made at COP26 will have major implications for decades to come. For some, it is considered the world’s last great hope to avert climate catastrophe - but can it live up to this? 

Here we discuss five key elements COP26 must address.

1. Raise ambition, with governments better enabling business to step up

The world needs to decarbonise very quickly. The synthesis of the latest climate action plans projects a 16% increase in global GHG emissions in 2030, leading to a temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. COP26 will need to mobilise nations, reject inertia and intensify the pace of change to radically reduce emissions.

The business community is ready to step up on mitigation (with over 3,000 businesses joining the Race To Zero). Now, governments must lead and create the right enabling conditions and policy frameworks to give business the certainty it needs to quicken the spiral of positive climate action. COP26 will be the opportunity to do so.

Without over-relying on negative emissions technologies and offsetting solutions, the decisions at COP26 will need to catalyse transformations across energy, food, financial and other systems to rapidly cut emissions across value chains and accelerate a long-overdue transition to business models, products and services that are truly fit for a net zero future. 

2. Determine decisive actions on adaptation

The most vulnerable communities will bear the greatest impacts of climate change despite having done the least to cause it. And existing vulnerability, whether social, economic or physical, will likely be exacerbated by climate threats. It’s clear that urgent and decisive action on adaptation to build resilience is needed before more lives and livelihoods are lost. 

And yet, adaptation has generally been the neglected child of the climate agenda, receiving only 5% of the overall climate finance. But we can no longer afford this. 

At COP26, we need leaders to integrate adaptation into their planning and commitments, with an urgency as great as is required for mitigation. Action needs to be enhanced and coordinated, alongside support (including financial) for adaptation planning and implementation. We need wider collaborations to develop a shared understanding of how climate change will impact various regions and communities and what collective action plans will be needed, with climate justice and resilience at the core. 

And whilst mitigation efforts towards net zero require a cohesive global lens, adaptation efforts require a high degree of specificity and localisation. The needs of communities in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that are profoundly at risk of sea-level rise will be very different from the adaptation needs of those living on a flood plain in the UK, or those at risk of high temperatures that are incompatible with human survival in Sub Saharan Africa or in the Indian Subcontinent or indeed British Columbia, Canada, as seen during this summer.

Actions on adaptation need to therefore look at multiple types of vulnerability, map how these may be amplified by climate threats, and invest in adaptation plans that combine physical, economic, and social resilience. 

One of the greatest challenges for global leadership represented at COP26: the ability to hold the dual requirements of mitigation and adaptation with equal weight and urgency, and develop effective strategies for both, globally and locally. 

3. Ensure just transitions

Tackling climate change requires creating and transitioning to a just and regenerative future; one that is equitable in terms of both the costs and benefits associated with the rapid transition to a net zero economy. COP26 will need to ensure that this transition does not embed existing problems more deeply, such as exacerbating inequality and imbalances of power. 

While jobs are an integral part of the just transition agenda, COP26 needs to emphasise other associated dimensions too that may impact vulnerable populations in our efforts to reduce emissions.

For example, land is a fundamental asset for sustained economic development for indigenous people and rural communities. However, without strong safeguards, mitigation efforts such as expansion of renewable energy and nature-based solutions can weaken land rights for vulnerable local communities and increase food prices. However, if done well, new approaches can diversify and underpin resilient livelihoods. Similarly, we need greater recognition that ambitious climate action can bring about positive outcomes in closely connected systems such as health and nutrition, particularly for vulnerable communities.

4. Promote systems thinking to tackle climate change

Climate change is a wicked problem, mixed-up with other challenges including biodiversity loss and rising inequality. Tackling it involves many stakeholders, and nearly all of them have different ideas of the problem and its ideal solutions. To complicate further, every solution we deploy will have unexpected and often irreversible consequences, many of which manifest over decades. 

This makes it imperative that COP26 promotes a systems approach to tackling the climate crisis - one that takes a holistic, long-term perspective focusing on relationships between interacting parts within, for example, the food, energy and urban systems, as well as relationships across these systems.

This is too big a task for any one country or organisation or sector to achieve by itself. It needs cooperation within and across systems working together as part of a collective and there are emerging initiatives to learn from. Success will be contingent on the cooperation of governments, businesses, financial institutions and investors, farmers, consumers, and more. 

5.Going beyond net zero: open hearts and minds to a just and regenerative mindset

Some of the most transformational changes occur when the underlying mindset or paradigm of a system shifts. This leads to new goals, structures, and rules for the emerging system. 

To permanently address the deep, pervasive and interconnected drivers of climate change, we need a just and regenerative mindset - an approach that embraces the power of nature, including humans as part of nature, to renew and regenerate and that respects everyone's universal rights and potential to thrive. 

Nations, businesses, and various actors in energy, food, and other systems across the value chain practising this mindset will help in moving beyond ‘doing less harm’ or even delivering net zero. It will focus attention on building capacity for justice and regeneration, both vital to tackling the root causes of climate change. 

Partnerships and collaborations will be needed to define what this means and how to operationalise it for various actors and systems. To support this, Forum for the Future - in partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development - will soon publish a new report set to explore the case for change, while providing an all-new ‘Business Transformation Compass’ to help leaders navigate disruption. Watch this space.

The coming weeks will be some of the most critical of the decade, maybe even this century, with far-reaching decisions being made by global leaders that can make or break our prospects of creating a just and regenerative future. The decisions made at COP26 must set us on the path to a deep transformation. Nothing else will do.