Climate Change


A great deal more still to do

Barbara Young

Baroness Young of Old Scone FRSGS HonMLS HonFRSE is Chair of the Woodland Trust and Chair of Council at the Royal Veterinary College. She is a member of the House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee. She has served as Chief Executive of the RSPB, Chairman of English Nature and Chief Executive of the Environment Agency.


  • COP26 recorded a number of significant achievements
  • A number of others remain incomplete
  • The UK must lead by example
  • It is not clear that the UK Treasury has yet grasped the full extent of the challenge
  • There must be a just transition to a net-zero world.

COP26 did record a number of achievements. The completion of the Paris Rulebook was important, setting the rules for carbon markets and encouraging people to be more ambitious about their enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) now they know what the rules are. More countries than ever before were involved in the process and have signed up to net zero – even India after a fashion! Coal was included for the first time, albeit in a heavily diluted way. At least it is a start: everyone knows that 1.5˚C cannot be achieved if the world still burns coal.

The side deals were probably more important than the main event. Methane and deforestation were elements in that, although they lack any formal monitoring and reporting mechanisms at present. There were sterling efforts behind the scenes and 133 countries did sign up to the deforestation deal. Here in the UK, we need to set an example by not destroying or damaging remaining fragments of important forest or ancient woodland (there are still over 1,000 areas of ancient woodland under threat in the UK).

The issue of a joint statement by China and the USA was an interesting development. We wait to see what these channels deliver. Some revisions to the process were encouraging, for example businesses tended to be represented by chairmen and chief executives. The commitment to come back next year with enhanced NDCs signals a ratcheting up of ambition, which is welcome. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANS) has now doubled the assets globally under management for tackling the climate crisis.

Of course, there were items that did not come through: the $100 billion per annum funding commitment was not delivered. The compensation for poorer countries and small island states for the impact of our pollution is still unresolved. Nature-based solutions were talked about a great deal but there were few mechanisms proposed for their delivery. Importantly, there is very little linkage between the biodiversity summit (COP15) and the climate change summit (COP26). Yet, it is absolutely axiomatic that 1.5˚C cannot be delivered without restoring our biodiversity.

Adaptation did get some attention. The budget was doubled, although from a very low base. I welcome the agreement for a two-year process to create a global plan for adaptation, but that means it is another two years away. Adaptation will be increasingly important, not just in Bangladesh, the small island states and in the increasingly arid regions, but also here with extreme weather events, fires, droughts, floods, etc. In reality, adaptation will also be about immigration, as the populations of the world seek a living elsewhere when their own territories become increasingly hostile. And this is a pressure we are already experiencing.

Although there was a significant amount of unfinished business at the close, there were a number of important agreements made at COP26. Will they be implemented? Who knows?

The Presidency

There are a number of actions the UK Presidency and the Government could be doing over the coming months. We are the president until COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022. Alok Sharma will need to re-energize the process, make sure the enhanced NDCs come forward, ensure the agreement between China and the USA does have some impact.

He will have to embed processes for the implementation of commitments already made, particularly the side deals, and make sure that we get over the line on the $100 billion annual funding. In the grand scheme of things, this may not be a huge amount of money, but it is a sign to the small island states and the emerging world that some action is being taken by those who caused the historic pollution. Then, of course, the Presidency needs to ensure that the private sector makes good on the promises of funding.

The UK must lead by example. The Government needs to set zero-carbon and biodiversity tests for all policies right across the board. There should be no trade agreements without climate change parity being a precondition: if our farmers and businesses are to meet climate change standards, we should not be signing trade agreements with countries that do not. That would be bad for our companies, and bad for the planet.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee found that some Departments, such as Education, were unaware of their potential contribution towards net zero.


Each Department needs to evaluate its own contribution to the campaign against climate change. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee took evidence from a range of them, to find out what their plans were for COP26. I was amazed at what we were told. The Department for Education, for example, clearly had no concept that education could play a role in climate change.

The Government should develop a strategic land-use framework to make sure that we use this scarce resource effectively for carbon sequestration using trees and peat: the right tree in the right place as the Woodland Trust urges, and at a fast pace. 

The land-use framework is also needed to ensure a transition to lower emissions from food production (especially methane from meat and dairy) and increases in plant-based food as outlined in the National Food Strategy, while still retaining a vibrant and economically-viable farming industry.

Rather than a scattergun of initiatives, we must have a properly sustained action plan for our highest carbon and greenhouse gas emitting areas – energy, building, transport and agriculture – with timescales and funding, as well as transparent pathways that can be monitored. Defra should publish its Environmental Land Management Scheme urgently. Farmers, and the country as a whole, have waited far too long for this to see the light of day. The Net Zero Strategy has significant gaps and needs attention. The Government is also placing too much faith in key technologies. Green hydrogen, for example, is still some way away but is (worryingly) crucial to many of the elements of the Strategy.

Generally speaking, the Government over-focusses on the ‘white heat’ of technology – on hydrogen and on Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCSU), and not enough on fiscal and taxation measures which could reduce the price of climate-friendly technologies while increasing the price of polluting goods and services.

All public sector procurement should include zero-carbon targets. This is a huge lever with which to drive the development of climate-friendly goods and services. The market as a whole will be modified as a result of that amount of spending power. No Government has ever used that lever effectively. The climate crisis means that we must.

The Treasury

I am not sure the Chancellor quite ‘gets’ climate change. Most of the big changes needed are not about upfront funding but rather fiscal and taxation measures. As yet, there is no climate change commitment from the Treasury. Its analysis, which accompanied the Net Zero Strategy, spoke a great deal about other Government Departments but not about the Treasury’s underlying philosophy. The Chancellor must outline an ambitious strategy well beyond modest funding for new technology development and implementation. Setting an example could include halting the massive subsidy to Drax for inappropriate biomass extraction, which is adversely impacting on international biodiversity.

Crucially, the world must ensure that the system delivers a transition that is just. This is not just an ethical point, it is a practical necessity. There are already signs that many individuals, farmers and business people believe that net zero measures have an unacceptable upfront cost, which impacts most severely on business, on the poor, on the vulnerable. If that perception becomes general, we will all fail.

The voice of youth

Finally, we must keep faith with young people. We have seen the power of young people to move mountains. Well, they are going to inherit this mess. If we do not keep faith with the huge power of their young voices, they will not forgive us and humanity will not win through.