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What Did We Learn from COP26?

by Caroly Shumway, Ph.D., and Emma De Roy, MSc

"Today we can say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees within reach, but its pulse is weak. It will only survive if we keep our promises."

COP26 President Alok Sharma

We had high hopes for COP26. This was the year the world would finally act at the scale needed to avert a climate crisis. And some progress was made. The 1.5Celsius degree target is still achievable, but barely. As summed up by the World Resources Institute (WRI), by the end of the meeting, 151 countries had submitted new Nationally Determined Contributions to cut their emissions by 2030, while others had updated their commitments to being net-zero by 2050. Unfortunately, some countries' 2030 targets were so limited that there is simply no credible path forward for them to achieve their net-zero targets. To address the discrepancy between the 2030 targets and the net-zero targets, the Glasgow Climate Pact, calls on nations to "revisit and strengthen" their 2030 targets by the end of 2022 to align them with the Paris Agreement's goal of a 1.5 degree C increase. And other pledges occurred. Over 100 nations pledged to reduce methane; over 100 pledged to halt deforestation. The U.S. finally rejoined the table as a climate leader. Over 400 financial firms committed to aligning their portfolios to net-zero by 2030, while over 1000 cities and towns joined the Cities Race to Zero.

As behavioral scientists, we draw five lessons from this global international effort.

1. We can't wait to act. We must act at scale now. Climate scientists have determined that significant climate action needs to take place this decade to prevent a climate catastrophe  (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2018, Ripple et al., 2020, 2021). Project Drawdown's course, Drawdown Solutions, notes that we can and must take the solutions we have now so that we can draw down enough carbon over the next few decades.

2. Governments and businesses won't act boldly enough without public pressure to do so. Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis stated in our November workshop at the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change (BECC) conference that "politicians follow a crowd, they don't lead." As citizens, we have a duty to our country and planet to demand prompt climate action from our government leaders.  We can take comfort in knowing that support for action on climate policies is the social norm; a supermajority in the USA and the world support climate policy action. The public also supports business action. Leiserowitz et al. (2021) recently surveyed over 1000 Americans and found that more than half said that all of the 22 industries listed should be doing "more" or "much more" to address global warming. You can see which companies and organizations are engaging in climate action here.

3. Behavioral barriers to institutional change must be overcome. Institutional barriers include behavioral barriers. Ekstrom and Moser (2014) surveyed 5 municipal agencies in California to identify the greatest barriers to climate adaptation. Two of the top four most important barriers were behavioral, including, first, attitudes, values and motivations of the actors involved (e.g., lack of interest, status-quo mindset, inability to accept change, narrow self-interest) and second, politics (e.g., lack of political will, rivalry, turfism, ulterior motives). By understanding behavioral tendencies, we can shape policy solutions to them.

4. Lifestyle changes are crucial for climate action. We all have the power to drive meaningful, measurable change by changing the way we live and work. We all have a part to play — and an immense opportunity to seize — when it comes to climate change, as articulated by Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. We cannot get to where we need to be by maintaining the status quo. The good news is that youre not alone — there are plenty of resources to help you. Check out infographics like this one from Project Drawdown to help you implement changes within your household. You can also try out apps like #8meals, which make it easy to integrate plant-based meals in your cooking — without the pressure to swear off meat entirely. Need help starting — and sticking to — a new habit? Check out this article for a little inspiration.                                         

5.  We can’t get to the finish line on our own. International cooperation is paramount to reaching the goals outlined in COP26. Cooperation is needed at perhaps unprecedented levels, bringing together people with discordant ideals and needs. WRI's takeaway of COP26 was that "in a time marked by uncertainty, mistrust and escalating climate impacts, COP26 has affirmed just how essential collective global action is to address the climate crisis."

Effective climate policy requires that we leverage cooperation and our collective urgency. As Gowdy (2008) argues, behavioral science is important to achieving these aims. Humans are among the few species that can work collectively to achieve common goals; to work cooperatively in the context of climate action will require considerable effort. Behavioral science can be applied to help us tap into our shared values, explain our current patterns of consumption, and establish constructive steps forward. It can help us work towards the kinds of cooperative solutions and policies that are seen as fair and equitable for all.

By making changes in our own lives, working collectively, demanding change from our governments and corporations, and acting now, we can secure a future in line with COP26’s goals.

2022 is here — how will you make it count?