The Young Academy of Scotland and COP26: an introduction


Dr Leslie Mabon – YAS’ Zero Carbon by 2045 Grand Challenge Theme Lead – sets the scene for YAS’ work around COP26, and gives a flavour of what we can expect over the coming months.

In November this year, Glasgow will host the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties – or COP26 for short. The COP26 summit will bring leaders from around the world together with the aim of agreeing on actions to avoid harmful levels of climate change. The reason the summit is being held in Glasgow is that the UK Government, in partnership with Italy, holds the Presidency of COP26. Although COP summits are held yearly, COP26 has added significance in that this year (originally 2020 but delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic) is the year all countries are asked to submit new long-term goals; and the point at which the implementation of the global agreement made in Paris in 2015 really starts to drive climate change action.

Having an event of this magnitude in Scotland is an excellent opportunity not only to show the world what we are doing on climate change, but also to energise discussions locally about what climate change means for Scotland and what we can and should do in response. As an organisation bringing together early- to mid-career professionals across a diverse range of sectors and working under an ethos of responsible and knowledge-driven debate, we would like to think that the Young Academy of Scotland is well placed to inform the kinds of long-term, trans-disciplinary and evidence-based ways of working that climate change requires.

Indeed, one of our real strengths is that we have a very diverse membership who enjoy working collaboratively on pressing issues facing Scottish and global society. This allows us to reach far beyond climate change and sustainability science and make links with areas as diverse as public health, video games, tourism, fashion, and faith, all of which are areas of life that will be affected by – and have the potential to help us respond to – climate change. Over the coming months, we hope to tap into that expertise to bring a breadth of considered and informed perspectives on what the climate change challenge means for society in Scotland and beyond.

Two factors are guiding our thinking in how we at YAS plan to engage with COP26. First, whilst vaccinations are continuing apace and lockdown restrictions are easing, it is hard to know with certainty what is going to be possible in the summer and autumn with regard to physical events. Second, we also recognise that in terms of both discourse and physical space, COP26 is going to be a very crowded field and we want to be able to build on and add value to what is going on already through the various institutions operating in Scotland. What we are planning, therefore, is a programme of virtual contributions over the coming months, which will form the YAS ‘Road to COP’. Through a series of blog posts, video discussions, Twitter dialogues and online events, in the run-up to COP26 we aim to draw on the expertise of our members to make sense of how COP26 and climate change more widely will affect different aspects of daily life. We will also spotlight climate-related activities that our members are involved in through their own professional practice, and support the RSE in their programme of events around COP26.

We have a few projects that are already underway across YAS that fit well with the Paris Agreement’s vision of a society that counters the causes of climate change and adapts to its impacts. Arising from our Zero Carbon by 2045 Grand Challenge and our Sustainable themes, the outcomes of a workshop we held at the RSE in 2019 into what climate change means for Scotland’s marginalised communities were recently published in a COP26-themed special issue within the Scottish Geographical Journal. We have recently established a programme of activity around Marine Science, bringing together the social and natural sciences, arts and humanities to understand how Scotland’s communities live with and respond to environmental and social change on coasts, which are often on the front-line of climate change. As part of this, we will soon be launching an interactive map where coastal dwellers can share their photos and experiences of living by the sea. We also have a recently-launched initiative on Sustainable Conferences, which will survey the pressures that early-career scholars face to travel internationally for conferences and workshops in the pursuit of career progression, and propose principles for more sustainable approaches to academic careers that are less damaging to the climate. And we are scoping out a new area of activity around Decarbonising Homes, that hopes to empower citizens to understand and take control of decarbonising aspects of their living spaces such as home heating. Plus we also have wider and longer-established activities in YAS, such as the Research the Headlines initiative and the Responsible Debate programme, which we hope to draw on to develop an informed and evidence-driven response to some of the more emotive issues around climate change negotiations.

Whilst our YAS COP26 activities will span a breadth of platforms and formats, we’ll use the COP26 section on the YAS website as a focal point for hosting blog posts and links to other media. We’ve coined the hashtag #YASRoad2COP to tag in our members’ COP-related activities on Twitter, and would encourage anyone reading to use the hashtag too to draw our attention to issues or events you think we should get involved with. Likewise, if there’s a climate change-related topic you feel we should be tackling, let us know and we’ll see what our members can do!