2030hub Director and net-zero expert Stephen Sykes headed to Glasgow for two weeks earlier this month. Here’s what gave him cause for optimism – and concern…

The city of Glasgow was deserted because the city had encouraged people to stay at home and not come into the city. What could have been a big financial win with thousands of visitors coming to the city didn’t happen because of the necessary Covid restrictions. The number of protestors was also probably smaller than was originally envisaged. The rooms were so expensive that people couldn’t get anywhere to stay or people stayed in Edinburgh and came in every day, adding a few extra emissions onto the event.

The Green Zone was in a science museum that was full of fun exhibits for kids and there were many school parties still attending and exploring the science museum whilst COP26 was happening all around. It was great to see younger people intermingling with all the event attendees. Also inside the Green Zone there was a small exhibition area, which had NGOs, community groups and others sharing their grassroots perspectives and localised solutions. They swapped tables every two days. The big sponsors had big expensive exhibition stands that were twice the size of my office and there were big walk-on stands for Microsoft, Sainsbury’s and others.

Glasgow Science Centre

The government missed a trick because the voice of the SME was not there at all – you have the voice of big business and community groups but not the largest part of the economy. That’s 99% of businesses missing, and the amount of innovation that’s going on within SMEs in the UK, it’s tackling low carbon, tackling the net-zero agenda. The real solution providers and deliverers were not there.

From the UK’s perspective there was a lot of big talk from Boris, as usual, but it all really amounted to was ticking a box for him. He’s done COP26, even if he didn’t achieve anything that resembled the leadership we desperately needed. 

The fact that China and other key states didn’t turn up or send their leaders in person was notable and just shows a lack of authentic commitment and determination because basically rather than leaders be pinned down, it’s just the negotiators; the civil servants with no authority. Their absence spoke volumes.

Glasgow as a city was on show. Scotland’s had a big net-zero waste programme for several years. The circular economy has been well and truly embedded for over three years. Glasgow has 250 circular economy ambassadors. And these are the businesses. They have got all their big private sector guns on board and they’re the ones who champion this and it’s driven by the private sector. 

One of the big takeaways for me was the fact that current consumption patterns HAVE to change. The other was the progress within the banking sector. All of the finance sector is all now gearing up and all moving at the same direction aligned with net-zero targets – getting their new products ready to launch in 2022. Before it was just the occasional bank dipping its toe in the water. This is actually the entire banking sector starting to lurch into action and to move together. It feels significant.

A lesser-media-mentioned area that gave me hope was that many of the British Chambers of Commerce from around the world brought businesses with them – they saw it as a trade mission. Many of these were looking at low carbon technologies and it was a reminder that the SMEs are the ones doing the work required in this space and providing the solutions we need to really impact on climate change. 

And we already had the large companies, who had made their net-zero declaration and now have suddenly realised what net-zero actually means. For years they thought it was carbon neutrality and passed the buck to lower their carbon footprint by planting trees. 

This invigorated supply chain approach feels significant because the larger companies have made that commitment have now suddenly realised it is the SME suppliers that need to be educated and supported. These are their biggest impacts within Scope 3 emissions and they will need to start asking their SME suppliers for their carbon footprint data so they can fully disclose their true emission profile. There is going to be more, more and more pressure to do this. 

From Liverpool City Region’s perspective, we’re going to have a massive gear shift. The skills agenda needs to accelerate and every job now needs to be a green job. We need to change gear now just to remain in the game, and a second or even third gear change to create any authentic leadership.

Our colleges need to step up to get fully understand the right quality training qualifications for people’s transition locally, and the same also applies to universities. There’s a significant skills gap here too because there’s no central place for technical expertise within local government who really understands business and sustainability.

There will be thousands of businesses now trying to get their head around what their carbon footprint is and how are they going to move forward. More and more of the larger companies, one-third of the FTSE 100, have already declared their net-zero commitments and with their targets also. If you take the likes of Vodafone, it’s already made the commitment that it will be net-zero by 2030 – way ahead of the national target of 2050. In order for these large companies to do this, they are going to be interrogating their supply chains hard and asking for data and information about the commitments there. 

This interrogation is already happening within public sector contracts – if you want to get one from government worth over £5 million now, you’ll not only have to show your targets and commitments to net zero, you’ll have to demonstrate progress towards it over the lifetime of the contracts. That £5 million threshold will inevitably drop, and probably sooner than many think. Local authorities are going to take the lead from that and they’re going to start introducing that from, from a procurement perspective. 

No business is going to be able to escape the need to do this. 

Main photo by Fredrika Carlsson on Unsplash; People make Glasgow image by Artur Kraft on Unsplash.