Having COP26 on our doorstep was an opportunity not to be missed. An actual rather than virtual presence was needed to get a feel for the atmosphere, meet people, have conversations and ask questions. So how did it go?

Tickets for the events sold out months ago, so to visit without one risked an unproductive trip. But thanks to the SI network, this worry proved unfounded.

Glasgow was buzzing. It really felt like the eyes of the world were watching, with professional camera crews seemingly around every corner. The streets, cafes, bars and transport hubs were crowded with diverse groups; scruffy Extinction Rebellion eco-warriors, sharp business suits, groups of schoolchildren and police uniforms – many uniforms.  The protests I saw were good natured, and the security services polite.

I got to listen to several talks from prominent speakers, including a government minister. One prevailing theme from several speakers was a frustration that the COP26 agenda and media coverage are overlooking significant issues. Maybe this is not surprising given the complexity of the challenges we face, but two underrepresented themes stood out: food waste and agricultural systems.

I too was particularly concerned about a lack of focus on agriculture. Part of my trip was to meet up with Seth Itzkan, founder of Soil4Climate. Seth is an advocate for regenerative agriculture, a movement which shows great promise and appears to be gaining traction. We are particularly interested in regenerative agriculture at SI and wanted to gauge awareness amongst the COP26 community. Thus, armed with some open questions, I visited the Green Zone and the CivTech Alliance conference.

The Green Zone

Set in the Glasgow Science Centre, hosting stands by Supermarkets, FMCG companies, Energy, Transport, IT, Youth Volunteering groups and NGO’s.

My strategy was to visit as many stands as possible, asking what they were hoping to achieve, how they are contributing to net zero and if they had heard of regenerative agriculture (if relevant). Perhaps the most heartening general comment – from Scottish Power was that in their networking behind the scenes and stand visitors there is a real consensus around positive, rapid and lasting action. There is a sense that ‘green washing’ is becoming a thing of the past.

With regards to regenerative agriculture, around two thirds had not heard of it. But it was encouraging that the ones that did, such as Sainsbury’s were clearly already considering the entire food system and impact of their sourcing decisions on the environment; with corporate commitments to measure their impact and reduce it by 30%. Following up that discussion with questions about soil health, there were some positive comments, but it seems that soil health needs to be a higher priority in the measurements of impact. All the people that knew of regenerative agriculture mentioned their connection with WWF. Well done WWF!

Unfortunately, WWF were too busy with a visit from Ellie Goulding and the Sky Zero camera crews to talk to me.  Bear Grylls was also on site, due to his association with Scouting, but impossible to track down. It would have been good to get a few moments of celebrity time but alas it was not to be.
CivTech Alliance

I was invited to join in the CivTech Alliance event by our friends at MASH BioTech and DTU. There were presentations from companies funded by the CivTech programme, Zerowaste Scotland and keynotes from Lorna Slater – Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy & Biodiversity, and Craig Hanson VP of Food, Forests, Water & the Ocean of the World Resources Institute.

Stand out CivTech presentations were:

A tech start-up from Copenhagen who have developed an app that tracks fish from catch to customer, eliminating several ‘middlemen’ in the exisiting commercial chain. This helps to speed up the throughput time to the consumer, maintaining freshness, extending shelf life and reducing waste. Fishermen are able to make significantly more money through a direct connection with consumers which encourages smaller operations with less impact on the seabed and environment.

A start-up from Germany who are seeking to scale up production of mealworms fed by food waste. Converting waste into protein, with an initial focus on production of feed for aquaculture, chickens and petfood. At SI we have worked on insect protein development, and it was good to see that the team appeared to be aware of the difficulties they are likely to face in scaling up. All the very best of luck to them as they seek to achieve their ambitious goals.

A team from Brazil, who are setting up a logistics IT platform for public schools, to ensure that all children receive a daily nutritious meal, whilst reducing food waste. Even in relatively rich nations such as Brazil, many children are malnourished, affecting their development and restricting their life chances.

It was also good to hear from government minister Lorna Slater. In common with others, she highlighted the urgent need for innovation and the world-leading role that the UK and especially Scottish government play in developing collaborative programmes. These bring together the best aspects of innovative private enterprise with the civil service who provide a supportive, structured environment; to get the best out of both worlds.

Interesting statistics

If food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd largest Co2 emitter. To grow the food we waste requires a land area slightly larger than China.

One kilogram of food sent to landfill is the equivalent carbon emissions of 150 plastic bottles, as well as a waste of energy, fuel, transport, fertiliser, labour, time, pesticide and water. But the plastic problem gets significantly more attention. This needs to change without easing up the pressure on plastic. At SI we have been making the point to clients that well designed plastic packaging within a circular economy is a net benefit when considering the whole system.

WRAP – an independent charity have published their take on COP26 here at this link: Packaging Insights – WRAP COP26

And finally, Craig Hanson. He had three main messages, each of which could be taken as a message of hope. This was especially encouraging, given his global perspective.

Transition – The world is at an inflection point, where generational shifts are giving rise to a world where sustainability is business as usual. He was pleased that the recent UN food systems summit and COP26 are getting agricultural systems and food waste onto the agenda. (In slight disagreement with other speakers and attendees). He was pleased with progress during the first week of COP26, especially with commitments on protection of forestry.

“What gets measured gets done”. He is encouraged by the surprisingly rapid adoption of ‘science-based targets’ from the world’s biggest companies. Also, with their willingness to take on the challenge of SDG12.3 – to half food waste by 2030; and to do so without being pushed by regulation.  Business seems to be ahead of governments in taking action.

Innovation – the change that we need can only be achieved through innovation. Changes come through transitions in societal norms, policy or technology.  Of these it is technology that is the most rapid and transformational.

Action – Get Stuff Done. Instead of endless analysis, we need to make bold steps and not be afraid to fail. But this is not just for business, it is for everyone,. Especially with regard to food waste, giving personal examples where this can be achieved. Those little nudges to change behaviour.  We can all pretty well eliminate our own food waste if we put our minds to it.

Final Thoughts

In common with several attendees, it was bemusing to me that the protestors outside the various events seemed to assume that COP26 was all talk and no action. Perhaps their ire was more directed towards policy makers and politicians in the Blue Zone than to those I met in the very process of making things happen and sharing the same objectives as the protesters. The overwhelming sense inside the event was one of urgency and possibility. That we CAN do this, because we are already starting to do it.

But some words of caution.

At SI we have a truism that “a great solution to the wrong problem is no solution”. The world if full of great, but wrong solutions. (The law of unintended consequences). It is through careful analysis and definition of problems, asking the right questions, understanding complexity, diligent research and systems thinking that great solutions to the right problems are found.

Taking Craig Hanson’s point that what gets measured gets done. He is right. But this has limits. If measurements are flawed, then the outcomes are almost certain to be flawed. And if the things that need to be measured are effectively unmeasurable, then the right problems will not even be addressed. To reverse the depletion of and damage to the natural world without economic and social collapse requires a sound understanding of incredibly complex systems. Are we properly measuring the right things? Are we over-measuring one parameter – Co2 leading to blind spots and unintended consequences elsewhere?

If our leaders make decisions on the basis of ‘who shouts loudest’, media coverage based on clicks and viewers, single issue pressure groups, party political posturing or corporate lobbyists, then we are unlikely to make the progress we need or even take actions that are in hindsight counter productive. The stakes could not be higher. We have to get this right.

But the overriding take-home message is one of optimism. Everyone seems to be pulling in the same, right direction and at SI we are happy to play our part in using evidenced based innovation to find those great, right solutions for our clients – both commercial and governmental. Bring it on…..

If you liked this post, you may be interested in ‘Making Oman Green Again‘, where Principle Consultant Kate Bendall describes our approach to building a flourishing agricultural industry in Oman which will, in turn, make Oman’s land green and prosperous.