Decades of experience have taught the environment sector that pinning all our hopes on big summits is unlikely to pay off: addressing the climate and nature crises is a long game. Nonetheless, these events are important moments in time which offer meaningful points of leverage for the sector to seize. In 2021, the UK’s duties hosting the G7, as well as COP26, have offered key opportunities to push not just the government but a range of different stakeholder groups to demonstrate leadership on the climate and nature crises while these issues are in the international spotlight. Hosting the summits raises the profile of the government – leaving it more vulnerable to criticism when its leadership on key global issues like climate change is lacking – as well as raising the profile of the issues themselves, making it easier to press or rally other stakeholders to take action.
Funders of the environment in the UK are backing a broad range of strategies to take advantage of these opportunities: strategies that employ both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ tactics targeted at a range of different stakeholders. Combined, will they be enough to help 2021 be the year when we finally begin to make progress at the speed and scale required to address the issues of our time?
There is evidence at the global level that the tide is turning: unprecedented (and unpredicted) growth in renewables; a growing trend amongst investors to demand change (e.g. investors controlling $41tn in assets called on world leaders to bolster net zero targets; climate activist investors recently gained seats on the Exxon board); high-level court cases ruling against the fossil fuel industry (e.g. a Dutch court recently ordered Shell to reduce its emissions very significantly; an Australian court found that the government has a duty to protect young people from the climate crisis); and public opinion around the world that is overwhelmingly in favour of action on climate change.
But so far these trends have not been sufficient. Global emissions are set to rise in 2021 by the second highest rate in history. Deforestation continues apace – in fact, during 2020, when most other things slowed down, deforestation rates sped up – and extinction rates are accelerating. Meanwhile, at the G7 summit, country leaders committed to action on climate and nature but under-delivered in terms of funds to deliver that action, especially in the global south.
I did my undergraduate degree in geography many years ago, and if there is one thing that stayed with me, it’s that geography is all about rates of change. So too with the climate and nature crises: we can be ‘winning’ on a range of fronts but if it’s not fast enough, the consequences will still be dire. We need very quickly to increase the rates of change, and the G7 and COP26 meetings provide us with successive moments around which to rally, to pressurise and to capture the narrative. UK funders are doing this in characteristically different ways, reflecting their own theories of change or their preference for supporting different approaches:
Some are supporting Extinction Rebellion’s media work, to ‘shift the narrative so that only action proportional to the crisis – and in line with the science – is publicly acceptable’.
Others have recognised the increasing power of youth voices and action, backing such initiatives as the Mock COP26, held by young people from around the world, which took place when COP26 was initially due to be held in November 2020, and which will now be delivering its conclusions to the ‘real’ COP later this year.
Some are using the location of COP26 in Glasgow to galvanise climate action in Scotland, such as through the work of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland – an organisation that is also providing a platform for civil society groups from around the world to meet, connect and find places to stay during COP26.
Others still are focusing on supporting work mobilising the public to put pressure on the Government, such as through The Climate Coalition’s Great Big Green Week this September. That festival will be linked to mobilisations around the G7 and the COP, and all will encourage individuals, businesses and NGOs to sign onto a declaration calling on the UK Prime Minister to join them in unleashing a clean energy revolution; protecting and restoring nature; and leaving no one behind by increasing support to those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in the UK and abroad.
Meanwhile, at the Environmental Funders Network, we have sent out a letter signed by 14 established environmental philanthropists to the 100 wealthiest families and 100 largest foundations in the UK (excluding those already giving to environmental causes), which was covered by the media. It highlighted the importance of this year, asked recipients to direct their philanthropy and investments urgently towards ‘the challenge of our lifetimes: to restore our climate and nature’, and offered them a range of resources, information and connections to help with this.
These are a fraction of the many initiatives trying to make the most of this important year. While we may not have a seat at the negotiating table alongside our political leaders, history tells us that the voices of civil society – when they are loud enough – can drive unprecedented and even unexpected change. With the G20, hosted by Italy, and COP26 still to come, the goal must be to ensure that those myriad voices add up to a chorus that cannot be ignored.