Alex Foulkes: Show world we are serious over climate change

Following his inauguration this week, one of Joe Biden’s first actions as US President will be signing his country back up to the Paris Agreement.

More trees should be planted across Scotland to absorb carbon dioxide

The US should never have left the climate treaty, but now that the country is back in responsible and mature hands, it’s time to embrace the superpower’s return to the environmental tent.

And perhaps we won’t be talking about the Paris Agreement for much longer, and instead be referring to the Glasgow Agreement.

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At the end of this year the delayed COP26 summit will take place at the SEC – it was an earlier COP event in Paris which gave its name to the current agreement made famous more recently by Donald Trump’s theatrical departure from it.

Alex Foulkes

There’s no doubt that when the world slowly emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of climate change will become the primary focus for countries everywhere once again, and this time with renewed vigour.

From the US to New Zealand, where the government is planting 1 billion trees to absorb dangerous carbon dioxide, the world is turning its mind to the future of the planet.

This presents an opportunity for Glasgow, and Scotland as a whole, to be at the very forefront of this drive.

The prospect of thousands of global leaders and influencers, all the finest minds science and the environment has to offer, gathering on our turf is too good to pass up.

The scale and impact of these conventions is truly astonishing – Scotland and the UK will rarely have seen its like.

It is for defining moments like these that we established the Centre for Strategic Climate Solutions (CfSCS). Based in Edinburgh, but with a global reach, we help bring business leaders, councils and landowners together to help Scotland reach its climate change targets.

Come the spring it will be two years since the Scottish Government declared a climate emergency, and most local authorities have followed up with a similar announcement.

Even those which haven’t formalised the situation in their areas as an “emergency” have made a number of green commitments and acknowledged the crisis facing the planet. It means everyone is set to pull in the same direction, and now the case has to be made to businesses and the wider public.

There is no greater threat to our world than climate change. It is an absolute fact and one that requires an overwhelming response more urgent and dramatic than anything previously seen.

Habitat restoration is one of the most cost-effective strategies available to reverse the damage, with the additional benefit that healthy ecosystems such as peatlands and forests can also help mitigate climate change by sequestering and storing large amounts of carbon.

Edinburgh-based Kaitiaki Consulting, named after the Maori word for guardian of the environment, is working as part of the CfSCS.

We formed the company with the aim of mirroring New Zealand’s Billion Trees initiative here, and we’re already working to persuade the public and private sectors to get more involved in the drive towards net zero.

The right trees, in the right places, can sequester huge amounts of carbon – around one tonne per tree, or our ambition of a billion tonnes for a billion trees.

Scotland’s forest cover is currently around 18 per cent of the land mass, compared to a European average of 42 per cent.

Scotland’s ambitions are lacking in this area, which is why a programme of tree-planting and habitat restoration should be promoted.

Re-foresting will create habitats for Scotland’s species which are on the decline and can contribute to efforts to preserve biodiversity across Scotland’s urban and rural woodland.

Peatland restoration is another vital and previously often overlooked opportunity, particularly in Scotland, which has significant areas acting as carbon sinks.

And it is right to ask if the millions of hectares that we set aside for driven grouse shooting is the best use of vast areas of land in Scotland.

The debate about our green future must also recognise the economic opportunities. An objective for the CfSCS will be to enable organisations to meet their carbon reduction commitments quickly and easily, helping them to access relevant grants and manage large-scale projects.

Work is also underway to persuade Scotland’s landowners to consider setting aside large parts of their property for tree planting. The difference this can make is phenomenal – for example, if a city like Glasgow planted 5 million trees, that would be the equivalent of sequestering 5bn tonnes of Co2 over the next 40 to 50 years. For context, Scotland is estimated to emit around 38bn tonnes each year, so the potential impact if all local authorities got involved would be enormous.

There are solutions all around us for a greener future, and the fact we are hosting COP26 means we should be thinking now about how to showcase this to the world come November.

The coronavirus pandemic has understandably got in the way of efforts to tackle climate change, here and across the world.

But perhaps the crisis could also be used as a way of accelerating progress, especially now, with a broader international acceptance of what is at stake.

Both the Scottish and UK governments make the right noises about a green recovery. That COP26 is taking place in Glasgow allows them both to turn those words into action.

In Scotland we have a responsibility to address what kind of country and planet we leave for future generations. And the world will not be watching us from afar, because the world is coming to Scotland.

Alex Foulkes is a founding partner of the Centre for Strategic Climate Solutions and managing director of conservation specialists Kaitiaki Consulting.

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