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Alyssa Gilbert

05 May 2021, 4:27 UTC Share

Bringing evidence to policy on the UN Climate Conference

As the COP26 climate summit draws nearer, Alyssa Gilbert from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London explores how the COP26 Universities Network builds relationships between academics and policymakers to make the summit a success for action on climate change.

When governments come together at the UN COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November this year (whether virtually or in person), it will be a year later than planned. However, postponing COP26 has not meant postponing action on climate change. Activists, businesses, cities, non-profit organisations and governments have been seizing the opportunity in this critical year to ramp up their plans for delivering a green economic recovery from Covid-19, cut emissions and build resilience to climate impacts.

Within this field of actors, universities are playing a key role as sources of evidence on climate change and its solutions, and they are working closely with UK policymakers to inform and support the delivery of a successful climate summit. They are doing so in a tactical manner. Rather than each university individually engaging with the same groups of key policy contacts, universities across the country have joined forces to collaborate on sharing expertise and mobilise coordinated, impactful policy engagement.

That is why we have established the COP26 Universities Network , a group of now more than 70 UK-based universities and research institutions working together to help make COP26 a success and get all players on track to deliver a low-carbon, resilient world. The network is open to all universities and seeks to be as inclusive as possible in its geographic reach and representation of academic disciplines. When it comes to the climate crisis, we need all hands on-deck.

Bringing research and policy together at key moments

Policymakers understand the value of the support universities can provide on addressing climate change, both in sharing evidence and knowledge for capacity-building and in increasing access to experts across a range of disciplines that can support the UK government’s aims for COP26. The COP26 Unit in the Cabinet Office has a dedicated academic liaison who helps us understand what their evidence needs, and other objectives are in the run up to COP. Regular conversations allow us to offer advice, provide access to expertise, and deliver wider support, building a relationship that we hope brings mutual benefit and fosters lasting relationships between a range of academics in the COP26 universities network and policymakers.

The joint benefits of working together are exemplified by the upcoming Climate Exp0 , taking place on line from 17-21 May 2021. The Climate Exp0 is hosted in collaboration with the Italian University Network for Sustainable Development (RUS) , and is sponsored by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Cambridge University Press . With its aim of bringing together global policymakers, academics, practitioners, students and members of the public to collaborate, share and debate climate change policy, the conference will foster stronger working relationships between the academic and policy worlds at a key moment ahead of the COP26 negotiations.

The Cabinet Office has actively supported the conference, which exemplifies two of the key strengths of universities: our power to convene and an engine of knowledge creation. As institutions embedded strongly in both our local communities of students and nearby schools, as well as in global networks of researchers and projects, universities have a wide reach and influence. We can bring people together and engage them with new ideas. This can be a powerful entry-point to collaboration. The collaboration with policymakers helps us make the discussions practical and relevant, creating a link between sometimes more theoretical, or early stage ideas through to pragmatic and immediate decisions.

The challenge of the ‘critical friend’

The COP26 Universities Network inhabits the challenging role of the ‘critical friend’ in our policy engagement on climate change. Sometimes the evidence given by experts from within the Network is supportive of government aims, and sometimes we want to challenge the government approach. However, our independence is our greatest strength and this is well-understood by the policymakers we interact with. Similarly, we know that they approach issues with specific goals and timeframes in mind. This mutual understanding helps us work together.

We find it most productive to share our different perspectives. The COP26 Universities network hosts a series of policy roundtables aligned to the collaborative briefing papers on topics of strategic interest for COP26 that we produce. These private roundtables give briefing authors the chance to speak directly with policy actors from within relevant government departments. Rather than simply sending through a finalised briefing note, discussions about its content – with the space for policy actors to share their thoughts – creates an opportunity to find common ground.

There can at times be friction when academics and policymakers come together and find they approach the same issue with completely different perspectives. However, allowing time for detailed discussions helps build trust in a shared commitment to the issue at hand and allows new ideas for working together to emerge. To tackle the climate change challenge with the urgency and seriousness it requires, such trust is essential. We hope that COP26 acts as a catalyst for continued cooperation between the research community and policymakers on climate change well beyond November 2021.

Alyssa Gilbert is the Director of Policy and Translation at the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London where she connects relevant research across the university with policy-makers and businesses. Prior to joining the university, she worked at a specialist consultancy on a range of topics. She is also a member of NERC’s Strategic Programme Advisory Committee (SPAG). Alyssa has previously worked for the Deputy Mayor of London and as a journalist on environmental policy in Brussels.

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