Challenges of COP26: a higher education perspective

Development Monthly | #3 November 2021 | Challenges of COP26: a higher education perspective

Cabot Institute for the Environment | University of Bristol

Contributions from:
Amanda Woodman-Hardy (Communications and Engagement Officer), Angus Morrice (Administrator) and Sophie Ross-Smith (Manager)

COP26 has been a fantastic two weeks for the Higher Education sector. It has been an opportunity to showcase world-changing research, increase awareness and interest in global environmental issues and highlight the importance of continued investment in this area.

For the Cabot Institute for the Environment, it has been a long and busy journey to COP26 which started 12 months before. But the Institute has been well rewarded over the two weeks with over a thousand mentions in the press, heightened engagement and interest in public engagement activities and social media and more awareness raising of the Institute as a serious player in the environmental knowledge, education and solutions space. This article outlines how the Institute worked towards COP26, what it did while it was there and what it sees as the biggest challenges and opportunities for the higher education sector as a result of COP26.

Working towards COP26

In December 2020, in the heart of the pandemic and in lockdown number two, the Cabot Institute team received its first pot of internal funding to carry out a raft of public engagement and communications activities for COP26. The proviso was that this pot had to be spent by the end of March 2021. With such a short timescale to spend the money and complete the bulk of our activities, our Communications and Engagement Officers, who job share, were given extra hours in order to complete what lay ahead. We received more funding from kind donations from alumni which allowed us to get to COP26 and work on more inspiring activities.

A working group was set up and led by Professor Paul Bates which brought together academics, professional services team and student body to plan and support delivery of University-wide COP26 activities. Outputs and opportunities were circulated to interested staff and students by a dedicated mailing list. These connections were crucial to our success and allowed us to link up with the Student Union and fund 45 students to attend the conference.

Cabot’s Administrator took on the unenviable task of applying for Observer Status so that we could access the Blue Zone. Our Administrator also ensured we had affordable accommodation booked well in advance, which was important as we knew prices would ramp up closer to the event and we couldn’t afford to blow our budget on accommodation alone.

We also had to write and submit an application to exhibit in the COP26 Green Zone, which received 100+ applications, and we were delighted to have been awarded a two hour slot with the COP26 UK Universities Network.

There were five activities to complete in time for COP26. The bulk of the creative work was completed between January and March 2021 as follows.

The Institute created 10 videos and podcasts called Cabot Conversations. Each conversation was between two experts and collaborators from across disciplines with an artist creating an artwork as the conversation progresses.

The Institute partnered with Praxis Research who developed the resources to run mock UN COPs. These resources were shared across the academic network enabling school children to participate in climate negotiation. Cabot Institute supported two Mock COP26 delivered by Praxis Research, which engaged over 90 students from Bristol state schools.

Media training for 10 Cabot academics was run so that the University of Bristol’s media team had a pool of experts they could call upon in the run up and during COP26 for any press enquiries. The training enabled the academics to confidently respond to those enquiries on and off camera. 

The Institute collaborated with Rising Arts, a local arts agency supporting young artists from traditionally underrepresented communities, and artist Emma Blake Morsi to create some powerful and politically relevant artwork around the COP26 theme of adaptation and resilience using Cabot research as inspiration. The art campaign covered billboards across the city of Bristol (running 12-25 July).

Emma Blake Morsi in front of one of her posters on a billboard in Bristol.
Emma Blake Morsi in front of one of her posters on a billboard in Bristol.

The artworks from Cabot Conversations and Emma paved the way for research-informed art to be presented at COP26 on our ‘Voices of COP26’ exhibition stand which was shared with the COP26 UK Universities Network. In doing so it provided space and a voice for typically underrepresented, local communities through their personal interpretation of our research.

A Cabot Policy Series featuring the publication of five excellent and recent Masters dissertations, along with a policy briefing note for policymakers, were developed and distributed to MPs and policymakers. The Institute worked closely with PolicyBristol on this activity.

Once all the activities were organised by the end of March, the next few months were used to craft and schedule all communications outputs which would be shared across the University and with external amplifiers. Six postgraduate students were also employed to help create campaigns around the official COP26 themes which would be scheduled throughout the year.

The Institute supported the City Speaks project, led by Praxis Research, capturing and telling untold stories about things ordinary people from around Bristol are doing that address climate change in their daily lives and communities. From protecting clean air for their children’s school, to volunteering their engineering skills to make their place of worship more energy efficient, the short films demonstrate how Bristol residents are quietly getting on with the work that needs to be done.

As COP26 approached, media interest ramped up significantly. Hours were spent every day fielding journalists and putting them in touch with the right academics and keeping track of all the engagement and notifications on social media. There was also the huge task of pulling together all the content to take up to COP26 and arranging the logistics of getting our delegation up to Glasgow and back.

Working at COP26

In terms of planning and logistics, the run-up to COP26 had not been straight forward. It wasn’t until the week before when rail workers in Scotland agreed to lift their strike, and the shuttle bus service, announced only a week before COP, had no public information available. Accommodation was a flat right next to a train station out in East Kilbride, half an hour from the centre of Glasgow.

The first day of COP26 and the first day of our public engagement activity there meant going through x-rays and metal detectors to get into the Green Zone at the Glasgow Science Centre. The Green Zone was full of energy and interest and an innovation to the UNFCCC COP event format as it allowed for dialogue between the public and organisations that had Blue Zone access, as members of both had roles as presenters and audiences within the Green Zone.

The Cabot Institute had two hours on the COP26 Universities Network stand and showed off a programme of presentations from the various members of the Network throughout the two weeks. The Institute’s stand centred its ‘Voices at COP26’ work which involved flagging down and recording people who were coming to the stall and encouraging them to speak on what they wanted to see out of COP26 and what their message to the Blue Zone would be. A range of voices were recorded, particularly younger voices, and the Institute is now working with an artist, much like the process developed in Cabot Conversations, to pull together a piece of art based on these recorded messages.

Bristol academics in the Blue Zone found there was a frenetic pace of events there. The Institute accommodated Dr Eunice Lo, Professors Dani Schmidt, Dan Lunt and Dann Mitchell from Bristol with Professor Guy Howard,  Cabot’s Director, helpfully based in Glasgow. The University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, Professor Phil Taylor, Dr Colin Nolden and Professor Jonathan Bamber went to COP26 with different organisations meaning Bristol had a very strong presence at the COP.

The Institute’s Administrator operated as an information hub and logistical organiser, solving on the ground issues as they arose and ironing out complex logistical challenges. This important role was all part of making it as easy and smooth as possible for the academics, so they could focus on working in the Blue Zone, representing the Institute and the University and communicating within their areas of expertise to a wide audience.

The University’s experience of COP26 was a relatively positive one. It noticed a huge number of people present in good faith, working hard to try and find solutions within the processes of the UNFCCC.

Environmental opportunities and challenges for the HE sector following COP26

As we reflect on the outcomes of COP26 and whether 1.5C is still alive, we are already starting to plan for COP27. COP27 will take place in Cairo in less than a year’s time, with opportunity that the proximity of COPs will keep momentum on the Glasgow Climate Pact progress. As an interdisciplinary institute, we bring together academic disciplines and professional specialisms through our partnerships, to address the complexity of environmental challenges. This approach is critical to provide the evidence base and innovations we require to identify better ways to live in our changing planet and keep global temperature rises below 1.5C. There is a need for additional funding sources that support interdisciplinary collaborations, built on strong disciplinary foundations.

As more eyes are on the environmental sector following COP26, more funding is needed not just to support environmental research, but also to train researchers to step up to media platforms and communicate their research effectively, to help the public engage with the global environmental challenges before us, to train up and educate the next generation of environmental leaders and for extra administrative support for growing workloads within administrative teams who support environmental research.


This blog is written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy (Communications and Engagement Officer), Angus Morrice (Administrator) and Sophie Ross-Smith (Manager) of the Cabot Institute for the Environment’s core team.

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