COPing With Climate Change: The COP26 lowdown

Will the climate crisis be averted, or will discussions in Glasgow generate more hot air?
08 November 2021
Presented by Harrison Lewis, Chris Smith
Production by Harrison Lewis.


There is no planet B - climate change march slogan


This week we have the inside track on the COP-26 climate conference in Glasgow; why bird song at dawn sounds dramatically different to 20 years ago; and scientists uncover the secret to a successful blind date. And, as COP26 marches on, we reflect on how the climate crisis is destined to affect us all.


In this episode

glasgow city

00:58 - On The Ground At COP26

What is the mood at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow? We went to find out...

On The Ground At COP26
Verner Viisainen, The Naked Scientists

The COP26 conference represents a critical moment in the fight against climate change as it represents the first key checkpoint on progress since the Paris Agreement in 2015 . It’s also shining the international spotlight on the city of Glasgow, where the conference is taking place over the first two weeks of November, with thousands of delegates and activists converging on the city. Our own Verner Viisainen is among them...

Verner - I've just arrived in Glasgow central station for COP26. I'm walking through the central station. It's quite a grand old building with steel beams along the ceiling and COP26 banners hanging down. It's very clear that this is the city of COP. There's a real sense of buzz in the air. I'm excited to see what else I can find in Glasgow. I think the first place I'll head to is the blue zone, which is the official zone where the negotiations are taking place. Standing here outside the COP26 gates is quite a jarring site. Huge metal fences are barricaded all around the venue. There's no way in unless you have an official badge. There are police patrolling everywhere at every corner. This is where all the negotiations over the next two weeks are taking place with delegates from every country in the world. Every day of the conference has a particular theme that they're negotiating on. The protestors are just starting and they're playing some music on drums and starting to make noise.

Tom Goldtooth (Indigenous speaker) - We have gathered here as indigenous peoples and I can say there's representation here from all over the world. We want to share with you a message. Carbon offsetting is tearing us apart. Carbon offsetting gives polluters an excuse to keep polluting. It needs to stop now. We need real reduction, real solutions, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Ruth Miller (Indigenous speaker) - We in the Arctic are experiencing the climate crisis at two to four times the rate as the rest of the world. When I come here to the COP, I am not only carrying myself, I am carrying my people to bring our truth to the table. Yet we are constantly ignored and silenced.

Minhahi Bastida Munoz (Indigenous speaker) - We are in a climate crisis. We lack this connection with nature. We need to come together. Remember who we are, why we are here, why we are here as human species. We came here to take care and get care of Mother Earth, not to take over. This is the time and the time is now all together we are stronger.

Verner - Wow, that was incredibly powerful. We have just been gathered here listening to indigenous people from all over the world making their voices heard. I'm standing on this beautiful bridge that goes across the River Clyde. On one side of the river is the main conference venue. On the other side of the bridge is the green zone, the publicly accessible zone to everyone and that's where I'm heading now. I can tell that I'm approaching the green zone because every sign around me is green. Greenery everywhere. The immediate thing you notice is that there is basically nobody here. The green zone is deserted, at least at the entrance. Now it's very clear why there are not many people here. I tried to enter and the lovely lady at the door said all the events are only for people who have pre-booked for a particular event, so I was rejected from the one publicly available zone of the COP26 conference. I met these two lovely individuals who were handing out leaflets and I decided to speak to them. How has Glasgow changed during these two weeks?

Arion (local resident) - There's a lot more people.

Niamh (local resident) - I think the increased security presence has been quite dark. As someone who's here all the time obviously, it's like 'oh, I'm just going to Tesco' and then 'oh, there are three dozen police officers. Oh no!' But apart from that I feel an increased energy in the city because everyone has just obviously been gearing up for this for months. Then for it to finally happen, it's just almost like this massive wave of feelings and it's good. It's good. High energy. Yeah.


05:00 - COP26: A Summary

Who's there, who isn't and what are we expecting to be addressed before the summit ends...

COP26: A Summary
Neil Jennings, The Grantham Institute Imperial College London

Someone who has access to theexclusive blue zone at the summit, where national agreements and pledges are decieded, is Neil Jennings from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. He told Harry Lewis what’s been happening...

Neil - There's a sense of cautious optimism at COP at the moment, they've been progressing in a number of different areas over the first few days with a week and a half to go. So obviously there's still a number of things that would need to be sorted out. The world's leaders were here for the first couple of days. The delegates are working their way through it. And a number of different agenda points, looking at areas around adaptation to climate change, how developing countries are compensated for damage that they experienced as a result of climate change, and then finalizing the kind of the nuts and bolts, the nitty gritty about how individual countries are going to have to report on their emission reductions, there's talk of that being more frequent.

Harry - You spoke about the world leaders coming here who has turned up?

Neil - The majority of the big players have turned up. So Joe Biden was here, Boris Johnson, latest in the European union and the majority of countries around the world. The key people who haven't attended is the Chinese leader and the Russian leader. Having said that from China, for example, there were upgraded pledges in terms of emission reductions a number of months ago, the majority of the world's leaders have been here for the first couple of days, but there are some notable absentees.

Harry - Bolsonaro is not there either. You've mentioned Putin. How important is that?

Neil - It varies. There have been, in the absence of these leaders, pledges that have involved their countries. So for example, there is a new pledge around deforestation, the plans to reverse deforestation by 2030, and which includes Brazil in that, even though they're not here in practice. There has also been pledges made round methane reductions, which was led by the U S which didn't include China and Russia and new announcements and 40 countries pledging to phase out coal, which included countries like Poland and Vietnam, but didn't include China and Australia and the US

Harry - Would you be able to give us a taste of what they are, the agreements that have been made so far?

Neil - One of the new pledges that came out early in the negotiations was around methane. This was a pledge led by the United States to cut emissions of methane by 30% by 2030. And methane's a really important gas because it's very potent. Compared to carbon dioxide, a molecule of methane will trap about 30 times more heat in the atmosphere over a hundred year period. So cutting methane in the short term is a really important thing to do to reduce near-term rises in global temperatures. The initial estimates for this new pledge is that it could help to reduce global temperature rise by about 0.2 degrees by the mid part of this century. So these are important pledges, be it with some caveats that while America is leading the way are you involved? It doesn't at the moment include China, Russia, and India. So there will need to be some kind of diplomacy and engagement with other countries to bring more countries on board. And of course there's one thing, having a pledge. There's another thing which is delivering on that pledge.

Harry - Does it feel like to you, Neil, that there's any elephants in the room? Does it feel like there's something at COP that we aren't addressing, that we should be addressing?

Neil - Some of the things which are going to be discussed in the next week and a half or so, will also involve climate adaptation, how societies would be better prepared for a warming climate. The way that finance is transferred, particularly from the more affluent countries of the world to countries, which are particularly affected by climate change, so they are more resilient. The thing has been the elephant in the room for a while has been this pledge that was made by the most affluent countries of the world back in 2009, where they pledged that by 2020, they would deliver a hundred billion dollars of climate finance a year to support countries to be developing in a way which avoided the kind of dirty phase of industrialisation that we went through in the UK back in the 1800s. That pledge was supposed to be over a hundred billion a year, and the value was more like 80 billion a year. The one thing that's happened just recently, which is a new kind of agreement between South Africa and France, Germany, the UK, America and the European union to support South Africa with something like 6 billion pounds to move away from coal to actually develop their economy in a way which isn't reliant upon a dirty fossil fuel. And that's good for climate change in terms of reducing emissions, but it's also very good in terms of health.

Harry - Towards the end of COP are we expecting any big agreements or any headlines to emerge from the conference?

Neil - Difficult to say at this stage, whether we're going to see any kind of big, big announcements at the end of it? I think the key thing to say is the progress that we've had so far. After Paris, the countries of the world asked to submit nationally determined contributions of what they would do in terms of their emissions, and that was putting us on course for a three degree world three degrees warmer than before the industrial revolution. With the new pledges that have been put forward, that value has come down to around two degrees. That's still not enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but we've come a long way already. But also the key thing with all of this is pledges are one thing, delivery is another. We really need to be ensuring that our elected officials are being held to account to assure that the pledges that have been made are actually delivered.

Harry - Thanks to Neil Jennings currently on the ground at COP26 in Glasgow, and Neil will actually be joining us live later on the program to talk about potential solutions to some of the consequences of climate change that are being highlighted at this year's summit.


11:12 - Declining Bird Song At Dawn

In Europe and North America birds are losing their voice...

Declining Bird Song At Dawn
Simon Butler, University of East Anglia

Alarming signs that birdsong is in decline were announced recently. A major new study from the University of East Anglia reveals that the sounds of spring across North America and Europe are becoming quieter and less varied. Iacopo Russo reports...

Iacopo - If you wake up in the morning, somewhere in the Suffolk countryside and you open the window, this is the beautiful bird soundscape you're going to hear. Yes, you might get lucky, but do you have any idea of what those dawn choruses might have sounded like 20 years ago? Thanks to new research published this week, I can now give you a glimpse of that. Professor Simon Butler explains how our Birdsong soundscape has changed in the last decades.

Simon Butler - There were broad scale declines and acoustic diversity in our natural soundscapes, which means they're getting quieter and less varied, and that's occurring in a similar pattern across both North America and Europe. Declines have been stronger in Northwest Europe perhaps linked through to faster rates of agricultural intensification, and that potentially has quite big impacts on our potential to derive benefit from that. So we know that soundscapes can contribute to our health and wellbeing and as the quality of those soundscapes decline driven by biodiversity loss, the likely benefits that we can draw from those, are also likely to decline.

Iacopo - Why didn't we know this already? What problem did you manage to solve?

Simon Butler - There's widespread information and data now showing that there are declines in bird populations across North America and across Europe, but we don't know what the impact might have been for our soundscapes and we don't have historical recordings of what natural soundscapes used to sound like, so it's quite challenging to explore the impact of biodiversity loss. So we had to come up with a way of reconstructing historical soundscapes. We turn to the underlying data that demonstrate declines across the two continents, which are small scale annual monitoring schemes that are systematically undertaken across both continents, and use those as the building blocks for reconstructing our soundscapes.

Iacopo - So how did you recreate the soundtracks & soundscapes then?

Simon Butler - The approach was to combine these monitoring data with recordings of individual species. There's the citizen science data that we have for bird monitoring. We have a fantastic database collected by citizen scientists of recordings of individual species. We downloaded recordings for each of the species that would have been counted on the sites, we clipped all of those recordings down to 25 seconds. The assumption behind this is that a 25 second sound file represents one individual of a given species. And so we combine those two data sets together, for example if we had a site where five skylights were recorded, we inserted 5 25 second sound files for skydive into our soundscape. And then we layered up individuals and then we layered up species to build a composite soundscape that broadly represents what it might've sounded like standing next to the surveyor as they were doing the counter that site in that year.

Iacopo - You have sort of recreated the virtual soundscape by combining survey data on how many birds and what kinds of birds are there and individual recordings of bird species. How did you go about measuring the intensity and the diversity of this soundscape?

Simon Butler - That's absolutely right. We've got these reconstructed soundscapes and to quantify those, there are some acoustic metrics that we use acoustic indices that describe the distribution of acoustic energy between frequencies. So whether they're low pitch or high pitch sounds, and across time. Whether the sound is more variable and syncopated or whether it's sort of a continuous monotonous sound. These different metrics measure different dimensions of the, what we would call 'the acoustic space' and how that acoustic energy is distributed. We want to see a diverse range of frequencies occupied by the calls of different species within the community and lots of variation in how those sounds are delivered across time.

Iacopo - Are there birds that contribute more to the diversity of the soundscape? Is a crow less nice to hear than a Skylark? Is there a way to quantify that?

Simon Butler - Absolutely. So you can drill that down to individual species and things like corvids and crows, for example, have quite a low frequency sound. There's not a lot of variation in their delivery. It's quite consistent and stable in terms of the pattern of delivery, whereas skylarks and some of the warblers, for example, have a really varied and rich melodious sound that jumps around across frequencies and it gives a real richness and breadth to the soundscapes. If we're losing those kinds of species, those songbirds, warblers, skylarks, those kinds of species we're going to get big gaps in our caustic space that are no longer being occupied by those species. And so the diversity and the intensity of the sound that we hear will be declining.

Iacopo - Is there a way we can invert this trend? What do you think we should do?

Simon Butler - Conserving and restoring natural soundscapes will be driven by underlying biodiversity conservation. But what we hope to do with this paper is really demonstrate the direct impact of biodiversity loss. And by raising awareness of the day-to-day impacts that biodiversity loss might be having for us as we spend time out in nature and what the implications of that might be for our health and wellbeing. Hopefully that will encourage people to be more supportive of actions for biodiversity conservation, and also take time to appreciate what they can hear. I think that's really important.

Chris - Sobering stuff that was Simon Butler. He's at the University of East Anglia. And that research was just out in Nature Communications.

Heart-shaped light show

16:33 - Blind Dates and Heart Rates

For sparks to fly it might help to insert batteries into your heart rate monitor whilst on a first date...

Blind Dates and Heart Rates
Eliska Prochaskova, Leiden University

While fireworks have been filling the skies over this past week, sparks flying between two people pursuing a romantic connection is less of a given. But there might be a way to find out which couples are destined to click: if their heart rates synchronise when they see each other! Julia Ravey…

Julia - They look all right actually. Definitely not. Oh, that's a cute dog. Right up my street. It's a match. When it comes to finding a potential partner, it's hard to know what to look for. A great sense of humor, intelligent conversation, a matching pulse. Well, maybe the last one is what matters. With millions of people in the UK turning to dating apps, our criteria for finding ‘the one’ can be applied before we even go on a date. But sometimes no matter how much a person may be your type on paper, when you meet them face-to-face that connection, that spark is missing. So we decide 'they're not for us' and we move on to the next swipe right. A big question I've always had is what is that spark? So many of us use it to determine if a person is a good fit, but what gives us the physical green light? I spoke to...

Eliska Prochaskova - Eliska Prochaskova and I'm a researcher from Leiden University.

Julia - Who thinks she may have cracked the connection code.

Eliska Prochaskova - When people are looking for a romantic partner, they want to have chemistry. They want to feel a connection with that partner. And while this is something that everybody says, it's really hard to describe what it actually is and can we measure it?

Julia - Eliska and her colleagues, tested this by setting up a blind date experiment. Two people would enter compartments of a space separated by a sliding hatch. They would then do a '3, 2, 1, big reveal' for a few seconds to let the participants rate each other on physical attraction alone. They then let the dates chat for a few minutes and just be in each other's company.

Eliska Prochaskova - At the end, we asked them again how attractive the partner is. We also asked them whether they wanted to go on another date. This really allowed us to see how the attraction changes over the period of dating, and whether they become more attractive.

Julia - This was all while wearing devices, which measured their heart rates, how sweaty they got, and track their eye movements. But these devices definitely didn't get in the way.

Eliska Prochaskova - They completely forgot they're wearing them and we could see a person running and wanting to go to the toilet. We had to stop that person because we're like "We can literally see what you're doing".

Julia - Although the participants in the study show gestures we associate with being attracted to someone, like eye contact and smiling, Eliska found a different measure was the best at predicting attraction.

Eliska Prochaskova - We measured all different types of expressions. So, we measured nonverbal, smiling, laughing, and flirtatious behavior, we also measured eye contact. What we realised was that the main predictor of this click or this chemistry which people have, was the synchrony between the partner's heart rates and their skin conductance, which are unconscious responses which you cannot control. The more synchronized, the more attracted the partners become to each other.

Julia - Why do you think heart rates matching up might influence attraction?

Eliska Prochaskova - At the moment, scientists know that synchrony between people's physiology like heartily skin conductance happens in many different contexts. It's a phenomenon which we, for example, observe between mother and child, when there are, for example, hugging or when they're playing. From that, we know that this kind of synchronicity often leads to powerful bonding.

Julia - With so many of us now dating online this research can teach us how to increase the chance of having that spark on a first date.

Eliska Prochaskova - About 50 million people who are dating online, using different types of apps, they base their choice on attractiveness. What we observe in our study, what is really important for two people to really establish this connection, is a level of emotional synchronicity, what the physiology actually measures. That means that it's important that people actually put their emotions out and therefore reveal their emotions in order for the other person to explore them, to see them, and also feel them in their own body.

Julia - So there you have it, be open and vulnerable or a first date may be the key for allowing that spark to ignite. Or alternatively, ask your date to come equipped with a heart rate monitor, and put your scores on the doors at the end of the night. "Second date? Nah mate. You were a solid 74 beats per minute, when I was running on an 81. All the best for the future."


21:54 - Climate Change Close to Home

How will the climate crisis change the cities on our door steps and influence our mental health?

Climate Change Close to Home
Helen Berry, Macquarie University, Ioannis Karmpadakis, Imperial College London, Ana Mijic, Imperial College London

With consistent bad news featuring in the headlines, it’s no wonder that mention of the climate crisis can make some of us rather glum. Harry Lewis set out to speak to experts at Imperial College London, but along the way he stopped in to Putney High School, an opportunity to see how climate change is affecting pupils on a daily basis...

Harry - Great. Shall we go around the room and just, a name?

Students introduce themselves

Harry - When you think of climate change, what's the first thing that Springs into your mind?

Student 1 - Definitely a feeling of anger. Anger or probably betrayal from the politicians at the top who aren't really doing anything.

Harry - Do you think there's a lot that you can do as an individual to change that? Are you optimistic or would you say you're pessimistic when you think of those people?

Student 1 - I think pessimistic. They are doing more, or at least they're saying they're going to do more, but they've definitely tried to put the responsibility on the individual to kind of take away responsibility from themselves.

Student 2 - I think it makes me feel anxious in two ways. So, I'm anxious in an excited way to see how the future plays out, but I'm also anxious in the way that I'm sort of worried about the future as well.

Student 3 - I get worried and a bit annoyed and angry as Penny said earlier, but also a bit hopeful for the future, because like looking at different technologies that are being developed, it gives you a bit of hope.

Student 4 - We aren't helpless to the complete extent that we believe.

Harry - Do you think that is something that the population, or a perspective you think most of the students have?

Student 4 - I think for young people that is what a lot of them feel because the big things which are important are like the governments and policy makers and what they decide they want to do for the country and like globally,

Harry - I think this sense of anxiety and powerlessness is something that a lot of people feel and Helen Berry is the best person to chat to about these feelings. She wrote the book on mental health and climate change, and is a professor of the same topic at Macquarie university.

Helen - I suppose this didn't get to me personally until a couple of years ago. And I don't know whether you saw bits getting on for two years ago. Now we had what we call a 'black summer' and it was the worst bushfires we've ever had. And I was living at the time in a bush fire prone region. And I remember sitting in my study watching the smoke roll in at night and just watching the country burn in these incredible fires. And, for the first time it got to me really personally and I went through a period, I think of what I'd look back on and say, what was anxiety and depression for quite a few months where I just felt that my work was in vain, and it was kind of over now, nothing more to do.

Harry - That's quite hard hitting. And before we go any further, I want to strip it right back to basics. How do we define mental health and wellbeing?

Helen - People think about mental health often as an absence of mental illness, but that's not what mental health is. Life is all ups and downs and having good mental health is about being able to manage the ups and downs reasonably well most of the time. And the big problem with climate change is that it's not a normal up and down. It's something off the scale that we haven't experienced before that's catastrophic and we don't know how to deal with.

Harry - Helen tells me that those whose mental health is most at risk are those who are already disadvantaged. Women, children, non-native speakers of the most common language, indigenous communities. The list goes on.

Helen - You will have lived yourself through heat waves that are the hottest on record. You will have seen on TV how completely out of control wildfires are in California or Australia or across Russia that have ever been seen before. And in other countries where the climate is more fragile, then these extremes are more obvious. In Australia where I live, for example.

Harry - And so if we take the heat waves as an example, what's the impact of that directly on people's mental health?

Helen - Violence against other people increases during a heatwave. So do problems like depression and anxiety. And if you have bipolar disorders, that's an illness sometimes controlled by a drug called lithium and lithium is unstable above 30 degrees. So if you're dependent on lithium and the mercury goes above 30 you're in trouble.

Harry - And it's not just heat waves.

Helen - Climate change creates a whole lot of indirect effects as well. So if you think about a flood, one of the things that our flood does is destroy a whole lot of infrastructure. And if you harm the connectedness amongst people, that's pretty much the biggest threat to mental health of any.

Harry - Is there a term given to that? I've heard of eco-anxiety. I'm not sure if I saw that in your paper.

Helen - It's a term that's banded around along with a whole lot of other sorts of pseudo scientific labels that have been given to this. The eco-anxiety label or climate change worry, I think, is the anxiety or worry people feel about what they can see happening.

Harry - I broached this concept with the young women we heard from earlier. Do we feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety? Do we feel this eco-anxiety? Yes or no?

All students - No.

Harry - After their original comments, I found this answer really surprising. Actually it threw me when producing the show. Now on reflection, I think it's because the cohort I spoke to were very aware of those who were worse off or they considered themselves worse off. Now these girls consider themselves privileged, that's what they said. That awareness of privilege has its own burden. Do you feel at all guilty? Is there this idea of guilt that comes with that sense of privilege? Can I get a yes or no?

All students - Yes.

Harry - That's quite powerful isn't it?

Student 3 - Yeah. Especially when you read the news articles and the media about people and small islands which are just not going to be there in 10, 20, maybe less years. You definitely feel a bit guilty because you're like, 'Oh, well even if I try my best, what can I actually do to help them?'

Harry - When I think of sea level rise, I also think of regions like those islands in the South Pacific, but perhaps these issues are going to be felt, if not already being felt closer to home, like here in the UK's capital city. I recently stumbled across an online tool, and I think maybe you'll find it just as surprising as I did. Benjamin Strauss lead scientist at Climate Central.

Benjamin - I'm guessing that this is what you saw.

Harry - This is what I saw, yeah. And would you describe it to somebody who isn't looking at what we're looking at?

Benjamin - We basically took a Google map platform and overlaid it with scientific projections of sea level rise added to coastal flooding.

Harry - Ben and I are looking at a map of London and across it, some of the popular and well-known places are covered by this red highlighter. By moving the dials on the left of the webpage, you can observe the risks present at a coast near you. And at the moment I'm looking at what our city could look like in the next decade or so. Ben told me where exactly he got his data from.

Benjamin - It's based on IPCC projections for sea level rise and a data set for elevation that Climate Central developed and is the world's leading global elevation data set for coastal areas.

Harry - This tool made by Climate Central, something you can check out as well at home, suggests that places like here at the Houses of Parliament, here at the London Eye, here at London Waterloo train station, even here outside Stamford Bridge, all of these places could find themselves under water in 10, that's right, just 10 to 30 years time. It's not just London, it's the east of the UK all the way down to Cambridge. It's Rotterdam, Amsterdam, the tip of Florida, so many places are set to be below the annual flood level. Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. We do have methods of protecting ourselves against the elements. This is actually my old stomping grounds, to be honest. So I should know where the Skempton building is.

Ioannis - Yeah. So I'm Dr Ioannis Karmpadakis and I'm a lecturer in coastal engineering, in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the Imperial College London.

Harry - So at the moment, what is the situation with sea level rise with our coasts, and what are we expecting over the next 10, 20, 30 years?

Ioannis - Talking about the UK, for example, in 2050, we can have an average sea level rise around the coasts of between 0.2 meters and half a meter. So there's quite a large pond that we're looking at.

Harry - I know you just said that, that seems like quite a lot, but perhaps to me it doesn't seem like a lot. So what does that resemble? Why do you think that's going to be so important?

Ioannis - Let's think about protected areas, right? Sea walls/break walls/groynes, and whenever the water goes above it, all of the water goes through the structure and into the city. What's happening is that most of these structures were not constructed with sea level rise in mind. So they may be aging assets, they're older structures. So in effect that 0.2 meters makes a huge difference, if you think about the volume of water, if it's through other processes.

Harry - It's not just sea level rise that we need to be prepared for. What else is there that we need to have in mind?

Ioannis - Coastal flooding is caused by the total level of the water. The contributing factors to give you that total water elevation are the mean seawater level, so we know that climate change leads to sea level rise and that is increasing, but also you've got the tides so they can fluctuate plus minus four meters. And also when you've got large storms off shore, you've got a pressure difference. That leads to a stream of water, called a storm surge, which is driven by the pressure differential. And on top of that, you've got the waves. As they propagate, they transfer momentum, which ends up as an additional water elevation at the coastal defense. So all of the elements apart from the tides that we've discussed are increasing, due to climate change effects.

Harry - One example of a hard engineering structure that protects against these variables in London is that mighty Thames Barrier. That too though, is aging.

Ana - Thames Barrier has been used more than it was planned to be used. I think that the changes in the tide are bigger than it was expected because of the impacts of climate change and also the human element. There are plans for expanding the Thames Barrier and adding additional capacity around the upstream floodplains. But this is something definitely that we should be very mindful of because this is the infrastructure that when it works we don't notice it because we are fine. If for any reason it fails, the impact could be really significant.

Harry - Ana Mijic there from Imperial college London. Let's assume that we do fix up the Thames barrier. London is still going to suffer the repercussions of climate change.

Ana - Whatever comes in as an input, which is the rainfall, which is getting more intense and the intense events are getting more frequent than that rain has to go somewhere. It ends in the sewer system, in the pipes. If we don't upgrade the pipes, then it stays on the surface and, in extreme scenarios, ends up flooding the households.

Harry - As development continues, cities like London must continually battle with greater surface runoff and an increase in the use of water resources. I got to see one of the solutions first-hand.

Ana - We are standing at the south bank on the embankment that protects London from the river flooding, and we are standing across the construction site that will be one of the entries to the super sewer that London will have in the next couple of years. I think that three things need to happen. The first one is thinking about the engineering solutions and thinking about beyond the traditional approaches, to creatively implement infrastructure which is multifunctional. The second one is very much a socio-economic problem because if you build more, there will be more of an impact, if people use more or less water, there will be an impact. There is a role for everyone from the citizens, from the water companies, from the local premise and ultimately policy to help us get there. That brings me to my third point, because we are also standing across from parliament, my third point is the role of policy and regulation. If people have been following the media, they would have heard discussions in the parliament around the environment bill, which is the new regulation that will come in place in the UK, around environmental protection. So if the government takes it very seriously, if the regulation becomes more strict, then lots of things can be solved.

Harry - Our big cities aren't helpless to the changes that we are set to see, but as sea levels rise as more of our coastlines and cities dip below that annual flood level, pressure increases on our infrastructure, and the risks begin to escalate. Because if we don't ensure that our water management is up to scratch and something goes wrong, then the repercussions are just going to be that much worse.

this is a picture of people standing together

36:24 - Climate change and population growth

Whilst we lose land to sea level rise and the global population increases, what challenges will we face?

Climate change and population growth
Kathleen Mogelgaard, The Population Institute

One impact of climate change - and one that we’re beginning to see already - is a rising rate of migration as people move from parts of the globe imperiled by the consequences of a changing climate. That means more people converging on areas that do remain habitable, inevitably driving urbanisation and habitation density and therefore the risks of food and water shortages, and outbreaks of disease. So what role does human population play in all this? With us is Kathleen Mogelgaard from the Population Institute, a non-profit based in Washington, DC, with a missions to "achieve a world population in balance with a healthy global environment and resource base."

Chris - Well, Kathleen, let's begin by looking at the scale of the problem to start with. How many humans do we think there are on earth right now?

Kathleen - The world's population is currently about 7.8 billion people, and it's growing every year. It's continuing, continuing to grow by about 80 million people per year.

Chris - What's that in percentage terms, then?

Kathleen - The population growth rate is right around 1% globally. But of course, when you look at different countries around the world, that percentage growth rate varies quite a bit. We have some countries that are not growing at all. We have a handful of countries that are actually declining in their population. And then we have a set of countries that are growing quite a bit more rapidly than 1% upwards toward 2 and 3% in some places.

Chris - I'm just trying to think about what a 1% growth translates into, because if you, if you work that out, because of course there's 1% this year and then next year, there's 1% on top of the 1% that's just happened. And then the year after that - and so on and so forth, that that would actually translate into quite a considerable growth after not very many years, wouldn't it?

Kathleen - It certainly would. And you know, this is the business of demographers to try to understand where our population is likely to grow in the future. But there are lots of factors that we need to consider when we think about how quickly populations grow and why. And certainly there is a worldwide trend with population growth rates slowing down. We're seeing births around the world still continuing to slow. Although the birth rate is slowing in some places more quickly than in others. So demographers do their best to try to understand how all of these trends come together, including the ways in which development is proceeding. Because we know for example, as girls receive more years of education, as women have greater access to reproductive health and family planning services and greater economic opportunities, you know, all of these areas where we see gender equity improving, then we also see population growth rates slowing. So it's a real task to try to understand how all of these factors come together, that lead toward population growth futures.

Chris - I've just been scribbling while you were talking. It's about a 1% growth about a doubling in the lifetime of the average person listening to this program. So in about 72 years, that's twice as many people than there are right now, if we wait another 72 years and continue to grow at 1%. There's already 8 billion. You're saying that that cannot be sustainable. So what's going to happen?

Kathleen - It's really difficult to predict what is going to happen, but it's really important for us to think about population growth and other population dynamics and how that interacts with our day-to-day lives. And certainly as the world is turning its attention toward tackling the climate crisis, understanding population dynamics and how that relates both to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to the vulnerability of human populations around the world, to the impacts of climate change. It's a really important endeavor to understand these demographic trends and to be able to plan for them. We know, for example, that some of the countries that are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, whether it's the kinds of climate change impacts you were talking about earlier in the program with storm surges and floods, or whether it's the kind of slow onset climate change impacts like multiple years of drought that cause lots of challenges for agriculture, when communities become more food-insecure and that the climate is changing in ways that makes farming very difficult, we know that more and more people will be on the move around the globe. And it's important for us to be able to anticipate that and think about ways that we can make that kind of migration around the world happen in ways that really advances and protects people's human health and wellbeing.

Chris - Are you slightly surprised then given that there has been a lot of hot air, which is ironic from a conference about climate change coming from COP26, and really the only person who has alluded to the population issue is David Attenborough. There have not been very many voices saying this, is that just because people are uncomfortable talking about it, or is it just that people are overlooking the issue?

Kathleen - It's a really good question. That's a difficult question to answer. I think there is a, in many, among many of us, there is a lack of awareness of demographic trends, just how quickly the world's population continues to grow in some areas. I think among some people, they feel like the population problems were a thing of the past, and now we're in some parts of the world worrying about population decline. So I think it's not as much on people's minds as it used to be. But of course we are seeing in many places of the world this ongoing rapid population growth. And when that is combined with climate change vulnerability, the kinds of impacts of climate change that we are likely to see, this is going to have implications for movements of people and the health and safety and wellbeing of people and the planet. So I think it is a really important part of the climate change conversation, but of course, the way our climate change policies are structured, it's done in a somewhat siloed way. So we think a lot about the kinds of technologies that can be put in place to reduce emissions, and even when we're talking about climate change adaptation, you know, the ways in which society will be able to cope with the impacts of climate change, a lot of that discussion centres around some of the hard infrastructure that we were talking about earlier in the program, whether that's sea walls or other kinds of things that will enable communities to be able to cope with flooding or heat waves or extreme weather events. And these kind of longer term trends that relate to the growth of our population and the movement of people are not necessarily on the radars of folks who are thinking about the immediate challenges of adapting to climate change impacts.

Chris - We've got about a minute left, Kathleen. Does the way in which we've really constructed the world economically though, act as something of a barrier to trying to control population? Because if you look at what happened in China, where they had a one child policy that's been reversed because it turned out, you ended up with one poor child trying to sustain two aging parents. And so you ended up with a young married couple with four aging parents trying to be supported between them. So once we sort of get to a population level, it's very hard to row back from that. And we're already, some people say, burning off two planet Earths with resources per year, not one which means we're already well in breach of your mission statement.

Kathleen - I'm really glad you brought up the example of China, Chris. I think it's really, that is a lesson to us about the ways in which population control measures are really a fool's errand. And what we need to be thinking about more is really expanding the rights of people, particularly the rights of women and girls. Around the world, there are hundreds of millions of women who would like to be able to delay childbearing or end childbearing, but they don't have meaningful access to the information and services that would enable them to avoid a pregnancy. And until we really are able to fully meet those needs for women around the world, talking about any kind of top-down population control measure is not, makes no sense from a rights perspective or from an efficacy perspective. If we were able to really fully meet the needs of women and girls around the world, we would see a dramatic slowing of population growth rates. Fertility would decline and we might see population, we might see an end and a slowing or reversal of population growth within this century, but without it, I'm afraid we are headed for a much more crowded world.

Chris - Kathleen, thank you for crystallizing it so well for us. That's Kathleen Mogelgaard from the Population Institute.


46:14 - What can you do to combat climate change?

What are the best quick fixes you can do to help mitigate the crisis and play your part?

What can you do to combat climate change?
Neil Jennings, The Grantham Institute Imperial College London

What can we do to help mitigate the crisis, make a difference, and protect our own mental welfare? Here’s a couple of things that the students at Putney High School are up to...

Student #1 - I know that I personally have a lot of stuff from when I was a child it's plastic toys and things like that. I'm going to try and encourage people to give to, like, charity shops or reuse things that, you know, you thought you would never use again.

Student #2 - P***y and I at the moment are involved in a young enterprise project. And what we're doing is like a sustainable vegetarian cookbook.

Student #3 - First, while we try to make the meals quite cheap and easy because we're selling to students mostly,

Harry - And tasty?

Student #3 - Oh yeah, definitely tasty is a big part of it, since we're going to be eating the recipes as well. But I think red meat is probably the biggest part of people's carbon footprint. So trying to educate them on this is probably the best way to do it. Even if people aren't vegetarian all the time, even if they make just a small change in their lives, it can make quite a big difference.

Harry - I even heard that one of the students is developing an app to incentivize savings on domestic water usage, Chris.

Chris - Well, they know what they say. You always get the best ideas from young people who have been unbiased and brainwashed by so-called education. You think outside the box. With us now to help us all think a bit more outside the box and consider some of the actions that we can all take alongside the things that Kathleen was saying about education and so on is Neil Jennings. He's from the Grantham Institute for climate change and the environment at Imperial College in London, he's been at COP26. Neil, you've drawn up a list of nine things that you think should really be on all of our radar for behavioural change around climate change. Do you just want to run us by them?

Neil - Yeah, so it links into some of the ideas that the young women there touched on. Amongst the list, we've got things like reducing meat consumption and driving less walking and cycling more, using more public transport. And for those who fly, you know, flying less and reducing waste. And the two ones that I would like to bring out are making your voice heard by those in power. So whether that's your local MP or your councillor, or indeed businesses to contact them, to let them know that you care about this as an issue and to ask them and push them, if you like, to put the right infrastructure and the right incentives in place to make as easy as possible for us as citizens to be able to make some of these changes, like eating less meat or using more public transport. And the second of the ones I always like to pull out is around talking to each other about the changes that we've made. You know, some of this stuff will be hard. Some of the changes that we need need to make to, to, to tackle climate change, there'll be challenges that we face along the way. So it's so important that we chat to our friends, to our families about what we tried to do, about our experiences, what went well, what didn't, so that we can help each other overcome some of the challenges that we face along the way to help to kind of, also help to kind of normalise some of these behaviours that are good for the environment. As well, in many cases, it has been also good for our health as well.

Chris - Why have you picked on those two as your top two though? I mean, we can consider some of the others in a minute, but why those two as priorities, what's the evidence you've got that they really matter?

Neil - I think it's because it links in with the mental health piece, that first one, that there's some things which we can't control. There's things in our homes, which we have control over whether that's lights, the car that we choose to drive, but there's things that we need our elected officials to do to make it easier for us to make some of these other changes. So, you know, we need our elected officials to make sure we've got good charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. We need them to put the right incentives or infrastructure in place to make it easy for us to cycle and to feel safe when we're doing so. So I think those ones I always bring out because it links in with the mental health piece about, we need our elected officials to step up and people feel a level of anxiety and concern around climate change because we don't always see our leaders leading.

Chris - Sorry to interrupt you on this, but the problem with this now is that the political cycle is in some countries four years, in our country five years at most, before we're all going for an election again. And so really what our governments worry about, they worry about being re-elected. Climate change is not a five-year problem - well it wasn't, it is rapidly becoming one, but it wasn't. So it's sort of outside the time sphere that really, really galvanizes politicians and that's probably its weakness, isn't it?

Neil - So, but I guess the one thing that we've seen over the last few years is this very significant increase in the level of concern amongst climate change by the public. So Ipsos Mori do surveys every month and climate change, or the environment more broadly, has been figuring in the top three issues of concern that a representative sample of the UK public cite. So this has gone from being something which, you know, it was kind of like hovering around 10-th place for quite a while to actually one of the concerns that, you know, elected officials should be concerned about from the perspective of getting reelected. So I know, I know what you mean in that respect, but I do think things have changed.

Chris - Why do you think there has been this about-turn in terms of people's interests? I've noticed it too. And I thought, perhaps it's just because COP26 was happening for the first time, really on home territory. Is it that, or is it actually, everyone's concerned about it and it's a slew of recent bad weather that's driven this?

Neil - Yeah, barely a week or a month has gone by without a very significant weather-related event that's associated with what we'd expect to see from a warming climate. So let's see over the summer, we had floods in New York, in China, in London, in Germany. And those are exactly the kind of events would expect to see more of associated with climate change and Helen Barry earlier on touched on the kind of wildfires in Australia. So there's heightened levels of awareness about this issue because of what people are seeing and connecting the dots and saying, we need more action on this.

Chris - Neil Jennings, thank you very much. Harry.

Harry - Cheers, Chris, and that's ending the chapter for today on our discussion on climate change. Something that Helen said to me that I'd like to bring up to you as well was that each of us are from a different background and we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves. Whatever you can do to help mitigate this crisis is great. Make sure you do take time to give yourself a pat on the back every now and then. And well, let's finish as we usually do by sinking our teeth into a juicy thought-provoking question sent in by you - and Julia Ravey has some food for thought for Jodie.



Cherry tomatoes on the vine

52:14 - QotW: Do home-grown tomatoes produce less CO2?

Does growing tomatoes at home reduce carbon footprint? Or are supermarket punnets better for the planet?

QotW: Do home-grown tomatoes produce less CO2?

Now, I am a terrible gardener and can just about keep a houseplant alive, but somewhat controversially, tomatoes are my favourite food of all time. I reached out to Doctor Samarthia Thankappan, from the department of Environment and Geography, University of York, to find out the answer to this question and whether I need to up my horticultural skills.

Samarthia - For most foods, significant greenhouse gas emissions result from land use change which involves above ground changes in biomass, below ground changes in soil carbon, and from the processes at the farm stage, which include the application of fertilisers and pesticides. The combined land use and farm stage emissions account for more than 80% of the footprint for most foods.

Julia - 80%?! That is a huge proportion.

Samarthia - Transport, retail, and packaging account for a small share of the total footprint. 

Julia - Tomatoes like to grow in warm and sunny conditions, which in the UK are few and far between for most of the year. This means in the colder months, our supermarkets are stocked with tomatoes imported from countries with warmer climates. 

Samarthia - In the case of tomatoes, the production system or how the tomatoes are grown is important. Out-of-season tomatoes grown under heated greenhouses add significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, and this contribution typically overshadows the carbon footprint of tomatoes imported from long distances from warmer production regions. This means locally produced tomatoes grown in greenhouses in colder seasons will have a higher carbon footprint than field-grown tomatoes shipped from long distances.

Julia - So, with all that information in mind…

Samarthia - The lowest carbon footprint would be for those tomatoes grown in a grow bag in your garden (assuming you have not placed the grow bag in a heated greenhouse!) compared to the ones bought from the supermarket.

Julia - Overall, if you are growing your tomatoes on your window ledge, in a greenhouse or out in the garden without help from a energy-guzzling greenhouse lamp, the footprint on those tomatoes should be smaller than the packets you can pick up at the supermarket. Which means I definitely need to up my green finger game. Thank you to Jodie for your question and to Dr Samarthia Thankappan for weeding out the truth for us. Next week, we have got a question which is out of this world from Matt.

Matt - Early commercial flights were scheduled and had air traffic control but pilots were allowed a fair amount of latitude to deviate off course ,which caused some mid air collisions. With three space missions currently converging on Mars how do the nations avoid orbital collisions? Do they share data? Do they have transponders? Thank you.


Add a comment