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The journey from science to policy implementation: insights from COP26

Friday, November 12, 2021

I was in the Blue Zone at COP26 last week talking to scientists, policy makers, and advisors about how science can be used to inform policy, and how policy can be implemented. With climate activists and scientists emphasising the need for action, I aimed to find out more about why evidence of the climate emergency may not be reflected in our commitments and ouractions, to tackle climate change. Below I relay my take on what experts have shared with me about the journey from science to implementation, and the challenges we face in doing this.

A wealth of science is synthesised to provide evidence based advice to governments. This needs to be both recognise and minimise bias, and be clear about the provenance of the material used. To construct advice from this evidence, advisors select relevant information and communicate it in a way which speaks to policy makers. Timing is key, as Andrew Millar, chief scientific adviser to the Scottish Government on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture shared,

“[An] important thing is timing. You have to provide [scientific advice] when it’s needed. If you miss the deadline; you miss the key moment, it might be months or even years before you get the opportunity again, so timing is crucial."

Political advisors go a step further, integrating science advice and evidence into long term plans for policy implementation. But even if scientific evidence is integrated into policy, these policies are often not actioned, and targets are missed. So why is this?

Policies can be insufficiently financed, lack public support, and red tape within the policy system can make their implementation difficult. Progress also needs to be measured appropriately, and unsuitable indicators of success can impede achievement of goals.

Corinne Le Quéré, Professor of Climate Change Science at the University of East Anglia and chair of France’s high council on climate, referred to the need for direction:

“The challenges are essentially having clear objectives in the long term and the short term so that actors: people, businesses, groupings and so on who have to do things, are engaged, and everybody knows what they have to do.”

Throughout this process, actors must be willing to change. Many people believe that climate change isn’t adequately prioritised. Emma Hei, a youth activist from ClimaTalk shared:

“I’m missing the sense of urgency…you just don’t feel as if this is a crisis meeting to solve the biggest and most urgent crisis we are currently facing.”

All of these comment point to the fact that communication is essential to ensure that science informs policy action. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires a seizmic shift in food, energy, transport, industry and finance; a shift that will affect all of us. We require effective knowledge exchange between professions. We cannot afford communication barriers between scientists, economists, lawyers, farmers, politicians, and entrepeneurs.

The path from science to implementation is not a straight line, and involves a lot of repetition and itertive improvements to make science, advice and policy, relevant and operational. This means that even when evidence isn’t suitably acted upon, these commitments can enable implementation in future. Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford, said:

“What that whole process of 1.5 [°C target] has done has just catalysed so much, firstly changed the whole debate, [the] narrative [around tackling climate change]. Before that the idea of net zero, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, it wasn't discussed.”

For some this can be a reason to remain hopeful. As Prof. Quéré said,

“I'm never discouraged, I just come back and try again. It's important to resist the temptation to be discouraged. This is a marathon it's not a sprint".

COP26 was one step in this marathon, but we are miles away from the finish line. Every day for the weeks, months and years that lie ahead of us, we must continue putting one foot infront of another; bridging communication gaps, facing hard decisions and solving problems. If we continue to do this, maybe one day, we might outrun the catastrophic changes we have imposed on our planet.

Written by Kerry Smith