Key Messages from the Zero Emissions Solutions Conference at COP26

Alongside COP26, leaders and experts from around the world gathered virtually to provide key climate solutions for the Decade of Action

For the fifth year in a row, SDSN was excited to be working alongside global experts and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COPs) toward a safer planet for all. After successful events at COP22, COP23, COP24, and COP25, this year, SDSN virtually hosted the Zero Emissions Solutions Conference (ZESC), formerly the “Low-Emissions Solutions Conference,” on the sidelines of COP26 from November 1-5, 2021. The five day online event brought together 74 global technical experts and world-leading scientists, engineers, and innovators from business, academia, and civil society to share knowledge and showcase solutions to maximize climate commitments in the wake of the Paris Agreement.

The main objective of the ZESC is to support governments in the implementation of their net-zero commitments, as well as their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and Low Emission Development Strategies (LEDS). By bringing together experts from different sectors and backgrounds, the conference’s inclusive conversations focused on the tools and solutions available to turn ambition into real action over the next decade. Through its intensive global dialogues among technical, scientific, academic, and business specialists, the ZESC provided a forum to exchange information, identify bottlenecks, discuss best practices, and provide signals to policymakers for a low-emissions future at a time when pivotal decisions are being made at COP26.

The conference welcomed over 2,000 participants from 104 countries to 15 dynamic sessions featuring cutting edge research around the themes of finance, energy, youth, and nature. The ZESC session themes intentionally mirrored the high-level thematic days of the official COP program, with the overarching theme of the conference being “Key Climate Solutions for the Decade of Action.” The 2021 Zero Emissions Conference was organized in collaboration with Emory University, Monash University, University College London (UCL), University of Strathclyde, as well as support from partners including UN agencies, international organizations, industry associations, global sustainability initiatives, and others.

Highlights from the sessions and related links and resources can be found below for further learning.

  • Day 1: World Leaders Summit

    1A. Aligning Global Policy Frameworks: Biodiversity and Climate Change

    This session explored the opportunities and challenges of integrating biodiversity and climate change agendas at the global and national level. Climate and biodiversity are innately interconnected and limiting biodiversity loss is crucial to decarbonization efforts, but implementation challenges remain. The panelists discussed mechanisms to effectively integrate nature and climate in national policy and how to increase transparency and accountability. SDSN’s policy brief titled “The integration of biodiversity and climate objectives in land-based policy” also launched the day of the session. Read the press release.

  • Day 1: World Leaders Summit

    1B. Delivering Climate Neutral Districts

    This session was framed around a whole systems approach to develop the Climate Neutral Districts Vision that crosses city and regional scales. The panel focused on the development and implementation of long-term pathways, investment plans, and solutions in city and regional policies and planning, with examples from the Glasgow Green Deal in Scotland and San Diego County Regional Decarbonization Framework in California.

    “It’s important to recognize that there will be failure, but it’s how we respond to failure that’s important in order to learn and put in place new strategies for success.” -Graham Smith, Glasgow City Council

    “Decarbonization really requires a systems approach thinking because energy systems and transportation systems don’t end at the end of a city jurisdiction, or a county jurisdiction, and we need to bring all the different government actors together and align their policy-making process towards planning for emissions reductions” -Gordon McCord, University of California, San Diego

  • Day 1: World Leaders Summit

    1C. Learning from Crisis: COVID to Climate

    This session was developed in collaboration with Springer Nature and SDSN. Prior to this event, experts across natural, applied, and social science disciplines participated in two roundtables to discuss the similarities and differences between the COVID-19 and climate crises. They examined the parallels between the emergencies regarding structural inequalities, behavior change, and misinformation. In this session, the co-chairs from these roundtables shared their findings and then answered questions from the audience. Read the blog Learning from crises: reflecting on the power of cross-sector conversations.

    “Crises such as COVID-19 or the climate emergency clearly know no borders. We should focus on working together across silos, sharing information, data, technology, and expertise to find global solutions and support one another so that these solutions can be effectively implemented locally everywhere.” -Magdalena Skipper, Editor-in-Chief, Nature

    “Disproportionately vulnerable communities in the COVID pandemic are likely the same vulnerable communities in climate change in many ways.” -Jiaying Zhao, The University of British Columbia

    “We need to translate climate narratives from 2030 and 2050 goals into near-term changes and to experiences that people face locally.” -Wolfgang Blau, Reuters Institute

  • Day 2: Finance

    2A. Economic Response Toward Covid-19 Resilience

    During the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery, governments have been urged to focus on green recovery to enhance resilience. However, many governments are unsure about what a green economic recovery means for their countries. This session discussed aligning green recovery with countries’ climate ambition, opportunities for climate action to serve as COVID recovery, and managing complex policy coordination.

    “The science has spoken. The climate crisis and biodiversity collapse are here, we have to face it, and we have to face it fast. We have the technology, what we need to achieve now during the COP and during the other UN conferences before the end of the year is to agree on the pathways, the technological, financial, and policy pathways, that will get each and every country where it has to be by 2030 and 2050.” -Phoebe Koundouri, SDSN Europe

    “Many countries should think about green industrial policy, but they need to look at their domestic economic structures and what net zero means for them. They need to before importing conceptual frameworks like a circular economy. This requires a lot of different types of capacities among ministries and agencies that design those policies. Getting to net zero requires a lot of thinking about real strategies.” -Olga Mikheeva, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

  • Day 2: Finance

    2B. Pathfinder Initiative - Finding Pathways to a Healthy, Zero-Carbon Future

    This session highlighted opportunities to improve health and well-being that are available by transitioning to a net-zero society and some of the challenges faced in achieving these benefits. The discussion provided a broad overview of some of the major pathways and opportunities to improve health, and then took a detailed look at specific sectoral actions and how these can be scaled for impact. Learn more about the Pathfinder Initiative.

    “An important question is not only what actions to take but how do we design them in a manner that maximizes both climate change mitigation and health benefits in a holistic and synergistic manner. So, one set of actions is unlikely to be sufficient to reach climate change mitigation targets and therefore, we really need to think about packaged interventions.” -Kristine Belesova, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

    “When you really listen to people and to communities and understand why they’re being forced to often act unsustainably, then you can develop solutions with them rather than imposing solutions on them. Solutions have to be co-designed and co-promoted to be resilient. They cannot just keep being imposed from outside.” -Sir Andy Haines, Co-chair of the Lancet Pathfinder Commission on Health in the Zero-carbon Economy

  • Day 2: Finance

    2C. Climate Finance: Making Good on the Rhetoric?

    In this session, the panelists discussed suggestions for stakeholder collaboration and concrete solutions to help achieve our shared ambitions within the Paris Agreement. These speakers were drawn from the SDG Action initiative, launched by SDSN to support the UN’s Decade of Action – the global effort to mobilize governments, businesses, and civil society to deliver the SDGs by 2030. SDG Action is a resource for sustainability practitioners in all sectors and brings timely analysis of the most pressing challenges.

    “As economies move to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, extensive evidence suggests that meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement objectives could bring widespread economic health and employment benefits. It can also improve the economic and financial stability and reduce inequality post-COVID.” -Nicole Pinko, Climate Policy Initiative

    “We ought to emphasize that this should be the decade of authentic action, not just action. We have seen enough of this movie for three decades, so I ask for paradigm change, inclusive approaches, consequential impact assessments, and progressive lobbying.” -Rajat Panwar, Oregon State University

  • Day 3: Energy

    3A. ASEAN’s Green Future: Farther, Faster, Together

    This session featured speakers from across ASEAN to present the opportunities and challenges for each country and the region in their efforts to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. The discussion provided national and regional recommendations for policy and financing solutions to accelerate the just transition across ASEAN. Speakers from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Indonesia, and Malaysia provided detailed national insights into the historical precedence and future opportunities to address climate change. Learn more about the ASEAN Green Future Project.

    “The challenge that we have here will require huge investment in low-carbon technologies across the world over the next 30 years…Southeast Asia has the potential to position itself as a manufacturing hub for those low-carbon technologies.” -Meg Argyriou, ClimateWorks Australia

    “Result based payment needs to be more clear in order to increase the credibility of this instrument. It can incentivize a poor and middle-income country to preserve the forest fields, as well as mangroves.” -Alin Halimatussadiah, Universitas Indonesia

  • Day 3: Energy

    3B. Planning and operating an electricity system without fossil fuels

    This session explored the challenges we face in planning and operating an electric power system without burning fossil fuels and emitting CO2. It also described the solutions to these challenges that are being developed and used in different parts of the world. Short presentations from each of the four speakers were followed by a panel discussion based on questions from the audience.

    “The main challenge of the power system is to balance the generation and demand at all times.” -Britta Buchholz, Hitachi ABB Power Grids

    “The renewables scattered all over the country also create opportunity. As you are rolling out the networks, you actually are creating greater access across wider areas for electricity…but the funding of this and the ability to implement it does become a hurdle.” -Ronald Marais, Eskom

    “It’s really important to look at these solutions holistically…by putting the needs of the consumer and the public at the heart of these proposals…this will help engage the public, too.” -Dipali Raniga, National Grid ESO

  • Day 3: Energy

    3C. How the Demand for Energy is Underpinning Economic Development

    This session examined the challenges for electrification and how it can be delivered by low carbon renewable energy technologies in low- and middle-income countries. The panelists also discussed how this can support further gains in multiple SDGs, such as clean cooking, communication, economic development, resilience, and social welfare.

    “An integrated, community aware approach and planning is needed where electrification projects are linked to local development priorities to support sustainable business models. It’s also important that local organizations are building capacity in communities to support sustainable business models to scale these solutions.” -Damien Frame, University of Strathclyde

    "About 65% of SDG targets require actions to be taken concerning energy systems. For example, addressing climate change, reducing deaths from pollution, and improving intergenerational and geographic justice all require energy action.” -Long Seng To, Loughborough University

  • Day 4: Youth and Public Empowerment

    4A. Net Zero Cities of the Future

    Looking into both the built environment and the energy systems from which our cities operate, this session captured solutions and case studies to inform cities who are seeking pathways to net-zero emissions. This session is a special opportunity to hear from both Monash University (Winner of the 2018 UN Momentum for Change Award) and ENGIE, a global energy company, and their plans for accelerating Monash’s NetZero Initiative to achieve Monash University’s net-zero by 2030 goal.

    “Cities are concentrated spaces globally of integrated economic activity but also social infrastructures…the way we build buildings and the way we power those buildings is a technical problem, but it’s also a social problem. This will affect the way that we heat our homes, live in our homes, use our homes, as well as the places of work, leisure, and everything else that goes along with life in a city…the way that we access food and produce food, the way that we travel from place to place… what we decide to do for leisure. While all of our activities help fuel climate change, they can also ameliorate it.” -Ryan Bellinson, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

    “We need to construct fast, we need to construct affordably, but at the same time, we need to construct something which provides comfort, and that’s the intersection we are dealing with right now.” -Rajan Rawal, CEPT University

  • Day 4: Youth and Public Empowerment

    4B. The Local Pathways Fellowship: Young Solutions to Our Cities

    This session showcased young leaders within the Local Pathways Fellowship Youth Initiative and their youth-led projects for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. The discussion highlighted the potential of youth by showcasing what they can accomplish when they are given the tools and knowledge needed to implement solutions to the most pressing challenges in their cities.

    “We create a support system where we recognize them [young people] as a partner in building better cities and communities. As we have seen now many times, decision making does not incorporate the youth, despite the fact that they are the ones that are going to be living the consequences of the decisions made today the longest.” -Ana Ynestrillas, Local Pathways Fellowship, SDSN Youth

    “I want to involve the people from the beginning, I want to ask, I want to create awareness, and teach them the importance…this way we may have a chance because these people will feel they own this project…with a bottom-up approach.” -Boniface Abudho, Eco-Build Africa

    “My advice would be to start now with whatever problem you have. Sometimes, we think that we need to have the project super developed and a lot of financing and things to start, but you can start now with little steps and then you will achieve a long time impact.” -Regina Paredes, Muevetex

  • Day 4: Youth and Public Empowerment

    4C. Emory Climate Talks with Youth Climate Activists

    This session showcased youth activists from indigenous communities, the Global South, and the Global North to discuss the climate movement that youth activists are pushing for. The event concluded with an active Q&A discussion, where the panelists shared how they stay motivated and gave advice on how others can join the climate movement, too. Learn more about Emory Climate Talks.

    “…The youth’s involvement all around the world has shown the power they possess in holding decision makers accountable for catalyzing innovation, pushing for immediate climate action, and also advocating for marginalized communities.” -Marlon Gant, Emory University

    “Every voice matters. Recognize that however small or large your pool of influence or sphere of influence is, you have the opportunity to make an impact.” -Marlow Baines, Earth Guardians

    “We need to take action. We need to put ourselves out there as young people to begin to make powerful and meaningful engagements because largely the world depends on us. We are the future, we are tomorrow, and we are the ones that actually can decide what we want to do." -Damilola Hamid Balogun, Youth Sustainability Development Network

  • Day 5: Nature

    5A. Building on the Blue COP - Priorities in Oceans-Climate Inclusion

    This session contemplated a way forward to achieving improved integration between ocean and climate governance. It included considerations such as the risks, needs, and opportunities for Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the potential of nature-based solutions, and the role of blue carbon and market-based mechanisms. The panel sought to unpack ways to overcome impediments to oceans being a core consideration in the climate regime’s operation, goals, and action.

    “When we talk about the blue economy, when we talk about mitigation, any type of action, it really does need to have an inclusive component and equity.” -Janine Felson, AOSIS and University of Melbourne

    “Proper resource governance is absolutely necessary… and we need to align ocean-climate change policy with investment policy." -Mubariq Ahmad, Conservation Strategy Fund Indonesia
    “The ocean can be a solution to climate change, build the resilience of our natural systems, and help billions of people increase their well-being. They must be taken into account more directly in the financing mechanisms and the priority setting for development aid, and for blended finance of philanthropic, intergovernmental, and private investment in ocean-based enterprises.” -Russell Reichelt, High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy

  • Day 5: Nature

    5B. The Land-Water-Energy Nexus of Biofuels

    Global experts in land-use, energy, water, and biofuel technologies were convened in 2020 to make up a world class consortium to discuss, debate, and refine the potential for biofuels to be incorporated into national and sectoral decarbonization strategies. In a recently released report, Roadmap to 2050: The Land-Water-Energy Nexus of Biofuels, these researchers examined the evolution of key technologies and the intersection of biofuel production with the land, water, and local economies from which they are derived. The findings of this report were shared in this session. Read the press release for the Roadmap to 2050: Land-Water-Energy Nexus of Biofuels.

    “Biofuels will be a very important tool for decarbonizing. Biofuels have the potential to provide multiple benefits for our economy…it can bring multiple contributions for GHG emissions reductions (especially in those sectors, like shipping and air transport), and for road transportation. Another important aspect of bioenergy and biofuels is that we can combine bioenergy with CO2 removal through carbon capture…It also has the potential to enhance air quality because of the lower emissions of local pollutants, improve the energy or engine performance, and improve the energy security in different parts of the globe. Additionally, biofuels have the potential to spur economic development in rural areas.” -Joaquim E. A. Seabra, Universidade Estadual de Campinas

    “We analyzed the pros and cons of introducing biofuels by highlighting that they have the potential to decarbonize society and contribute to achieve energy security in countries lacking direct access to fossil fuel deposits. They can enhance higher profits from the use of crops than those obtained from the food market sale, but the sustainability of biofuels, however, has been questioned in recent years in connection with the food versus fuel trade-offs and with the water and the land consumption issues.” -Maria Cristina Rulli, Politecnico di Milano

  • Day 5: Nature

    5C. Emory Climate Talks on Food Waste and Anaerobic Digestion

    In this session, the panel discussed how to tackle food waste and how to do so with an “equity by design” mindset. We brought in experts to consider solutions and opportunities related to energy and food, which are both deeply connected to climate. Instead of creating another landfill in an environmental justice community, an alternative solution to mitigate climate change and demand climate justice at the same time was explored. Learn more about Emory Climate Talks.

    “Food waste should not really be seen as a waste but rather a resource.” -Wayne Harpur, Urban Farms Recycling

    “Allowing communities to make their own self-sustaining energy by taking their own organic waste and even purpose-grown crops and putting those into digesters to make energy is really exciting, but requires the initial capital for the construction, an ongoing capital commitment for the operating and maintenance, and capital for training.” -John Hanselman, Vanguard Renewables