COP26 and the countryside: the view from CPRE

By Stuart Neaverson
23rd November 2021

Stuart Neaverson, CPRE campaigns officer, reflects on what Glasgow’s crucial climate conference taught him about what has to happen next for our rural areas.

We went to COP26 to urge those in power to remember the power of the countryside in tackling the climate crisis. But CPRE also used it as a chance to listen and learn from the people closest to the impacts of climate change.

For nearly 2 weeks, over 20,000 delegates from almost 200 countries were locked in intense negotiations in the city of Glasgow. Central to the discussions stood one question; how do we limit global temperature rises to no more than 1.5C? And, we from CPRE asked, what role can nature-and countryside-based solutions play?

The power of peat: what the countryside can do

There is, of course, no silver bullet to solve this crisis. Action is needed in every part of the economy and society, from phasing out coal to tackling methane emissions to supporting those communities already being devastated by our changing climate – including some of our rural areas, where people are living with flooding and extreme weather.

But one area largely missing in action from the discussions was the part that nature-based solutions, including those provided by our very own countryside, can play. It was this message CPRE, the countryside charity wanted to bring to Glasgow.

'One area largely missing in action from the discussions was the part that nature-based solutions can play.'

At CPRE, we’ve long known that a thriving countryside is critical to the UK’s response to the climate crisis. When properly cared for, our peatland, a familiar sight across the countryside, can safely stow away carbon for millennia.

The power of peat, plus our hedgerows and trees, to lock carbon up has seen the Climate Change Committee, the independent advisory board to the government, specifically call for measures to protect and expand them.

Our countryside is also vital for delivering much-needed community renewable energy projects we need to phase out fossil fuels, as well as transition our farms towards more sustainable and nature-friendly practices.

Storm clouds passing over the windswept peat bog moorland plateau
Storm clouds passing over the windswept peat bog moorland plateau of Kinder Scout, Derbyshire. Peat is a climate superhero.

An existential threat

But while our countryside offers so many solutions, it’s also under threat.

UK rainfall has already increased by 17% since the 1960s, with the risk of flooding now hanging over more homes and farms than ever before. The peatlands that do so much for us are still being set on fire by landowners, releasing the long-trapped carbon back out into the atmosphere. Increasingly erratic weather patterns, caused by climate change, are threatening our crops and the livelihood of farmers who depend on them. Hundreds of species who inhabit our countryside and make these places so special are also under threat, from hedgehogs to bees and butterflies.

Simply put, there is no greater threat to our countryside than our changing climate.

'Simply put, there is no greater threat to our countryside than our changing climate.'

With this in mind, our 11-person strong delegation drawn from local CPRE groups all over the country, hopped on a train up to Scotland to bang the drum for nature-based solutions. In Glasgow, we met with MPs to chat hedgerows, attended innovative workshops to talk peatlands and appeared on BBC breakfast to discuss both (and more! You can see our wonderful Maddy on the BBC here).

The power of listening

Saturday 6th November 2021, the midpoint of COP26, saw our delegation joining over 100,000 others marching through the streets of Glasgow, calling on our leaders to step up.

Placards emblazoned with countryside solutions were held aloft from Glasgow to London, where thousands had gathered too to make their voices heard.

A row of people holding banners and signs in Trafalgar Square, London
CPRE staff and supporters at the COP26 climate march in London, November 2021 | CPRE

For CPRE, it was a watershed moment to have our climate message represented in the city playing host to the world, standing side by side with friends and colleagues from the nature and environment sector.

'It was a watershed moment to have our climate message represented in the city playing host to the world.'

But while we made sure our message was heard, we also had a chance to listen and hear from others, of all ages from CPRE groups all over the country, how we can make our climate message even stronger.

The feedback was clear: listen.

Listen to the communities on the frontline of climate impacts in rural areas. Listen to the farmers and land workers facing increasing pressure to solve all our problems. And listen to our network of local groups and supporters to understand how together, we can do more for the countryside in the fight against the climate emergency.

'We can deliver nature-based solutions that protect the places we love.'

To create change, it’s these voices that need to be brought to the forefront, and through our incredible network, we’re in a unique position to deliver on this.

It’s through our local groups and volunteers all over that CPRE has the power that it does to effect change, and by working together, we can deliver nature-based solutions that protect the places we love, now and for decades to come.

COP26 isn’t the end

We’ll be challenging the government to go further and faster and make use of the solutions at hand; to increase the hedgerow network by 40% by 2050 and restore our peatlands and soils by 2030.

We’ll call on the government to deliver on renewable energy projects that put communities first and create a countryside that works for all. Without it, our countryside will be changed beyond recognition.

As delegates fly home and conference venues pack up at COP26, the path to 1.5C is still far from clear. While there have been some positive agreements out of the summit, it’s clear that the climate emergency remains the greatest threat to our countryside. But with the right policies, it can also be one of our greatest tools against it.

Help us make the difference

Come on board with our work to make the countryside the key in tackling climate change and calling on the government to do more. We do what we do with the help of our amazing supporters and members – and you can join us from as little as £5 per month. Find out more and join the movement here.

Two young people in warm clothes walk along a busy street with placards; one says Bleat for Peat
Stuart holds his 'bleat for peat' placard and marches with CPRE colleagues and supporters in Glasgow for COP26 CPRE