Inner access to COP26: An interview with Sue Morgan

We speak to the Landscape Institute’s chief executive, Sue Morgan, to find out about her experience at COP26 and the important role the landscape plays in tackling climate change. Discussing how landscape professionals can deliver on COP26 ambitions and what changes should be on the horizon, we ask Sue what the Landscape Institute is doing to champion the industry

Could you tell us about your thoughts and experience at COP26?

The Landscape Institute (LI) had access to the Blue Zone which was fantastic, and we were involved in a number of useful fringe events. It felt really powerful being at COP26 at that particular moment in time, and in an amazing city too –  Glasgow is a phenomenal place.

One of the fringe events I spoke at was with civic engineers. It was intense seeing so many people all together, but quite humbling, seeing the holistic world of people and a global perspective. It made one feel a bit like a nano, as if ‘our stuff is not that important’, especially with so many indigenous people at COP26 talking about life changing, terrible issues happening where they live, and the effects of climate change –  the crisis, need, and urgency wasn’t being dealt with in the way it could have been.

As a CEO of the LI, a trained landscape architect, and having worked in the built environment and urban regeneration for around 30 years, the context of where you are in a place is important. And, from this perspective, there were lots of missed opportunities to really showcase the city and what landscape, green infrastructure, and nature based solutions could have done for the delegates as a bit of a backdrop. Though it might sound like a superficial thing, when looking at the staging at COP26, opportunities to show how urban settings are just as at risk in terms of climate change and mitigation were unfortunately missed.

In your opinion, what were the positives that came out of COP26?

A positive takeaway is that there will be a COP26 next year, meaning we don’t have to wait five years for the next one. And, certain things have stayed on the agenda.

This year nature made it onto the agenda for the first time, and this a hugely positive moment. However, the downside was that this focus was held on a Saturday, rather than a on a week day, and so there were less people there to pay attention to nature as being a central item.

Another positive was the green taxonomy and cutting down on greenwashing – although, there was quite a lot of green washing at COP26.

I think one of the other underlying aspects is around the financing of green adaption and mitigation. The emphasis is definitely on energy, transport, and our homes – which is absolutely right and proper. But, there are lots of low cost interventions where finance could, and should, be funnelled, and this is where nature based solutions, natural capital accounting, green infrastructure, and green finance is being capped in terms of energy and transport and not necessarily around mitigation and adaptation  –  using water and green infrastructure in cities or urban food etc.

Something I was excited by was the C40 city Mayors talk. It seemed that UN habitat and C40 cities bought mayors from around the world together to look at how their cities can be developed and designed. The mayors described what they had done in their cities to alleviate, adapt and mitigate on climate change, and most of those solutions were green infrastructure and nature solution based. They had worked on cutting down cars, making active travel a choice, creating parks and green spaces, making cities spongier, and adding more trees. Everything they settled on that were equitable and fair solutions in helping make their city better were green based solutions.

“Everything they settled on that were equitable and fair solutions in helping make their city better were green based solutions.”

What was the Landscape Institute able to achieve there?

Our presence at COP26 was important because we could demonstrate to our members that we were there, and this in itself is fantastically important.

Despite everything we learnt during the pandemic  –  i.e. how important it is to have green spaces in walking distance from your home, spending time outside etc  –  some of this still hasn’t landed in terms of making changes in legislation – this all comes down to funding and resourcing. Digital and remote working has not helped us in coming together to work in a bigger force. Being competitive about what we do and understanding that we genuinely must come together in partnership is important.

“Until we come together forcefully, why should the government take note? Especially if there aren’t more innovative ways?”

Until we come together forcefully, why should the government take note? Especially if there aren’t more innovative ways? There are trillions of dollars available that could make a huge difference, but nature and how that is utilised seem to have been missed off. The resources are there, with the legal and generals and insurance companies that lend money to developers to build things, with structures in place saying ‘we won’t lend you this finance unless you do AB and C’, it comes out of the hands of government completely – it is about finance and economics, and not necessarily regulation. Though, this is all doable.

How can we bring the industry together?

We need common themes. Rather than worrying about the differences or the nuances. I think something we can all get behind is green skills. There is a tiny percentage of people coming into the profession now, and a tiny percentage come from an ethnic, or a more diverse background. We know from an electronic data interchange perspective we have a huge amount of work to do, as qualified landscape architects are on the endangered list of professions. In local authorities we have an aging population of people, who tend to be white and male, looking after parks and green spaces. We can design amazing places, but if we don’t have the designers or people who understand how to look after them properly, we won’t be able to curate or manage any of our natural landscapes. We need to cower less around green skills, and we need to make the profession fresh, and encourage young people into the industry.

“Looking at the protesters at COP26, they’re all young people who are fantastically involved and motivated. But, have they even thought about having a profession in landscape?”

Looking at the protesters at COP26, they’re all young people who are fantastically involved and motivated. But, have they even thought about having a profession in landscape? We are a huge, holistic, caring and innovative profession, and can make steps toward mitigating, adapting and reversing climate change, yet nobody even knows the profession is there. People stumble upon it, and it’s not promoted nearly enough at schools.

What changes do you hope for before the next COP26?

I hope for the LI to work more closely with land based institutes and membership organisations that have ecologists, and the private sector, to help create a single voice that will promote the benefits about the profession. Thinking about how we tackle green skills, how we promote the benefits of green infrastructure, and nature based solutions, is all essential in moving forward and driving the UK’s economic investment.

The LI was one of the first to sign up to a collective call for climate mitigation and climate emergency, and we’re linked firmly in with the Australian LI and the National Federation of Landscape Architects. So, from a global perspective, we’re already trying to create better and more solid partnerships to create that louder voice. Many in the UK are talking about needing to working together too, so over the next year I will be looking to see how that manifests itself.

This year the Landscape Institute will be hosting an online edition of the 2021 LI Awards ceremony on 25 November, starting at 12:00pm. Tickets to this event are FREE for everyone. With a growing international audience, global access to the ceremony and more featured award categories than ever before, this will be our biggest and most inclusive celebration to date. Click here to claim you ticket.

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