Dr. Thomas Katsouleas, was officially voted into office this past Tuesday by UConn’s Board of Trustees as the 16th president in UConn’s history. Serving as the current Provost and Executive Vice President at the University of Virginia (UVa) and previously as Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, Katsouleas is certainly well qualified for the job. Even more notable, is his demonstrated commitment to furthering environmental sustainability efforts in his previous leadership positions at Duke and Virginia.
This past October, members of the student organizations EcoHusky, ECOalition, and the Undergraduate Student Government Governing Board drafted a letter to UConn’s Presidential Search Committee urging them to only consider candidates who have demonstrated a sincere commitment to environmental sustainability in their career. The letter was formally endorsed by the University Senate, reflecting a unified interest between the student body and this important UConn legislative organization, which is comprised of faculty, staff and students.
As an established green campus leader, it is crucial for UConn to have a president who recognizes sustainability as one of the University’s transcendent values. With the appointment of Dr. Katsouleas, it is clear that the Presidential Search Committee took these student concerns seriously.
As Dean of Engineering at Duke, Katsouleas helped to organize the inaugural National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges Summit. In 2010, he formed Duke’s Katsouleas NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program. This program, the first of its kind in the nation, challenges students to use their expertise and skills to address one or more of 14 challenges posed by the NAE, many with links to sustainability.
Katsouleas is also an advisory board member of UVa’s Yamuna River Project. A heavily polluted waterway in India, the Yamuna is an environmental and public health concern. The project aims to restore the river and promote ecosystem recovery through interdisciplinary collaboration, with sustainable design solutions that “take into account, culture, behavior and policy, as well as technical feasibility and economic viability.”
As a Yamuna River board member, Katsouleas was in full support of the project as both a public service and learning opportunity. In a statement to CTMirror.org, he referred to these experiential learning opportunities as “not luxuries, but essential for an educated populace that wishes to address the human element in today’s challenges.”
Other notable involvements include helping to organize, and presenting at, UVa’s Sustainability Retreat in August 2015. The retreat convened 60 of the University’s leaders in order to develop a framework for longer-term sustainability strategic planning. As Dean of Engineering at Duke 10 years ago, Katsouleas supported the construction of Duke’s Smart Home, the nation’s first LEED Platinum-certified “live-in laboratory.” The Smart Home provides 10 select students with a greener, technologically advanced living space, while also demonstrating those attributes for related research and educational purposes.
President Katsouleas certainly has big shoes to fill, but his commitment to sustainability and students proves that he is up to the challenge.
Cultural immersion is one of the key pillars of the UConn@COP program. This year, our fellows had the opportunity to tour various landmarks, facilities, and participate in breakfast club meetings to recap the events of the day. For more photos of the trip, please click on one of the photos below to be directed to an album.
Auschwitz and Birkenau
One of the most moving experiences throughout the trip, was the opportunity to tour Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. While many of our fellows have learned about the Holocaust, visiting the site gave them a new, personal, connection to the events that took place there.
Scenes from Krakow
During the trip, the UConn delegation stayed in Krakow. This historic city was filled with music, food, and vendors.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the oldest operating salt mines. Inside the mine, our fellows learned about the mine’s history and got to explore ST. Kinga’s chapel.
Every morning at COP started with a Breakfast Club. These meetings allowed students to reflect on the their experiences and facilitated lively discussions about all aspects of the trip.
Higher Education Networking Event
This year UConn co-sponsored a COP24 Higher Education Networking Event with Cornell University. The event was hosted at Jagiellonian University and gave our fellows an opportunity to connect with other students attending COP24.
Wawel Castle has served as home to many Polish kings, and is now an art museum featuring pieces from a variety of time periods.
Editor’s note: Our COP fellows learned so much from the conference, but so did the faculty members who accompanied them. Below are their thoughts from the trip.
Outcomes of COP 24: Accounting and Finance – Scott Stephenson
Opportunities at COP24 – Frank Griggs
Outcomes of COP 24: Accounting and Finance
Scott Stephenson – Assistant Professor, Department of Geography
Following progress made last year at COP 23, COP 24 promised to focus attention on several issues critical to finalizing the so-called “Paris Rulebook,” the set of guidelines countries will follow in implementing their Paris commitments now and in the future. While all parties to the Paris Agreement pledged in 2015 to submit plans (“nationally determined contributions”) for reducing emissions over time, key questions such as how thoroughly and how often they should report on their emissions remained unresolved.
Some of these rules have provoked fierce debate among parties. For example, while the United States and most European countries have argued for common transparency standards for all parties, some developing countries and China in particular have been wary of disclosing their emissions accounting to outside observers. Coupled with the uncertain role of the U.S. in the negotiations going forward, such disagreements repeatedly threatened to derail adoption of a robust rulebook, with clear signals for increased ambition by 2020, in the run-up to and throughout COP 24. In the end, following several missed technical deadlines and a delayed plenary that continued past the scheduled end of the talks, the COP signed off on a rulebook that resolved many of the most pressing issues while tabling several others until COP 25 and beyond.
One of the most significant developments was a resolution on emissions accounting that would require countries to use the latest accounting guidance from the IPCC last updated in 2006 and currently being updated for next year. A common set of accounting rules is essential for ensuring that countries meet their climate pledges. The final rulebook outlines a single set of rules without explicitly differentiating between developed and developing countries.
However, in order to gain the support of countries with low capacity to meet targets, the rulebook also allows countries to use “nationally appropriate methodologies” to report their emissions, which may lead some countries to portray their emissions as better than they actually are. Thus, we can expect continued tension on this issue as countries’ reporting methodologies come under scrutiny in the years leading to the first global stocktake in 2023.
Climate finance remains a challenging issue following COP 24. The Paris Agreement requires developed countries to contribute $100 billion per year by 2020 to support mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries. Contributions are currently well short of this goal, not helped by the U.S.’ reneging on its $3 billion pledge last year. Perhaps to remove perceived bureaucratic barriers to fulfilling climate finance pledges, the language of the rulebook tended toward flexibility and permissiveness in terms of how contributions are reported, allowing countries to count the full value of loans as climate finance rather than their “grant-equivalent” value. This could render collective goals such as “$100 billion per year” meaningless as the full “face value” of loans is typically less than the sum of the discounted future payments made by the loan recipient over the period of the loan.
On the positive side, Germany doubled its 2014 contribution to the Green Climate Fund (€1.5 billion), while Norway pledged $516 million, and the World Bank announced it would allocate $200 billion for its climate investment program. Ultimately, these contributions and more must be matched by other developed countries in order to meet not only the 2020 goal, but a new, more ambitious climate finance goal to be set by 2025. Countries have agreed to start discussing this goal at COP 26 in 2020.
Opportunities at COP24
Frank Griggs – Doctoral Candidate, Political Science
The UConn@COP24 returned to Storrs at approximately 1:45am on Saturday, December 8, after 22 hours of shuttles and flights from Poland. The trip was a tremendous opportunity. I learned a lot as a researcher, citizen, and human being, and managed to have a good time. It was inspiring to be amongst diplomats, researchers, students, and civil society activists who are working hard for the benefit of humanity and ecology.
The trip was super busy: early morning meetings and discussion with the UConn group; hour-long-plus bus rides to and from the conference in Katowice (we stayed in Kraków where there was less expensive lodging, also turned out there was more to do as tourists); all day participation in the COP (e.g. watching diplomats meet, listening to presentations by IPCC officials, civil society representatives, or country delegations); touring Auschwitz-Birkenau on our first day, prior to the COP’s commencement; tending to professional and familial matters back home during the evenings; and exploring Kraków as time and energy permitted.
I expected the conference to be organized into strictly delimited zones. Instead, country delegates and non-state actors extensively comingled at presentations, dining areas, displays, and simply walking about the conference center. This produced a serendipitous meeting. I was excited by the prospect of meeting diplomats, so I introduced myself to a group of delegates as a student-observer. I was especially pleased to meet them because they were the delegation from Sierra Leone, and I recently assigned an article and taught a class about energy justice in Sierra Leone. The delegation was likewise excited and insisted that I take a picture with their Minister of Energy (see photo below).
I highly recommend participating in the trip if you are interested in climate change and ecological issues beyond the scope of our GEP course. UConn’s Office of Environmental Policy coordinates the trip. Applications are accepted during the latter part of Spring term. Keep an eye out for notifications in the Daily Digest and the OEP website (https://ecohusky.uconn.edu/uconn-at-cop/).
Editor’s note: When thinking about climate change, human health is probably not the first thing to come to mind. That said, the link between climate change and our own health is quite strong and should certainly be considered. The blog below further explores this connection through the eyes of a COP24 delegate.
Shifting the Conversation – Sahil Laul
Shifting the Conversation
Sahil Laul – B.S. Molecular and Cellular Biology and Global Health
I’ll be the first to admit writing blog posts is a difficult task for me—I much prefer to orate my personal experiences. My thoughts flow as a web and the linear parameters of a written piece often feel restrictive. But there is a power to writing—which I understand to reach beyond the spoken word—the power of dissemination. An oral story reaches your direct audience. A written piece, however, has the power to reach a large audience through shares, retweets, emails, texts, etc. And for that reason, I will do my best to write about one of the most powerful experiences I have had.
“Do I belong here?”
This was the question that incessantly rang in my head in the pre-trip meetings leading to the COP and during the first couple of days of the trip.
Don’t get me wrong—in no way did any fellow or faculty member make me feel like I did not belong, but rather this was an internal conflict I was struggling with.
When I first found out I was selected to be a UConn COP fellow I was incredibly grateful, but also surprised. There I was as a student studying Molecular Biology, Global Health, Spanish and Anthropology—subjects which seemed almost completely unrelated to the environment—on my way to the largest conference on climate change. Of course, climate change was a topic I was interested in and one which I believed was closely related to my discipline, but I was not sure if I had a place in the conversation amongst my peers who were environmental science, ecology and evolutionary biology, and geography majors.
This feeling lingered a bit into the COP where the conversations during the first couple of days heavily focused on the IPCC report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels and the source of related greenhouse gas emissions. Few tangible solutions were offered and even those which were suggested felt too obvious or far beyond my own comprehension. Equipped with a science background, I could appreciate the evidence based arguments. At the same time, however, I could discern a disconnect between the parties present at the conference—the scientific community insisting upon immediate action and delegates trying to make decisions best suited for their constituencies. It became clear that the actual arguments and solutions were being lost in translation somewhere in between.
Still, I decided to attend several sessions spanning a range of topics during the first two days to broaden my own understanding of climate science and the actions being taken to combat climate change. I listened passively taking in what I could and engaging when I could. Yet, I still felt that an important perspective was missing.
Although going into the COP, I was aware that health was not typically a large focus of the conference, I was surprised to see how absent the topic was from the conversation during the first two days. While I was personally hoping to hear more health related discussions given my own academic background, I also believed that it would be the source of the most compelling arguments. A global health professor once told me that “We are not saving our planet, we are saving ourselves.” She explained that our planet existed before us and would survive long after us, but we must combat climate change as we will be the ones to shoulder its effects. It seemed obvious to me that if the scientists at the conference were going to convince policymakers that climate change was an issue that needed to be addressed with immediate action, they would need to demonstrate the direct effects of climate change on people—their constituency.
Finally, on the third day of the conference, Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, presented the COP24 Special Report on Health and Climate change to bring health to the forefront of the conversation. I was exuberant to see the health argument being addressed but shocked to learn that the report was the first one of its kind to be presented at a COP. After hearing the report which cited air pollution resulting in climate change as the cause of death for 7 million people, it became even more apparent that health care workers play a key role in climate action. After the press conference, I had the opportunity to talk to her before she moderated a panel of medical, environmental, political, and economic professionals discussing the imminent issue of climate change and its severe impact on health.
After I explained my own background and how I had been struggling to see my future professional role in the context of climate change until her press conference, she said to me and another UConn COP fellow: “Remember that you are a politician. Sometimes the medical students tell me yeah I am not a politician. But I say you are wrong, you are a Politician with a big P because taking care of people’s well-being means politics—in the good sense—not party issues but politics.”
At that point, something else became clear to me. I had been struggling to understand my role as a COP fellow but also grappling with the fact that there was such a large disconnect between the scientists and policymakers at the conference. Upon reflection, however, the parallels between climate change and global public health became evident. As an MCB and Global Health student I aspire to bridge the gap between the science based medical community and policy based public health community. The common denominator between both groups are people and their health—whether the focus is at the micro or macro levels. In the same way, at the heart of climate change, are people. In order to address any issue which requires a policy change, whether it be war, trade, health, or climate change, we must shift the conversation on either end to understand the effects on people.
Editor’s Note: When thinking about solving worldwide problems, we often look to adults to determine a course of action. But at COP24, our fellows were pleased to see organizations recognize the youth voice as equally important. The blogs below discuss the significance of considering youth in these negotiations.
Power with the (Young) People – Nikki Pirtel
Postcards for Change – Kayleigh Granville
Carrying the COP24 Experience Back Home – Leann McLaren
Power with the (Young) People
Nikki Pirtel – Senior, B.S. Environmental Science
The shortcomings of COP took the center stage due to its location and events happening at the venue, but this was overshadowed in my mind by the presence of young people, both inside the conference itself and outside in the Climate Hub, where events for and hosted by youth were in great supply. More well-known figures such as Greta Thunberg from Sweden and Toby Thorpe from Australia had significant roles in the conference, controlling the charge for climate change regulations and calling out government officials from all countries on their inabilities to be adults and lead on this topic.
A particularly inspiring event I attended outside of the conference was “The People’s Open Climate and Human Rights Event: How to hold your government accountable for its climate ‘inaction.’” This presentation refreshingly included an all-women panel from five different countries throughout Europe, including an activist from a small island off the northern coast of Germany and a reindeer farmer from Norway. All these women had vastly different experiences, but the same ambition to do something about the inadequacy of climate action in their country.
Six years after the establishment of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by the UNFCC and three years after the Paris Agreement, there has been little to no global progress being made towards reducing emissions. These women had had enough of the inaction and began suing their governments for violating their human rights. Climate change has been negatively impacting their livelihoods for years and this was the only way to make their politicians pay attention to the issues that matter the most.
Although the UConn@COP24 delegation returned to campus after the first week of the conference (for final exams), I watched a fascinating interview that occurred during the second week with Greta Thunberg and her father. She described her experiences learning about climate change, why she came to care so much about the issue and what she decided to do with her newfound knowledge of it. Her father explained her transition from his perspective: how she had fallen into a deep depression, realizing that no one cared enough about the issue of climate change, but later felt that she could actually do something positive about the problem by changing herself and starting a worldwide phenomenon. Every Friday, instead of attending school, Greta would sit in front of the Stockholm Parliament building with a simple sign reading: “Skolstrejk för Klimatet (School Strike for Climate).” This eventually caught the attention of the media and would later cause a movement by students around the world. She says that without doing something about climate change now, many people will not survive in the future and this problem, therefore, should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Although I’m a student who studies the science of climate change and how it has affected, and will affect, the functioning of both natural and human ecosystems, I have never been much of a climate activist and am not familiar with the policy side of the environment. However, participating in COP24 taught me not only about how international climate policy is governed, but also how to be a better climate activist. I realize now the importance of advocating for real change on a national level, because the United States has a lot of influence on international politics, especially with climate change… and despite the current administration’s announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement in 2020.
I truly believe the power of the youth will be able to overcome any delay, deregulation and backsliding on climate mitigation goals and make a significant difference for a better world, now and in the future.
Switzerland’s glaciers have recently become the site of several climate change projects. We learned about these projects when we visited the Utopia International Association, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to promote sustainability in a world that is becoming increasingly virtual and connected. Utopia had set up one of the many side events related to the COP that were located outside of the actual conference venue but within the city of Katowice, and were therefore accessible to people without conference passes.
Their exhibit displayed huge pictures of Switzerland’s glaciers that had been covered in white sheets. The sheets were meant to make the glaciers, which are currently melting, look like tents in a refugee camp. The campaign aimed to illustrate how, like refugees, the disappearance of the world’s glaciers is another unintended consequence of human-induced climate change.
The sheets on one of Switzerland’s glaciers had been covered by yet another display: thousands of postcards written by young people from around the world. All of these postcards have messages about climate change, and the organizations involved in the project are hoping to raise awareness about the effects of climate change by breaking the Guinness World Record for the most number of postcards displayed in one place at one time.
Utopia had also collected hundreds of postcards from students around Europe, which they were exhibiting at their booth in Katowice and would later send to the glacier in Switzerland for a shot at the world record. Utopia’s representatives explained that they were presenting within the COP24 venue during the second week of the conference, and had created this side event to raise awareness about the glacier project during the first week of the COP.
The postcards that other students had written were powerful because they clearly showed how climate change is viewed as a prominent issue by our generation. Other messages, which were written by elementary to secondary school students, showed how even young children understand and worry about the consequences of climate change, with thoughts like “one touch of nature makes the whole world kind,” “we need a safe environment,” “save water, save earth,” and “you may know the differences, but the little creatures won’t: say no to plastic.”
Several of us students from the UConn@COP delegation wrote our own postcards for Utopia’s display in Katowice, ultimately to be sent to Switzerland. It was inspiring to see that Utopia was giving young people around the world, and students at the COP24 conference, a platform for their voices to be heard. Their presence outside of the conference venue showed the importance of having COP events that are accessible to the public. More information about Utopia’s projects can be found on their website: https://utopia-international.org/en/cop24/.
Carrying the COP24 Experience Back Home
Leanne McLaren – Senior, B.S. Political Science
Since my time spent at the COP24 Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, I have tried to integrate the lessons I learned into my everyday life and future career aspirations. From this trip, I learned that climate change, although seemingly an abstract phenomenon, is real and affects the current and future lives of everyone on this earth.
Although it may seem that putting off the necessary changes to improve sustainability are feasible, the need for change is indeed crucial. With this, I try to be cognizant of how I can reduce the waste I produce. Simple habits, such as using plastic water bottles or even driving separate cars to the same destination, no longer feel moral to me and I encourage others to think the same.
In the future, I hope to carry these convictions as I strive to earn a PhD in political science, become a professor and mentor students. As a COP24 participant, I feel responsible for connecting these issues into my research. I’d like to delve into a research topic like “the intersectional effects of climate change in America as compared to other countries.” I also hope to develop a project that contributes to our knowledge of environmental politics within minority communities, using both quantitative and qualitative methods.
As a former congressional intern in the US House of Representatives, I recognize the importance of disseminating credible information and advocating for policy issues. I hope the work I accomplish in my career, given my experience participating in COP24, will help advance climate action and improve the lives of future generations.
Editor’s note: Many similar themes were discussed at the COP, but some of our fellows took note of less talked about topics. Climate change has links to so many different disciplines, and the blogs below serve as a reminder to consider how deeply the environment is integrated into our lives.
Preserving His Creation: The Church and Climate Change – Charlotte Rhodes
Feeling the Effects of Climate Change – Emily Kaufman
Preserving His Creation: The Church and Climate Change
Charlotte Rhodes, Junior B.A. Environmental Studies
The daily Breakfast Club sessions hosted during COP gave everyone involved an opportunity to reflect on, and talk through, their experiences as a group. A number of topics frequently made their way into the conversations, but I didn’t expect religion to be one of them. It only made a short appearance in the discussions, but it prompted me to consider a new aspect of climate change.
I was raised in the church, but I never considered its role in climate change. During one of our morning discussion group sessions, referred to as the Breakfast Club, some expressed their views of Christianity as “scary” or “worrisome.” It’s true. The media fills our news with stories of religious zealots protesting human rights issues and rejecting sound science. But this is not a fair representation of the church. For most, church is a place where individuals can gather to express their gratitude, find comfort during times of trouble, and help others in need. I spent the one hour bus ride from our hotel in Krakow to the COP24 venue pondering all these ideas, desperately trying to put together one clear thought.
One of the cornerstones of the Christian faith is humanitarian work. While each church has its own specific goals, all efforts are based in service and compassion for others. This is where we find our link between science and faith. Science is scary, and climate change is an abstract topic. But as the Earth continues to warm and the effects of climate change take hold, lives will be at risk, and humanitarian action will be more important than ever.
Upon arrival at the venue, I decided to explore and ended up running into the Episcopal delegation. It was as if it were divine intervention. As a member of the Episcopal Church, I was excited to learn that my denomination has sent a delegation to the COP since 2014. They, along with other religious institutions, are steadfast in their dedication to the environment and its people. Representatives attend these conferences in the hopes of staying informed and learning what can be done to support the efforts against climate change. They understand how complex the issues are, but remain focused on outreach. It makes me proud to see my church, amongst others, participating in international discussions on climate change. But there are still a number of religious groups who haven’t made the link between climate change and the humanitarian mission of Christianity.
My hope is to see more communities of faith embracing climate science. But even if they don’t, I hope that they continue to service those in need. You don’t have to understand the science in order to recognize the need. At the end of the day, people are going to be affected by climate change and I’m excited to see the intersection between its effects and the church’s humanitarian work further develop.
Writers note: I do not mean to speak for other members of the Christian faith. These views are my personal beliefs, influenced by my knowledge and experience.
Feeling the Effects of Climate Change
Emily Kaufman – Sophomore, B.A. Environmental Studies and Sociology
In the beginning of the week at COP24, I attended the Climate Hub side events. These events were much more intimate than the actual conference and open to the public. Unlike the official COP, with thousands of people streaming in and out of concurrent panel discussions, negotiating sessions and countless national pavilions or NGO-sponsored exhibits and booths, the Climate Hub held just one workshop, presentation or panel discussion on the hour. At first, I was worried that I would not be able to reap the same benefits from participating in this kind of side event as I would from attending the official events inside the conference venue. However, though different, I got an equally fulfilling experience that pushed me outside of my comfort zone in ways the COP events wouldn’t have.
One workshop that occurred at the side event involved engaging in art and creativity. Each participant was given a large sheet of paper and was instructed to have someone trace the outline of our silhouette. We were then asked to draw out our emotions on our drawn bodies to a series of questions such as: How are you feeling right now? How do you feel when you are angry? How do you feel when you are happy? and How do you feel about climate change? This activity was something I was not used to. I have rarely been asked to draw, much less draw my emotions, since elementary school. You could tell that many people were taken slightly off guard – especially us Americans – about being asked to do an activity that seemed so “vacuous.”
However, as we kept drawing, I began to appreciate the benefits of this activity. As someone who has always been passionate about environmental issues, I rarely think about how the destruction of the environment actually affects my body and makes me feel. Drawing out my emotions, I was forced to think about these unsettling feelings and internalize them. I started getting emotional myself – as I expressed these feelings, I found that it relieved a lot of internal stress about the environment that I was holding onto.
We ended the activity by holding hands and having a brief meditation where we were encouraged to think about climate justice and how connecting with each other and our bodies is vital to creating climate change solutions. This moment was extremely powerful. People from across the world joined together and embraced the fact that we are all affected by climate issues and that we can use our emotions as fuel to make sustainable change.
Though all of us in the Climate Hub were from different places, the similarities that we felt were eye-opening. What I originally thought would be a mindless activity opened me up and inspired me to follow my passion to make change.
Editor’s Note: During the conference, some of our fellows found themselves overwhelmed by climate change. But despite the feeling of hopelessness, countries have banded together to mitigate the problem. This worldwide cooperation inspires hope for the future and has acted as a source of empowerment for many of our COP fellows. The following blogs detail the emotional journey that many of our fellows experienced.
Finding the Good Among the Bad – Kat Konon
Hypocrisy and Hope at COP24 – Adrienne Nguyen
Out of Frustration Arises Empowerment – Jon Ursillo
A Blog About Blog Writing for COP24 – Sophie MacDonald
Finding the Good Among the Bad
Kat Konon – Junior, B.S. Chemical Engineering
The UConn@COP program takes students like me to the UN’s annual Climate Summit and Conference of the Parties (COP) with the expectation that we’ll share our experiences with others in the UConn community and beyond. It’s great for us fellows to have witnessed the conference in action, but we magnify the value of our participation in the COP by communicating what we experienced with as many people as possible upon returning home.
I wanted to come home with some motivational and insightful comments about what we can do to slow down climate change. I took notes and intended to distill one week of meetings, speeches, and demonstrations into just the highlights. When it comes to climate change, we have to emphasize the good or else we risk being overwhelmed by all of the bad news.
Unfortunately, I unintentionally ended up sharing too many lowlights. These were some of the harsh realities I learned about the effects of climate change and a few of the ironies I observed about where COP24 was being held and how it was being run. I didn’t even realize how negative my recap of the trip had been until my friend, who was beside me more often than not when I shared my COP experience with others, decided to field the “So, how was Poland?” question for me. Her summary went something like this:
“It was depressing! They started off with a trip to Auschwitz which sparked a conversation about climate genocide. With that on her mind, Kat then listened to indigenous peoples at the COP talk about how climate change is ruining their lives. Umm… usually she starts crying right about now. Anyway, she was really interested in the renewable energy initiatives, but those were undermined by the coal fired power plants she saw outside the venue every day (Poland’s electricity generation is 80% coal-based). Not to mention that the conference itself was co-sponsored by coal companies. Also, she was excited by a talk on plant-based diets but one of those speakers pointed out that many of the conference meals were unsustainable because of the high meat content. So, it’s ironic that people at the conference were calling for change but they’re not even serving more sustainable food, which is an effective way to reduce your personal carbon footprint! And so now she feels really guilty but also so lucky to be an American.”
After re-evaluating how I communicated about my experience with friends, I realized that there were also several parts of COP24 that gave me hope.
Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old activist from Sweden, is inspiring young people to speak up. Every Friday, she skips school to protest outside of the Swedish Parliament. Her initial goal was for Sweden to reduce its emissions to be in line with the Paris Agreement, but COP24 gave her a platform to call for global action to limit the planet’s warming.
NGOs were well-represented, which stresses the idea we don’t have to rely solely on our national governments to implement change. Groups interested in energy, human rights, religion, law, rainforest preservation, and much more, championed their causes. Interacting with representatives from all of these different NGOs showed me that if you’re passionate about something, there’s a way to link it to the environment. Climate change is everyone’s problem.
During the last panel I attended, a speaker asked, “If we can’t change small things, how will we change big things?” That was a perfect note to end on because, on the way home, we reflected on the conference and talked about how UConn is still committed to achieving aggressive climate goals for the campus, despite the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The University aims to be a carbon neutral campus by 2050, and factors such as energy efficiency projects and LEED-certified buildings are helping us stay on track for our 2020 interim goal of a 20% reduction in carbon emissions from a 2007 baseline. We aren’t sustainable yet, but we are a leader among college campuses and I am so proud to be part of that.
Hypocrisy and Hope at COP24
Adrienne Nguyen – Junior, B.S. Pathobiology and Molecular and Cell Biology
I would describe my experience at COP24 in three words: insightful, frustrating, and hopeful.
I was able to attend the plenary session for the Talanoa Dialogue which had representatives from all of the countries, providing their remarks in support for the new platform. Across all of the 2-5 minute statements, every country stressed that the IPCC 1.5˚ report must be at the heart of these discussions because of its emphasis on the need for urgent and ambitious action. The underlying message was that we had enough discussions three years after the Paris Agreement. It is time to commit to action because we’re on a catastrophic trajectory towards a global warming of 3.0˚C.
While our UConn cohort was only present during the first week of COP, as the policy making decisions happened the following week, I left the conference feeling frustrated. COP’s events schedule was filled with panels discussing critical issues such as the intersection of gender, feminism, poverty, and climate change and bringing in representatives from indigenous populations to speak. However, these events were only considered “side events”. It seems odd that even though COP24’s theme was to promote storytelling, these voices were not a part of formal negotiations. On one of the bus rides, I met a Portuguese conference attendee who said that Poland heightened its security in preparation for the conference and subjected all protestors to jail if they started any unapproved riots.
Poland’s law basically negates the meaning of the Talanoa Dialogue. At one of our pre-trip meetings back at UConn, we watched a video of protestors disrupting Trump’s “Coal for Climate” meeting at COP23. But COP24 didn’t allow for these diverse and plural voices to be heard. In fact, the Young Feminist for Climate Justice group had to get permission to host and schedule a march during the conference. How are we supposed to make change if the conference is censoring protests? This essentially creates yet another barrier for the voices of activists and non-governmental organizations to actually be included in climate negotiations.
The headlines that I have read about the results of COP24 focus on the “insufficient action” and “morally unacceptable” outcomes which were “totally inadequate.” The guidelines didn’t propose any immediate action towards getting on a low-carbon pathway by 2020.
I’m unsatisfied with the outcome of COP24 but I haven’t lost hope.
I met someone at the Climate Hub, who was a member of the Conference of Youth, and we discussed the US’s recent political climate. When I told him how dismayed I am about how rapidly our country’s politics are regressing, he mentioned that it is almost better to have the person in our current administration because it sparked a surge of diverse voices who want to spearhead change. This is analogous to COP24’s outcomes and the fight for climate change. The lack of action only lights the fire for young climate activists to hold the government accountable for avoiding a climate catastrophe. Greta Thunberg, the feisty 15 year-old Swedish climate activist, sure is not going to stop calling out political leaders for failing to make climate change higher on their agenda. People are not going to stop telling their stories but rather they’ll just raise their voices.
In the words of the Fiji Climate Champion for COP23, Minister Inia Seruiratu, “Are we like the people dancing on the titanic while the ship was sinking? We should not be so patient.” At COP24, I learned that we can no longer leave climate change in the hands of the government. It’s everyone’s responsibility to start demanding and taking ambitious action.
Out of Frustration Arises Empowerment
Jon Ursillo – Junior, B.S. Environmental Science and Economics
COP24 yielded immense frustration with the status of global climate action. The current course of climate change mitigation, if continued, is on pace to put the 2 degree Celsius warming goal from Paris out of reach by 2030. The United States conducted a side event promoting coal and other fossil fuels and also partnered with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait to blunt the acceptance of the alarming new IPCC report, detailing action required to prevent 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, coordinator of the Association of Native Peul Women of Chad, pleaded for climate action on behalf of her people’s lives, but was given few tangible results. The host venue offered a meat-laden dining menu and lined its walls with plastic cups and jugs of water, juxtaposing the purpose of the conference with blatantly unsustainable practices.
Despite the exhaustive list of reasons for despair, I left the COP24 hopeful and empowered. In the midst of uncertainty regarding U.S. climate action, Joseph Robertson, Global Strategy Director for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, highlighted bipartisan support for a new carbon dividend bill, which would put a price on carbon in the United States and return 100 percent of the money back to the American people. Moreover, I witnessed Germany pledge 1.5 billion Euros to finance climate action across the world, particularly assisting developing nations adapt to a changing climate that they largely had no hand in changing. Additionally, I received powerful encouragement from Dr. Maria Neira, Director of Public Health, Environmental Health, and Social Determinants of Health for the World Health Organization, who implored Sahil Laul, another UConn student at COP24, and me to “Remember that you are politicians…you are politicians with a big P.”
Above all, perhaps the most inspiring aspect of my experience was engaging with the other UConn students on the trip. The passion, knowledge, and diverse perspectives that each student expressed were remarkable. I sincerely believe that I learned more from my peers during the week at COP24 than I have learned in all of my classes combined this past semester. Not only was I enlightened, but I was also injected with renewed hope and purpose that other students shared my desire for action. Further, the caliber of students from the UConn contingent gave me trust that the fight for the future of humanity will relentlessly persist. I am confident that the UConn students who attended COP24 will actualize Greta Thunberg’s vision for the world’s youth. The 15 year-old climate activist from Sweden spoke for all of us when she asserted, “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”
A Blog About Blog Writing for COP24
Sophie MacDonald – Junior, B.S. Mechanical Engineering
I am Overwhelmed. This post was meant to be more positive, and maybe instill a sense of hope while discussing a less-than-cheerful topic. I will get around to that bit in the end, as my experience at COP24 was immensely valuable. For now, though, let me just say: I have struggled to write this blog. Learning about, writing about, discussing the complexities of climate change, is HARD. It is MENTALLY TAXING. There are so many reasons why. In fact, that’s actually one reason right there: it really isn’t just one topic.
Climate change encompasses so many issues and movements that I’m finding it impossible to talk about all of it accurately and concisely (in 500 words or less, a guideline you will notice I’ve greatly exceeded). I don’t want to misrepresent any of the science or the social movements involved, because skepticism surrounding climate change is so easy to feed by accident. Even if you explain a given facet of the issue perfectly, there are still a lot of people who will not believe the data presented, or will refuse to buy into the importance of environmental justice. Any imperfection in your presentation can severely damage credibility in this field where no one wants to believe that what you are saying is real in the first place. The goal is to involve as many people as possible in the conversation, so getting the facts straight and delivering the message well is crucial.
In order to further this goal, it is also important to be empathetic to the widest possible audience. This is not easy to do in when discussing such a charged topic. There is plenty of blame to be placed, and it is difficult to talk about climate change without feeling anger. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be angry; we absolutely should be. However, I and others in my generation have a tendency to create a narrative around blaming older people for the mess we seem to be in now, and I don’t know that focusing on this is the best way to get support for the environmental movement. Also, while industrial growth over time and its negative effects on the environment and its people are certainly as a result of those who came before us, I can’t fairly say that I would have acted differently in their position. Up until somewhat recently, few members of the general public could readily access the scientific research being done. Even if they could, it was easier in previous decades, for a variety of reasons, to perceive its ramifications as a distant problem with plenty of room for doubt. Of course, when we generation-blame, the anger is often truly directed at past policy-makers, not the general public. However, this point isn’t always made clear amidst the passionate speech-making – which is understandable, given that the nit-picking and caveat-creating I am doing now aren’t exactly conducive to a stirring call to action – and I have older adults in my life who have taken offense to this sort of dialogue and are more prone to discredit the ideas being shared because of it.
Generational tensions are just one example of the difficulty in finding common ground in this movement. There are so many ways to shut down a conversation about climate change, something few want to discuss in the first place, by inadvertently alienating someone based on some part of their identity. Of course, such identities can also be used to one’s advantage. We talked a lot amongst the students at COP about being able to relate climate change to people’s personal lives in order to really get them to care. This seems like a promising route to take, and directly rooted in the empathy I believe is so vital to all of this. It does become somewhat difficult to employ, though, when dealing with comparatively wealthy New Englanders, for instance, who aren’t yet seeing direct consequences in their immediate lives. It is much simpler to ignore problems when they aren’t at your own doorstep.
ANYWAYS, as you can see, I circle in my head over and over again when thinking about climate change and how to convey its effects to others. There are so many ways to get discouraged, and so many rabbit holes to fall down.*
So, I have thought a lot, and more thinking can always be done. Eventually, though, I do need to get to the point and act on my thinking. This is much easier said than done. A common theme throughout the environmental movement, and at COP24 specifically, is the hemming and hawing: ‘We must carefully think it all through and make sure steps are taken in the proper order!’ So the conversation goes. However, as Daniela Jacob, chapter lead author of the latest IPCC report, emphasized as a panelist for the COP24 event “From Science to Policy,” this has been the dialogue surrounding climate change for 30 years – we have thought about it plenty. Even now, this thinking and discussing is being used as a stalling tactic and is perpetuating the “political war” that is standing in the way of true progress.
The future now is clearer than ever. At this point, science pretty clearly demonstrates that
Climate change is happening
Increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are a significant contributor
Humans are a major source of this increase, and
This process is bad, for us and for the rest of the living planet. (Check out a previous OEP blog for a nice summary of the impacts).
The time to act is now, and there are many ways for individuals to help. The ones I will talk about next are rather aimed at college students, since such guidance is what I was looking to get for myself out of COP. One specific action to take if you plan to go directly into scientific research is to browse through the sections in the IPCC report titled “Knowledge Gaps and Key Uncertainties” at the end of each chapter. Here, the report includes topics and questions that require further research, some pertaining to atmospheric data, others to the social and political components, and still others to the economic aspects of climate change. I learned about these sections of the report at the previously mentioned “From Science to Policy” panel and was super excited, as this is exactly the detailed plan of attack that I had been looking for upon which to potentially base my own future career. In terms of furthering the movement more generally, and perhaps on a larger scale, there is always the option of taking the knowledge gained from the IPCC and other sources directly to policymakers. One way to do this as a student is by supporting or acting in environmental lobbyist groups. To quote another panelist, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, “most leaders are not leaders, they are followers.” The onus is on our leaders to enact policies and generally act on behalf of our future, but realistically we must show them why they should act: we will not support them and they will be out of a job if they don’t.
Despite my constant internal grappling with all of this – now externalized at the start of this blog! – attending COP24 gave me some hope. There are people out there in positions of power who truly care. Whether enough people are doing enough caring to fix the problem before it is Too Late ™ remains to be seen. However, we have more knowledge and more clarity in purpose than ever before. With our ever-growing scientific knowledge, technological capability and awareness of the social and political effects of climate change, my generation has the potential to do incredible things. Ideally, we will choose to act on that capacity, and humanity will be better for it.
*(read NYT’s Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change if you want to fall with me! Parts of it are overdramatized, but it’s a good overview of the U.S. debate on climate change and on how it became a debate in the first place. The article also touches on the fact that climate science has over a century of scientific backing.)
Editors Note: COP fellows had the opportunity to visit numerous pavilions sponsored by individual countries which highlighted their unique commitments to addressing climate change. While most countries showcased goals and projects related to energy efficiency and renewable energy, some countries discussed other technological solutions. The following blog discusses one such technological solution to mitigating climate change and its impacts on marine ecosystems.
CCell – One Innovation Among Many @COP24 – Sophie MacDonald
CCell – One Innovation Among Many @COP24
Sophie MacDonald – Junior, B.S. Mechanical Engineering
Technology alone is not going to stop climate change. The success of any large-scale movement is contingent on backing from the hearts and minds of the people it is affecting. In the case of climate change, this essentially means that everyone across the globe, or at least those people with direct access to policy (who in turn are backed by constituents… so really, it needs to be everyone) needs to be convinced of the importance of environmental stewardship and of using sustainable technology in the first place.
All of this in mind, the tech industry meanwhile is doing some pretty incredible things. One especially promising technology featured at the United Kingdom pavilion at COP24 is that of CCell, a device that harnesses wave energy in order to ultimately generate electricity and grow coral reefs to protect coastal areas and maintain marine biodiversity. The system consists of just a few key components, making the technology comparatively cheap, and the basic process is as follows:
A carbon fiber shell floats at wave height and harnesses the motion-based energy of waves.
This mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy inside a compact element featuring a hydraulic piston as the driving mechanism (I do not fully understand how this works, but it sounds very cool!)
Electrical energy is used for electrolysis (current-driven chemical reaction) in order to create a layer of limestone over a steel structure – any steel structure, you could throw a bike in the ocean and hook this device up – that has been placed underwater
This limestone attracts marine wildlife, and coral reefs in particular grow 2-5 times as quickly and are allegedly 20 times more resilient than a typical reef on this newly formed rock
The excess electricity not used in the electrolysis process (which requires just a low, safe voltage) may be returned to shore for use on land
The last item on the list is a goal for the immediate future of the device, but the conversion of wave energy to coral reefs has been tested and implemented with success.
Like all novel technologies, it is important to take all of the above information with a healthy dose of skepticism, and I was initially tempted to chalk this technology up to a flashy sideshow with no real application. After talking with an engineer on the project, though, and doing plenty of individual research, I am quite hopeful for this project’s future.
First, the technology they are employing for limestone creation is not new; it is backed by 30 years of research, refinement, and implementation, and is a patented process under a company called BioRock. CCell’s addition to this process is that of off-shore harnessing of wave energy to produce the necessary electricity, and the two technologies work in tandem better than they ever could separately. CCell provides BioRock with electricity on the open ocean, enabling BioRock to have a wider range of applicability, and BioRock gives CCell a secure place to ground their device.
CCell technology seems to be about as invasive as a large buoy. It is also quite robust and degrades minimally over time, so concerns about harm to marine life appear to be mitigable. Looking at CCell’s twitter page, they also seem to really care about environmental stewardship, and as a start-up company in renewable energy, are definitely not in it solely for the money.
Overall, this technology seems to have a lot of potential on a small scale, and specifically has promise as an energy source and means of coastal protection for smaller island communities. These communities are going to be the most affected by climate change – despite typically contributing minimally to its causes – due to sea level rise, so I have high hopes for CCell. While it will definitely never remotely reach the scale necessary to prevent global warming on its own, my guess is that in the small number of places it reaches, it will have a real, positive impact.
Editor’s Note: At the conference, fellows were excited to learn about the environmental concerns in other countries and get a more holistic view of the issues at hand. Unfortunately, not all nations prioritize the environment. Without effort from each country, climate action is hindered. The blogs below take a look at the importance of international involvement and a few of the countries responsible for delaying action.
Jair Bolsonaro: The Trump of the Tropics – Charlotte Rhodes
Who should have a say in climate negotiations? – Kayleigh Granville
A Climate Conference in Coal Country – Nikki Pirtel
Recycle, Reuse, Reduce? – Risa Lewis
Jair Bolsonaro: The Trump of the Tropics
Charlotte Rhodes – Junior, B.A. Environmental Studies
Walking into COP24, I was immediately struck by the Brazil Pavilion. Decorated with bright colors and large displays, the pavilion is a demonstration of the immense biodiversity and vital ecosystems housed in the region. But after my initial excitement set in, I was reminded that the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, has decided to take all of this away from the world.
Bolsonaro has rebuffed climate change and promised during his campaign to rollback protections on the Amazon rain forest for economic gain. This plan is toxic and because of the significant influence the Amazon has over the environment, will have a rippling effect throughout the environmental community.
The Amazon rain forest is a significant carbon sink and one of our most valuable resources against climate change. It can sequester millions of tons of carbon, successfully removing the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. This is such an important resource and if Bolsonaro goes through with his plans for clear-cutting the Amazon, more action will be required by everyone else to meet the 1.5 degree goal.
Following the announcement that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement, many were worried that it would encourage other countries to pull out as well. Luckily that wasn’t the case, but these sentiments have now resurfaced with Bolsonaro’s election. The extent to which Brazil may influence other countries decisions remains to be seen, but without Brazil’s support, attaining global climate goals is going to be an even bigger challenge.
As I’ve been walking around the COP24 venue, I’ve had the chance to talk with a number of representatives from Brazil’s delegation. The sentiment among the Brazilian people certainly seems determined to protect the environment. Even if their president decided not to. Coupled with deforestation being the dominant topic at the side events hosted in Brazil’s pavilion, hope for the future is certainly alive. But action needs to be taken now. With such a strong push back from the Brazil’s federal government, how much can actually be done?
Many environmental non-governmental organizations (NGO) that service the Amazon have expressed concerns about their efforts being blocked by Brazil’s federal government. Environmental needs aside, the Amazon is home to a number of indigenous communities. These people are extremely vulnerable to climate change and without help and advocacy from NGO’s, will likely suffer the consequences.
Jair Bolsonaro, like Donald Trump, is a danger to the environmental movement and will likely hinder climate action progress. With such control over the Amazon rain forest, the ball is in his court. Based on my conversations at COP24, I’m confident that the Brazilian public and the global community will do all they can to preserve the ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean that I can rely on others to block his policy. While Bolsonaro is in office, there’s always going to be environmental threat and it’s critically important that we all stay informed.
On the first day of the COP 24 conference in Katowice, Poland, I attended a panel discussion on global climate action. The panelists were Patricia Espinoza, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Michal Kurtyka, the COP 24 President, Arnold Schwarzenegger, American actor and former Governor of California, and Hindou Ibrahim, an indigenous leader from Chad. All of the panelists spoke about what needs to be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming below 1.5 ℃. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered solutions that sounded familiar to me as a citizen of the United States: drive electric cars, turn off the lights when you leave a room, reduce your meat consumption, and use LED lightbulbs. He sees climate change as an issue that world leaders and the UN cannot fix without the help of the common citizen, an idea that people in the developed world are generally in agreement with.
To my surprise, Hindou Ibrahim did not agree with him. In response, she explained how people from Chad and other developing nations are already suffering because of the effects of climate change, even though their countries did not contribute to the excessive carbon dioxide emissions that are causing climate change. Her opinion was that real, meaningful change needs to come from governments and policymakers. She used the California wildfires as an example. During the panel, Arnold Schwarzenegger had talked about how California was fortunate to have assistance in fighting the fires from surrounding states as well as Canada. Hindou Ibrahim pointed out that, had a similar climate-related disaster happened in Chad, they would have had no additional resources and no outside help. Rebuilding their community and re-establishing their culture without the resources available to California would be nearly impossible.
After the panel, several other UConn students and I had the opportunity to talk to Hindou Ibrahim. She was very kind and willing to talk to us, because she believes that it is critical for young people like us to be involved in climate policy. When we asked her what she thought could be done to decrease the impact of climate change on developing nations, she explained that policymakers should not be searching for climate solutions without consulting countries like Chad, where the impacts of climate change are different and usually more severe. Hindou Ibrahim wants indigenous leaders like her to have a bigger platform to speak from and negotiate, because, unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, she believes that the solutions need to come from world leaders.
The difference in viewpoints between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hindou Ibrahim was an eye-opening example of how people from developing and developed nations approach climate change differently. In nations like Chad, climate change can be life-threatening and yet there is not much the average person can do to curb it, especially because carbon emissions are usually already low. In nations like the United States, where carbon emissions are high, we often turn to solutions like Arnold Schwarzenegger posed in hopes that we can make a difference. Through the personal stories that Hindou shared, I understood that people in the developing world need to rely on their leaders to advocate for them. Hindou’s presence on this panel made me hopeful that the UNFCCC has also realized that developing nations need to be more involved in climate negotiations, and that we will see better solutions for these countries throughout the rest of the COP 24 conference.
A Climate Conference in Coal Country
Nikki Pirtel – Senior, B.S. Environmental Science
The location of the climate conference this year may have been a surprise to many people, as the country is not known for its climate action. Katowice, Poland was once a place where coal was mined and shipped to nearby power plants to burn for energy. This legacy of a post-industrial coal operation is still evident in the city and in Poland in general. On the bus to the conference between Krakow and Katowice, billowing clouds of smoke and particulate matter from the combustion of coal can be witnessed, horizons are smudged by smog and the smell of combustion extends cities away.
In the conference itself, the theme of coal is promoted, with selling of coal soap and displays of coal within the Katowice pavilion, causing great disbelief. Poland delegates here defended the coal usage of their country, questioning, “the United States burns coal too, doesn’t it?” as a means of justifying the action. This kind of attitude is not shared by all generations of Polish people. After asking a Polish master’s student at a networking event about coal, he acknowledged that most of the energy in his country is derived from the dirty fossil fuel and progress towards the NDCs and cleaner sources of energy (solar panels, thermal heaters, electric vehicles, etc.) is too slow for his liking.
The issue of coal burning and making insufficient progress towards Nationally Determined Contributions, however, is not so simple. The woman at the Katowice pavilion was partially right: other developed countries, especially the U.S, cannot point blame at certain nations that burn coal (the worst in terms of CO2 emitted) while also burning coal themselves. We all need to hold each other responsible, and especially citizens with their own governments. Additionally, the coal industry in Poland employs tens of thousands of people and therefore has a lot of power as well as support of many citizens. This situation makes large scale change difficult, especially if those changes are affecting peoples’ livelihoods.
What we need is a phasing out of fossil fuels, letting the older fossil fuel workers retire, make renewables more accessible and economically viable and retraining the younger employees in a greener energy sector. This, combined with a kind of mandated program in a carbon tax or dividend form, would be most effective for real change.
Recycle, Reuse, Reduce?
Risa Lewis – Junior, B.S. Agricultural and Resource Economics
With the contrasting sentiments of heartening passion and bleak hopelessness fighting for dominance as takeaways from COP24, I’ve found myself searching for the solutions that are making headway where policy and international agreements are not. The new “rulebook” for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which recently passed at the end of COP 24, is a good start, but it does not provide the type of legally binding and stringent structure necessary to reduce emissions in order to avoid drastic consequences for the earth and people living on it.
For example, the market mechanism section of the Paris Agreement rulebook text could not be resolved and has been pushed to next year’s COP25 in Chile. One of the integral parts of this hang-up was agreement on voluntary carbon markets – the trading of emissions reduced beyond each country’s climate pledge – and their use as credits by other countries that cannot meet their pledges (or, from an economic efficiency standpoint, by countries that have higher costs to society of emissions reduction).
I attended a side event at COP24 on how to fix the problem of double accounting of carbon emission reductions. It was relatively technical, but it became fairly clear that solutions were possible, known, and agreed upon across disciplines and countries. And yet, Brazil has been blamed by many for the postponement of what appeared to otherwise be a logical fix to the double counting issue. This delay has a negative ripple effect, impacting various trading schemes and initiatives that use language dependent on Article 6.4, which was expected to replace the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.
So, if agreement on important policy is moving too slowly, what steps can be taken sooner to ignite reliable, continuous change? More research in energy efficiency? Greater efforts to recycle?
Regarding the latter, a recent episode of “60 Minutes” on CBS cast doubt on the reality of recycling plastic—possibly 2/3 of American recycled plastic is sent overseas (until recently to China), where its ultimate fate – landfilling or recycling – has been and remains difficult to ascertain. CBS also detailed a 3 million dollar project to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a project that has been compared to “mopping up a flooded bathroom but leaving the tap on.” To put this in perspective, COP24 handed out plastic reusable water bottles and other “swag bag” items with plastic packaging. Other popular movements such as banning plastic straws are important steps on the way to behavioral change, but are ultimately miniscule shifts compared to the change necessary to prevent climate catastrophe. Like most social, politics and economics issues, reversing climate change requires nothing less than a complete shift in our social system. And activists are not the only ones who recognize this – the scientifically advised reductions in global carbon emissions reflect a dismantling of consumption culture (the very existence of “swag bags”).
The reality is that the kind of lifestyle promoted as the norm in America, and coveted by many across the globe due to the United States’ global influence, is not only impossible for other countries to attain, but also unsustainable for the planet. As the effects of climate change continue to accelerate sea level rise and exacerbate extreme weather events they will also disrupt the systems that prop up the American story of consumption. How soon this will happen is relatively uncertain, but indigenous populations that have existed far longer than ours are already being destroyed due to the unjust way climate change more severely impacts those with lifestyles that have contributed least to the problem.
If there’s anything I can take away from this conference to fight the despair, it is that I need to live more realistically, in a way that reduces my consumption and encourages others to do the same. Changing a culture of consumption means change through education and outreach, especially focused on younger generations. Overall, making living a simpler life ‘popular’ could prove to be the most productive step towards change.
With the recent release of the IPCC’s report, reducing our carbon footprint has re-entered the spotlight and become more urgent than ever before. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is the first step in achieving this goal, but the IPCC report makes it clear that years of nonrenewable energy use have made it necessary to go even further. One way to do this, as mentioned in the report, is to utilize carbon removal technologies. Carbon removal involves taking carbon that is being released to, or is already present in, the atmosphere and sequestering it underground or in storage. There are several different types of carbon removal methods, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.
Direct Air Capture
One of the more common carbon removal technologies is direct air capture. Direct air capture uses a fan to intake air from the atmosphere, and then the air enters a closed loop system with water and energy and leaves the system as a stream of pure, compressed carbon dioxide. That stream of carbon dioxide can then be sequestered or turned into a fuel with ultra-low carbon intensity, meaning this fuel would produce less emissions and pollutants than traditional fuel. There are currently two leading companies in this technology, Carbon Engineering and Climeworks. Both these companies estimate that on a large scale, their technology can remove one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for about $100-150. Because of this high cost of removing carbon from the atmosphere, these companies have been selling the carbon they produce to fuel companies. This is counterproductive in the sense that the carbon just removed from the atmosphere is being sold to be released into the atmosphere again, but at the same time using recaptured carbon is better than using traditional fuel. If the cost of this technology could be reduced, then less of the recaptured carbon would have to be sold and more of it could be sequestered in the geosphere.
The use of biochar is a second method of removing carbon from the atmosphere. Biochar is a high carbon material produced by burning organic material (such as trees, plants, etc.) in an oxygen free environment. Normally, burning organic material or just letting it decompose adds a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If this material is turned into biochar instead, the biochar can then be added to the soil and serve as an effective carbon sink. If biochar is implemented on a large scale, it is estimated that about 12% of carbon emissions will be offset. Biochar also increases both water retention and nutrient capacity of soils it is added to, giving it added benefits aside from being an effective carbon sink.
One of the cheaper methods of carbon removal is enhanced weathering. CarbFix is a project in Iceland that has been using enhanced weathering to sequester carbon dioxide since 2007. Their method involves taking highly carbonated water and injecting it into basaltic rocks. The carbon in the water then reacts to the minerals in the basalt and forms safe byproducts while taking the carbon out of the atmosphere. Using this method can remove about one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for $25, which is four times less expensive than direct air capture. The main downsides of this method are that basaltic rocks are required, meaning that this method can only be used in certain locations, and that injecting such a large amount of water into the ground can cause other environmental impacts such as earthquakes.
Carbon removal has potential to be a powerful method of reducing the effects of climate change, yet as of right now the technology is expensive and inconvenient to implement. For carbon removal to become an effective climate mitigation strategy, political and economic incentives would need to be offered to companies developing this technology in order to overcome these barriers.