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Putting Classroom Knowledge Into Practice: An MBA Student’s Perspective on COP26

Attending a sustainability conference was at the top of my business school bucket list and I was ecstatic when I received the opportunity to attend the climate conference: I spent four fantastic days at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow. The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference gathered world leaders and countless nonprofits/NGOs, with many believing this to be the world’s last chance to get climate change under control.  I did not expect ambitious climate change commitments from COP26, given the lackluster G20 meeting held in Rome immediately preceding the summit. This was unfortunately the case. Regardless, it was energizing to be at the conference in person, given how critical this decade will be in the fight against climate change.

COP 26 Venue
A bird's eye look at the COP26 venue

The venue itself was massive and had three key sections. The core of the summit consisted of delegates coming together to negotiate on emissions commitments and targets. Many of these negotiations were (unsurprisingly) closed to observers, but significant gatherings of thought leaders still occurred through open pavilions throughout the conference Each country had its own pavilion where daily events were organized around specific topics. Then there were the side events which were typically organized by businesses and nonprofits/NGOs. With at least 40-50 events occurring at any one time, it was incredible to see the numerous discussions on climate change and potential paths forward.

Given my interests in empowering women and corporate sustainability, I chose to attend events that focused on these topics. I was fortunate to have attended the conference (as one needs a badge to participate at COP) with GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice, an organization that fights for gender equality, women’s rights and climate justice. One panel (which included Gotelind Alber, founder of GenderCC) I found particularly impactful was “Engaging Citizens in Urban Climate Action for Inclusive Just Transition Programs.” Climate action needs all citizens to be actively involved, including vulnerable groups. Unfortunately, gender thinking and climate change are often seen as mutually exclusive; emphasizing this intersection needs to continue as vulnerable groups, such as women and minorities, are more likely to be affected by climate change. Katharine K. Wilkinson, co-editor of “All We can Save,” articulates that “the climate crisis is not gender-equal or gender-neutral.” The top 1 percent of income earners globally, who are overwhelmingly male, are responsible for more carbon emissions than the bottom 50 percent of earners.” This emissions gap is bigger than ever- according to a United Nations report, this top 1% accounts for 15% of emissions globally, which is more than the 3.5 billion people at the bottom 50%. Women bear the brunt of climate change, including displacement as 80 percent of those displaced due to climate change are women. Women (including other minorities such as people of color and indigenous people) have had limited influence when it comes to shifting the status quo as those in power tend to, and continue to be, men. Beyond impact, men also contribute more towards climate change: New York Times reporter Lauren Jackson declares that, “men have a larger carbon footprint than women, by 16 percent, according to one study. Given this, I had expected and hoped for more progress on gender as climate change will not be solved without empowering women.

My three key takeaways for the conference include:

  • There was a significant lack of progress on gender. The UNFCCC website shared in a press release that there was momentum at COP26 for gender action. It goes on to list several announcements. However, these are individual country commitments, not centralized commitments that result in common actions. Gotelind Alber states that “we had hoped for more commitments on gender but there were not very strong outcomes on gender. What is done on gender is subject to available funds.” She has attended multiple COPs and sustainability conferences and goes on to voice her concerns: “I’ve seen so many COPs with frustrating outcomes. I find it difficult for an NGO to make a difference.” She declared that she would have liked to see a “gender impact assessment or gender policy measures” but unfortunately this was not prioritized. This piece from UN news further highlights the issue on gender and climate.
  • The private sector was highly engaged. There was great energy around the pavilions and side events. Hundreds of business panels were organized and I loved seeing businesses step up due to
    Kerry and Gates panel at COP 26
    Bill Gates, His Excellency Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Secretary John Kerry, and Ambassador Raychelle Omamo speak on climate innovation
    pressures such as activists, investors, customers, and employees. One event I really enjoyed attending was held at the UAE Pavilion called “Paving the Way with Climate Innovation.” Speakers included His Excellency Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber (UAE’s Special Envoy for Climate Change and Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology), Bill Gates (Founder of Microsoft and Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Secretary John Kerry (U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate), and Ambassador Raychelle Omamo (Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs for the Republic of Kenya). Sitting just ten feet away from these leaders, I appreciated hearing about the increased role that the private sector was taking on. Secretary Kerry declared that, “the private sector is stepping up in real and unprecedented fashion. We have asset managers, asset owners, banks, bank alliances, all of which are coming together now with a combination of ESG sensitivity as well as business sensitivity.” Hearing from them and business leaders, including those leading startups, discuss the business community’s “call to action” was wonderful to see as I believe the increase in private sector engagement will only continue, as long as these external pressures mount further. Sitting in on two government negotiations, it was clear why the world is so behind on climate change. Progress was painstakingly slow as there was lots of deliberation around phrasing of every word. A version would be accepted by one Party but not another. In one negotiation I sat in on, after much deliberation, the moderator proposed two paths forward: a closed informal consultation (this means there was no outcome, which no one wants) or a procedural conclusion (the text doesn’t represent the consensus and that there’s more work to be done). Neither sounds like progress. That experience helped me realize the need for individuals and nonprofits/NGOs to place greater pressure on the private sector to act because I believe that progress with governments will not be sufficient. 
  • COP26 needed a bigger focus on outcomes, rather than on politics. Developed countries once again avoided responsibilities. They found ways to shift blame to developing nations while attempting to sound morally superior. Thwarting potential cooperation, President Biden repeatedly criticized China and Russia’s absence at COP26. China’s response? “We are not the ones who withdrew from the Paris Agreement.” It was unfair of President Biden to make such a statement. Though President Xi Jinping did not attend in person, there was a Chinese delegation that did attend, with numerous representatives. Additionally, in the first few days of the summit, India disclosed their commitment to net zero by 2070. Immediately, many from the Western world hit back stating that this was “disappointing.” Instead of shouldering the burden of the crisis they largely created, the West places pressure on countries like India to accelerate progress on climate change without adequately providing such nations with the significant amount of funds and investments required to transition to a greener economy. Even with its limited resources, India, along with other nations that lack finance and capital to tackle climate change, is striving to make progress to meet its commitments. There must be a greater focus on providing support to such nations to meet their commitments because climate change is a global issue. More broadly, greater transparency is needed to ensure that confirmed commitments will actually be achieved. Rightfully so, I witnessed thousands of protestors fill the streets of Glasgow to express their anger at leaders due to the lack of progress and action on following through commitments.
Uproot the system protest
Thousands protest the lack of action on climate change in Glasgow

Overall, attending my first COP was an exciting experience. I loved being surrounded by thought leaders and activists, and being a part of the countless discussions that were simultaneously taking place. One day on the train back to Edinburgh, I started chatting with those near me, who turned out to be party members from a Middle Eastern Country attending COP26. I ended up grabbing dinner with one of the delegates, where we discussed climate change and the roles various countries were currently playing, something that would have seemed so surreal only a few weeks ago. COP26 was a very invigorating experience and I’m thankful I had the opportunity and support to be a part of this. I do believe that, unsurprisingly, COP26 fell short- we are certainly not on track to tackling the climate crisis. Are we at a better place than where we were a few years ago? Absolutely. In 2015, the private sector was not engaged, there was little talk of innovation, and the topic of adaptation was nonexistent. There also were some substantial commitments that did result from COP26, such as the methane commitment – over 100 countries pledged to cut their annual methane by 30% which could prevent 0.2 degrees Celsius of warming by mid-century. This is important because methane is second largest contributor to climate change, after carbon dioxide. While this will have a shorter-term impact, as methane only stays in the atmosphere for a bit over a decade (vs. over a century for carbon dioxide), methane is still 20 times more potent, making this a significant action nonetheless. This is not to say it is perfect – there is lack of transparency on data and measurement. Gotelind Alber expressed that “inventories of many countries are not necessarily correct because they overestimate the carbon intake from forests and other ecosystems. It’s very hard to measure.” Furthermore, a Washington Post investigation revealed that many countries are drastically underreporting their greenhouse gas emissions. So, I’ll end with this statement that a panelist shared while at COP26 which I believe is especially relevant for those who live in the developed world: “You all sit in a seat where you can make a difference and that’s a privilege. So use it.”

Thank you to GenderCC and Yale University (Center for Business & The Environment, School of Management, and School of Environment) for their support.