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

Neha Singh at COP26

Attending a sustainability conference was at the top of my business school bucket list and I was ecstatic when 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 as many believed this to be the world’s last chance to get climate change under control. I had imagined that COP26 would have been more of a turning point in the fight against climate change. However, my hopes for ambitious climate change commitments at COP26 were minimal, given a lackluster G20 meeting that was held in Rome right before the summit. Regardless, it was energizing to be at the conference in person, given the pivotal point this decade is.

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 was the negotiations that were held. Delegates came together to negotiate on commitments and targets. Many of these negotiations were closed to observers but some were open. Around the negotiations, there were pavilions which was a large gathering of thought leaders on climate change. 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. There were perhaps at least 40-50 events occurring at any one time- it was incredible to see the numerous discussions on climate change and the path 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 I enjoyed was “Engaging Citizens in Urban Climate Action for Inclusive Just Transition Programs.” This panel included Gotelind Alber, founder of GenderCC. 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.” New York Times reporter Lauren Jackson declares that “men have a larger carbon footprint than women, by 16 percent, according to one study. And 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. 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 not necessarily new initiatives on gender. Furthermore, 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 like 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 of 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 pressures such as activists, investors, customers, and employees. One event I really enjoyed attending
    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
    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 other business leaders 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 negotiations, I learned 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 the second negotiation I sat in on, after much deliberation, the moderator proposed two paths forward: a close 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 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 is also 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 delegates and representatives. Additionally, in the first few days of the summit, India disclosed their commitment to net-zero by 2070. Immediately, Western media hit back stating that this was “disappointing.” Instead of shouldering the burden, 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 that are required to transition to a greener economy. Even with its limited resources, India, along with other nations that lack the 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. Additionally, greater transparency is needed to ensure that confirmed commitments will actually be achieved. Rightfully so, thousands of protestors filled 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 from Glasgow, I started chatting with those near me- it turns out, they were party members of a Middle Eastern Country. 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. Though there are additional 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 the second-largest contributor to climate change, after carbon dioxide. Though it is 30x more potent, it stays in the atmosphere for a few decades, compared to hundreds of years for carbon dioxide, so this has the potential to have a significant impact in the short term – there is a 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.