Yale participants in COP26 reflect on conference, aim for more action in COP27
More than 20 Yale affiliates across Yale College, the Yale School of the Environment, and the Yale Law School traveled to Glasgow to participate in COP26 over the past two weeks.
Courtesy of Anjali Mangla
Following the conclusion of the United Nations’ 26th Climate Change Conference, or COP26, Yale affiliates who participated expressed disappointment with the conference’s resolution, yet optimism for future climate talks.
More than 20 Yale affiliates traveled to the two-week COP26 conference held in Glasgow, Scotland to participate in global climate change negotiations. The annual climate summit began on Oct. 31 and culminated with the Glasgow Climate Pact on Nov. 13. Yale undergraduate students, graduate students and professors were involved in various facets of the conference, including participating in panel discussions, advocating for specific climate solutions, covering the negotiations and conducting research for delegations. While some were optimistic about the conference’s results, others criticized the fossil fuel industry’s presence at the conference as well as the degree of commitment that nations promised.
“No goal is too ambitious when we are dealing with a crisis of this magnitude,” Saskia Braden ’25 said. “We need every group, institution, and nation to raise their ambition and push for carbon neutrality as soon as possible.”
Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy, said that one of the “clear signals” coming out of Glasgow is that the world must move toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050. Esty praised Yale as a leader in cutting emissions on campus and pledging to be net-zero by 2035, but noted that the University should take steps to only invest in companies that engage in meaningful sustainability plans.
Last Tuesday, the University announced new steps towards its goal of achieving net-zero actual carbon emissions by 2050, pledging to achieve a 65 percent reduction from 2015 emissions levels by 2035.
In Glasgow, Esty spoke on deep decarbonization — the transition away from fossil fuels towards zero-carbon electricity — while also contributing to the Zero Carbon Action Plan and attending the World Climate Summit. Esty said that the University serves as a benchmark of climate policy progress for peer institutions as its greenhouse gas emissions pledges place it at “the high end of what has been committed by any entity in the world.”
However, Esty pointed to Yale’s continued commitment to fossil fuel investments as an issue that merits reform.
“My own belief is that the business world has changed and Yale should reflect its investment strategy towards a recognition that it is ethically inappropriate to privatize the gains of a certain economic activity, but to socialize or spill on to society as a whole the burdens or costs,” Esty explained. “It is no longer ethically appropriate for Yale to have holdings in companies with significant greenhouse gas emissions footprints. It is in pursuit of the principle that I think should be the new baseline, which is no un-internalized externalities.”
Last spring, Yale unveiled a set of new policies surrounding its investments in the fossil fuel industry which include publicly naming and divesting from companies that fall short of its standards. In an April interview with the News, chair of Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility Jonathan Macey LAW ’82 expressed the committee’s belief that blanket divestment is “blaming nobody,” and that the new policy allows the University to “name names.”
Some, however, have expressed concerns about the University’s timeline for emissions cuts on campus, particularly with regards to the 2035 and 2050 goals. Former co-president of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition Katie Schlick ’22 and co-founder of the New Haven Climate Movement Youth Action Team Adrian Huq, said that Yale’s climate goals needed to be more ambitious. Yale’s climate action strategy, the details of which were unveiled last week, has only one mention of the 2030 date, despite President Joe Biden and other leaders having dubbed the years leading up to 2030 as the “decisive decade” for climate action.
Esty was one of many professors who attended the conference, although he did not stay for its entirety. Paul T. Anastas, head of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, participated in a Green Zone public event, while Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, presented research on the perspective of the American public on climate change.
Graduate students also attended the conference with a variety of organizations. Taina Perez ENV ’22 described the conference as “underwhelming,” and said that it raised concerns about equity, access and justice. Perez attended the first week with an Indigenous network, La Alianza Mesoamericana de Pueblos y Bosques, but found the conference difficult to navigate. According to Perez, some organizations were not given enough passes to account for all of the members in their delegation.
“More must be done to truly drive the efficiency of COP and that means truly bringing everyone to the table,” Perez wrote in an email to the News. “One common thread throughout the conference was the need for more climate financing. It is time for both the private and public sectors to reimagine climate financing and increase their contributions especially towards funding the most vulnerable countries and the communities leading the climate fight –– indigenous populations.”
During the conference, sustainability advocates led various protests that demanded further action from the parties. Kyle Lemle ENV ’22 cited the presence of fossil fuel representatives at the conference as a major block to reform.
Lemle participated in the conference with the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, and John Kerry’s World War Zero initiative.
“In the past, at a different COP, someone referred to it as like selling tobacco at a lung cancer summit,” Lemle said. “That’s how it feels, to me, the fact that there are more fossil fuel delegates in any one country’s delegation just proves the amount of sway that they have in our global politics.”
Braden, who participated with the Woodwell Research Center, noted that prior climate pledges have attempted to halt deforestation, a goal that was not met as rates have continued to increase since these agreements. However, she considers a renewed commitment to end deforestation by 2030 as one of the major outcomes of this conference — as it draws awareness towards the issue.
Over 100 nations committed to not only end deforestation by 2030, but to also reverse it, which would increase the extent of the world’s carbon sinks — natural mechanisms that absorb climate-changing carbon dioxide. However, Lemle notes that some in the fossil fuel industry aim to protect carbon sinks as their absorption of carbon provides rationale for maintaining emissions, such as the continued coal usage in many countries negotiated in the last hours of the conference.
The other tangible outcome was countries’ collaborations in making promises to curb global methane emissions, which Esty also noted was a significant inclusion that would impact the dairy and beef industries.
COP27 will take place in Egypt next year.