Courtesy of Paul Simons

Over 60 Yale faculty members and students are attending this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference summit in Dubai. 

The Conference of the Parties — the supreme climate governing body formed by the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty, or COP — is holding its 28th annual summit. The conference, which began Nov. 30 and will run until Dec. 12, brings UN member states from almost 200 countries together to refine climate action plans.

“If you take a look at the universities who will be present at COP, I think Yale really punches above its weight,” Paul Simons, a senior fellow at the Jackson School of Global Affairs who teaches courses on energy and climate change policy, told the News.

According to Simons, many of Yale’s “top-level experts” and policy researchers are attending this year’s conference, including Dan Esty LAW ’86, a professor of environmental law and trade policy at the Law School, and Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and a professor at the School of the Environment. Julie Zimmerman, the vice provost for Planetary Solutions and a professor at the School of Environment, is also at COP28. Representatives from the Yale Emerging Climate Leaders, a group of young climate professionals from the Global South, are also attending. 

Additionally, many students are participating in the conference. These include 11 undergraduate representatives who are part of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. These undergraduate representatives have joined other stakeholders to help address climate issues. 

Peter Boyd, a resident fellow at the Center for Business and the Environment, said that many graduate students are also at the conference. Boyd told the News he is even having roughly 10 students enrolled in his “International Organizations and Conferences” class at the School of the Environment visit the conference as part of the course.

Yale students at COP28

Peyton Meyer ’24 is one of the 11 undergraduates representing the Yale Student Environment Coalition. For Meyer, COP28 gives students the opportunity to engage with climate policymakers, world leaders, NGO staff and other students from around the globe at one of the most important international climate conferences. 

Meyer also said that students who receive official “observer” status can attend most of the events at COP28.

“These include side events at pavilions run by various organizations and countries throughout the venue on a ton of different climate-related topics, COP presidency events on the daily themes like health or finance, and multilateral negotiation sessions with country delegates,” Meyer told the News. 

Meyer gave a presentation at the Higher Education Pavilion on the intersection of climate change and mental health as a part of the Yale Planetary Solutions Series, a Yale project that seeks to raise awareness about climate issues and spark innovative solutions.

Nevertheless, students cannot contribute to any negotiations between parties. 

“I’ve dreamed of attending a Conference of the Parties for a long time. I keep describing it as like Disneyland for climate activists,” Rose Hansen ’25, an environmental studies major and co-president of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, told the News. “They are just thousands and thousands of really brilliant, really hard-working people all in the same place.”

Hansen, who works with World Bank Director of Global Resources Valerie Hickey and Coral Vita, a coral regeneration start-up, said that Yalies at the event had formed a “really active and enriched network” to support each other.

For Marco Marsans ’24, getting to participate in COP28 has confirmed his plans to dedicate his life to climate change. He said he believes the knowledge he has gained from the conference will help him pinpoint how and where he can do the most good.

Marsans also mentioned how “exhilarating” it is to attend the conference as an undergraduate.

“You keep bumping into your idols,” he said. “I really wanted to meet Bill Gates — reading his book is what started me on this whole climate journey — and I’ve met him twice now, which has been deeply moving.”

Gates, former CEO of Microsoft and author of “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need,” is just one of many philanthropists attending and contributing to COP this year. 

A one-of-a-kind conference

According to Boyd, this year’s climate conference may have many firsts. The UN expects over 70,000 attendees, an increase of over 20,000 from last year. Boyd also noted that more private corporations, indigenous people and youth groups are participating in the talks.

Hansen said that this is the first conference to have a Global Stocktake — a comprehensive, collective inventory of all carbon emissions. Mandated by the 2015 Paris Agreement, this assessment was established to help countries set future carbon budgets and inform their future climate goals.

Both Boyd and Simons voiced concerns over the current pace of climate action and expressed doubt on the feasibility of reaching the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement’s goals

“We have to realize that we’re not as far ahead on progress as we should be,” Boyd told the News.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 194 states pledged to limit average global temperatures to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and ideally to no more than 1.5 degrees. However, a recent UN emissions gap report, which was issued weeks in advance of COP28, suggested that, at the current rate, temperatures could increase to roughly three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. According to the report, greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2022, and states would have to cut their carbon emission by 28 to 42 percent by 2030 in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals.

Simons said that many of the member nations’ “high levels of ambition” have not translated to significant execution. Even though nearly 90 percent of global emissions were accounted for by net-zero targets from last year’s conference, he said that the world’s total emissions have yet to peak.

The report also found that per capita emissions in the U.S. and Russia have risen since 2020. As of 2018, all the existing mines and fields were projected to produce enough coal, oil and natural gas over their lifetimes to emit 3.5 times the world’s total allotted carbon budget under the 1.5-degree Celsius increase temperature scenario.

Debate over the future of fossil fuels

Several Yale faculty members attending COP28 told the News that they expected the debate over fossil fuel phaseout to take center stage in the discussions. 

The COP28 host nation, United Arab Emirates, is among the world’s top ten oil producers and generates an average 3.2 million barrels of petroleum a day. 

“The greatest challenge is finding a middle ground between two powerful groups: those who consider fossil fuels as an inevitable part of the medium-term energy mix and those who are pushing for an extremely rapid phase-down of all oil and gas consumption,” Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of energy economics at the School of the Environment, wrote in an email to the News.

Still, Boyd also said that it might be a “tall ask” to make states end fossil fuel extraction given the “interests in the room.”

“It’s sad but not surprising that there are people that could be using the gathering to sustain the old way,” Boyd said. “But I’m hoping now that it’s out in the open, there are enough loud voices to talk about what needs to be done.”

COP28 Chair Sultan al-Jaber has drawn criticism from environmental groups. As head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, he has claimed that fossil fuel companies must have a part in the sustainable transition. During the first days of the conference, Jaber opened with calls to phase down fossil fuel production, rather than advocating to eliminate fossil fuel use.

Jaber’s efforts to fold the oil industry into climate talks “has not really been attempted before,” said Simons. Despite the presence of gas and oil executives at this year’s conference, Simons added that the UAE has also boasted a “strong track record” of investments in renewables around the world. 

Simons and Boyd both emphasized that fossil fuel phaseout targets are inseparable from efforts to accelerate the rollout of sustainable technologies. 

Though many news outlets cover its international dealmaking, COP28 offers an equally important opportunity for private industries in the corporate, philanthropic and civil society sectors to showcase their work, said Simons.

“I feel like this COP has really taught me a lot about how to work with […] people who might not immediately line your interests,” Hansen said. “In this transition, we have to build bridges […] and this transition is going to take all of us.”

Berlin hosted the first Conference of the Parties in 1995.

Lily Belle Poling covers climate and the environment. Originally from Montgomery, Alabama, she is a first year in Branford College majoring in Global Affairs and English.