Professor Briony McDonagh and Dr Agota Mockute at COP27


COP27: the call to action for climate justice

Professor Briony McDonagh and Dr Agota Mockute from the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute represented the University and our region in the Blue Zone at COP27 in Egypt recently. Our academics shared their research and expertise, made global connections and contributed to key climate discussions focused on gender, energy, biodiversity, and – most importantly – solutions. Here, they share their thoughts on the climate-crisis summit.

What is COP27 and why was it important that the University was in attendance?

Agota: COP is the global climate summit run by the United Nations (UN). Its purpose is to gather the 197 parties who have ratified its Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in order to check progress of implementation and make any needed science-based revisions to this Convention.

It involves world leaders and their negotiators from 197 countries, along with representatives of intergovernmental and non governmental organisations (NGOs) with observer status. This includes the University of Hull.

COP has been running (almost) annually since 1995, shortly after the UNFCCC entered into force on 21 March 1994. This year, the 27th COP took place in Sharm El Sheikh on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. It was a great privilege to represent the University and our partners in Hull and the Humber.

Briony: For the University of Hull to be represented at COP, and to have a presence in the inner Blue Zone where the key negotiations and discussions take place, means being recognised as a valued observer and informant to the UN on climate change impacts, mitigation and adaptation. With our twin University-level strategic focus on environmental sustainability and social justice, it is critical we participate in and contribute to this global hub of discussion and decision-making.

We were at previous COPs including Glasgow in 2021 (COP26) and we are delighted to have been there once again, deepening our understanding of the issues being discussed at the highest level, making connections across the globe, and spreading the word about the amazing work the University and our partners do.

Let’s see how many new and future collaborations and research projects we can later trace back to the conversations which started at COP27!

What were your first impressions of COP27?

Briony: We talked lots about our experiences of the week and how best to sum it up for people back at work and in the UK. In the end, we settled on five adjectives – hot, busy, inspiring, hopeful, and (at times) infuriating.

Agota: From the moment we arrived on site for COP27, the massive scale of the event was abundantly clear. There were seven lines of electric shuttle buses buzzing up and down the main highway in Sharm El Sheikh filled with people speaking languages from across the globe and proudly wearing a mix of conference attire and traditional clothing.

Upon entering the main lobby of the venue, we moved quickly through airport-style security checks (and not quite so quickly through the lines to be issued our Blue Zone badges!) and out into the main courtyard surrounded by some 20 buildings, only to discover this was just one of the four colour-coded areas making up the Blue Zone.

The Green Zone was yet another 15 minute walk away, across the road in the desert sun and through a parkland of environmentally-themed art and sculpture. We put our daily steps in simply going from session to session in this massive venue!

Briony: The choice of sessions to attend could have been overwhelming, and sometimes there were inevitable clashes. We attended a staggering range of events. Everything from the Resumed High Level Segment in the biggest plenary hall to the negotiations themselves (or livecasts thereof), press conferences, Presidency sessions, more traditional conference sessions, and some great panels, round tables and working groups at pavilions like the Resilience Hub and the Children and Youth Pavilion.

Professor Briony McDonagh and Dr Agota Mockute at COP27
Professor Briony McDonagh and Dr Agota Mockute

How does being at COP connect to your own research and knowledge exchange activities?

Briony: For me, it was great to be present for the inaugural Water Day, a new addition to the themed programme for COP27 and a fantastic opportunity to review progress on the UN’s Water Action Decade ahead of Water 2023, the UN mid-sessional event taking place in New York in March next year. Like so many of the themed discussion days, these sessions mapped across multiple Sustainable Development Goals, but SDG 6, 11, 13 and 14 were particularly pertinent here.

In a year of both catastrophic floods (for example, in Pakistan) and crippling droughts (in the Horn of Africa as well as Europe), talks recognised that huge numbers of people globally are experiencing climate change primarily through water stresses and shocks. Hence “climate action is water action”, as Liesje Schreinemacher, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, powerfully argued in one of the Presidency sessions – and more climate and water action is urgently needed. The importance of comprehensive disaster and risk management including early warning systems for both flood and extreme drought, of engaging civil society in water action and resilience building, and of bridging the science/policy interface were all foci for discussion.

It was also really encouraging to hear so much about Nature Based Solutions (NBS) at COP this year, both at sessions throughout the conference and on the final themed day on Solutions. Nature Based Solutions are diverse but include floodplain restoration schemes, managing and restoring peatlands and wetlands, and improving soils for water retention and carbon capture, all of which are foci for research and knowledge exchange here at the University of Hull. NBS also include urban green-blue infrastructure, like rain gardens, flood water storage basins, and the Sustainable Drainage (aka SUDs) and related real-time monitoring network we have recently invested in on campus.

Agota: COP, with its focus on mitigating climate change, has always been tightly aligned with my work on offshore wind as well as renewable energy and decarbonisation in general. Therefore of all the Thematic Days at COP27, I was most enthused about the Energy Day, representing SDG 7.

I was fascinated how quickly a two-fold challenge was identified and stayed strong throughout the day. On the one hand, there was a clear consensus on the need to transition away from dirty fossil fuels and to move to clean energy sources (often aligned with reduction in energy consumption). On the other, the need to grow the energy supply to ensure access to clean cooking and clean electricity for all, especially in the Global South, was persistently articulated.

It was stressed throughout the day what a solid financial investment case renewable energy is (and that catalysing private and public funding is key), how no two pathways are the same but the key to a successful transition is detailed planning, that we need to pick up both pace and scale with renewables to not be too late, and how transitioning while leaving part of the world behind is not a way forward so ensuring that the transition is just for all is a necessity. The work we do at the University on renewable energy technologies and the speeding up of their scaling up is therefore a critical contribution to delivering on the UNFCCC goals, as is working with local businesses on their decarbonisation journeys and that of the region as a whole.

What were your personal highlights?

Agota: We both thought Gender Day kicked off with an incredibly powerful panel on accelerating gender-just climate leadership and SDG 5. Inspirational speakers including Esther Mwaura Muiru, Ayshka Najib, Joanita Babirye, and Nupur Prakash stressed the importance of securing land for women, educating and empowering at grassroots, and bringing more women into decision making, especially through mentoring, accessible and gender-responsive climate finance which would include resilience and loss funding as well as strong accountability mechanisms.

It was also wonderful to catch Alok Sharma – who introduced the panel – for a quick chat on his recent visit to Hull for the launch of the Oh Yes! Net Zero campaign (of which the University is a founding partner).

Briony: It was also great to see a sustained focus on the importance of active engagement from civil society in climate mitigation and adaptation, particularly in relation to MAPA (Most Affected People and Areas) but also a range of other groups not always well represented in climate leadership. This includes women and girls, children and youth, and Indigeous people.

This recognition was particularly evident in the thematic ACE (Action for Climate Empowerment) and Civil Society Day in the second week, but talk of climate justice, hope, and solidarity ran through many of our informal conversations with other delegates in queues, at coffee stops and on buses throughout the week.

Yet much much more needs to be done here, especially by the most powerful parties and nations. There were repeated reminders from delegates – including at the so-called People’s Plenary – about the importance of ensuring meaningful participation in the process for all. “Nothing about us, without us” was a repeated refrain at COP this year, and a particularly pertinent reminder to (some) Global North parties at the negotiating table.

How did it make you feel to see engagement from University of Hull students about your involvement?

Agota: The engagement from the University of Hull students and colleagues was empowering. The encouraging messages and responses from students and colleagues alike, to Twitter update posts, and to the pre-departure blog post on LinkedIn, were fueling us to report back even more and give our all to making the most of being at COP27 (even with such flaws in life as spotty WiFi, itchy mosquito bites or food poisoning).

The students were so excited that even before I departed I was asked to do a quick review presentation upon return, and once I was back I heard that our students have suggested the University hosts a mock COP for our undergraduates and postgraduates to immerse themselves, a bit like the model United Nations many schools run.

I also loved that in the week we were away, a group of our students voluntarily chose as the question for their assignment, “What is the evidence that COP27 and its predecessors can change the world?”. How cool is that?! I will for sure look to integrate more of COP into my teaching.

Briony McDonagh and Agota Mockute at COP27
Dr Agota Mockute and Professor Briony McDonagh

What were the big achievements at COP27? And finally, what are the implications of the decisions at COP for us globally and regionally?

Agota: There were high hopes for this “Implementation COP”. The voices were clear and loud – “We all know the science, we’ve heard your commitments, now we need to see your action”. Those most affected by climate change impacts, especially those in the Global South, have been clear with their message too. It was simply, “deliver on your promises”.

Briony: Hence the most significant achievement at Sharm was undoubtedly the work in relation to climate justice and climate finance – specifically, the decision to establish and operationalise a loss and damage fund to support those most vulnerable to, and least able to mitigate and adapt to, the adverse impacts of climate change.

In many senses, this was a historic decision, recognition that the historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions lies with the most developed nations, yet the impacts of climate change are disproportionately experienced by the poorest and most vulnerable, typically in the Global South.

The most positive part of me wants to read this as recognition on the part of Global North parties of a long history of climate injustice and inequity that stretches back hundreds of years, though terms like ‘liability’, ‘compensation’ and ‘reparations’ are typically avoided by Global North politicians at COP. The less generous part of me knows this decision was hard won, that the money still needs to materialise, and that existing climate finance is often inaccessible to those who most need it (including women and indigenous people).

There are concerns too that an insurance-based approach like Global Shield could divert funds from loss and damage. All in, this underlines the key importance of centring climate change as a social justice issue – a conversation I know our colleagues at the University of Hull, including in the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation and the Energy and Environment Institute, are already contributing to at the regional, national and international level.

Agota: Yet there were major disappointments too. Even though COP27 maintained the global commitment to limiting global warming to 1.5C on pre-industrial levels and launched a work programme aimed at urgently scaling up mitigation ambition and implementation, it was disappointing that there was push back against the language which definitively calls for ‘phasing out’ fossil fuels.

Instead, the outcomes focused on accelerating the ‘phasedown’ of unabated coal power and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels. Unabated coal being the only fossil fuel singled out in the cover text undoubtedly leaves room for increased use of natural gas which is, of course, a source of carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

For the Humber region which is both the highest-emitting industrial cluster in the UK and one of the most susceptible regions to the impact of climate change impacts, especially flooding – I don’t see the outcomes of COP27 significantly changing the planned course of action. We still are committed to working towards Net Zero by 2040 (and on the University campus by 2027).

We still need to adapt to living with water stresses and shocks, hence our work locally with the Living with Water Partnership. It was also brilliant to see the Yorkshire & Humber Climate Action Pledge come out during COP27. At the University, we are looking forward to supporting and driving even more regional collaborations on decarbonisation, renewable energy, and adaptation in the coming months and years.

Briony: There’s so much work still to do, both in terms of UK politics and policy, and in terms of international collaboration and climate action. We do need to act, and we need to act now – and to do so in a manner that offers everyone a meaningful seat at the table. We’ll leave the final words to Baroness Scotland, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, who spoke in the final session of the Resumed High Level Summit on the penultimate day of the conference:

“We cannot compromise with catastrophe; so we must compromise with each other.”

Professor McDonagh is Professor of Environmental Humanities at the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute and lead for the UKRI-funded Risky Cities project. Dr Agota Mockute is a lecturer, researcher and knowledge exchange fellow, focussing on offshore wind and decarbonisation.

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