Students in "Global Climate Change Science and Policy" prepare for the COP26 meeting.

In the virtual front row, Cornell students saw COP26 unfold

During the two weeks of the COP26 (Conference of the Parties) international climate change conference’s talks and negotiations, 45 undergraduate and graduate Cornell students plugged in from Ithaca through select channels, listened and held digital front row seats to environmental history.

Students from the capstone course “Global Climate Change Science and Policy,” (EAS 4443/5443/4441) taught by Natalie Mahowald, the Irving Porter Church Professor in Engineering, and Allison Chatrchyan, a senior research associate in the departments of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and Global Development, heard a steady stream of high-level country statements and negotiations from Glasgow, Scotland, to keep our blue planet ecologically viable.

“These students have been working hard all semester to prepare for COP26,” Chatrchyan said. “They know the COP26 topics cold.”

Alejandra Plaza Limon examined climate change from the perspective of Mexico, as she relaxes here in Mexico City, her hometown.

Since August, students have been researching key issues that might seem obscure to a general audience, such as Article 6 of the 2015 Paris climate agreement or specific national commitments to reduce climate change.

Article 6, for example, centers on the creation, establishment and implementation of a global carbon market to reduce carbon emissions, said Connor Tamor ‘22. “Although the Paris Agreement was adopted back in 2015, the Article 6 ‘Rulebook’ – the regulations and guiding principles that provide structure to the global carbon market – has been a contentious issue in subsequent global climate change negotiations,” he said.

Alana Becker ‘23 teamed with master’s degree graduate student Homari Aoki and Isabella Kong ’22 to research Action for Climate Empowerment, or ACE, which promotes climate change literacy, public outreach and awareness, to focus on uplifting world communities and the next generation of climate change leaders.

For years, developed countries have been under pressure to give developing countries $100 billion annually in climate financing, said Arden Podpora ’23.

“Progress made at COP26 brought us closer to seeing this pledge become a reality,” she said, but $1 trillion annually may be required. “That level of financing is unlikely to materialize anytime soon. The conversation on climate finance is ongoing, challenging and critically important.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornell regularly sent a contingent of class participants annually to the COP meeting, travel funding courtesy of Cornell’s David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. Once travel restrictions are lifted, that is expected to resume.

Notably, the five-year-old course continues to have impact, as recent young Cornell alumni returned to work at the COP26 meeting:

• Daryna Kulaga, M.P.A. ’20, part of Cornell’s COP24 delegation in Katowice, Poland (2018). She is now the head of emissions management in the private sector, and is part of the COP26 Ukrainian delegation;

Nick Hamp-Adams, who conducted environmental research on South Africa, his home country, stands on Table Mountain, overlooking Lion's Head at Cape Town, South Africa.

• Stefano Sarris ‘16, is now a policy officer and climate diplomat at the European Commission and a COP26 European Union delegate;

• Alice Soewito ‘21, from the Cornell delegation to COP25 in Madrid, is now a climate program associate at The Nature Conservancy and delegate to COP26; and

•Lily Bermel ’20, now a special assistant in the U.S. Department of State's Office of Global Change (OES/EGC), and a member of the U.S. climate diplomacy and negotiations team for COP26, was a Cornell delegate at COP25. 

Cornell students from around the world have a keen stake in the COP process. Alejandra Plaza Limon, master’s degree graduate student, conducted research on Mexico, her home country. “It was interesting to see my country’s ambitious plan in adaptation to climate change, using firsthand research and the most recent science.”

Up to 77% of South Africa’s primary energy needs are provided by coal, according to master’s degree graduate student Nick Hamp-Adams, who studied his home country. “One successful outcome of COP26 was the commitment of $8 billion to South Africa from the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union to accelerate South Africa’s transition from coal to renewables,” he said.

Joyce Kabui, master’s degree graduate student, examined the potential of developing and using green hydrogen in Kenya, her home country. She was buoyed after the COP26 meeting, as Kenya committed to implement clean, resilient energy systems that helps to attain the country’s development agenda. She said: “I am optimistic that Kenya’s energy sector will undergo significant growth – owing to its vast renewable energy potential.”

The students will present their work in a symposium on Dec. 15. The course is supported by the Environment and Sustainability major at Cornell, which is managed by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), and the College of Arts and Sciences. The Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences is managed by both CALS and the College of Engineering.