Pop-up course on climate conference gives students front-row seat at COP26

journalists watch joe biden cop26 speech on a tv
Journalists listen in the Media Centre to the speach of Joe Biden, President of the United States during an opening session of the high level summit at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, held by UNFCCC inside the COP26 venue – Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, Scotland on November 1, 2021. Heads of states arrived for two day summit in Glasgow. COP26, running from October 31 to November 12 in Glasgow will be the most significant climate conference since the 2015 Paris summit as the nations are expected to set new greenhouse gas emission targets in order to slow the global warming, as well as firming up other key commitments. Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via AP

Global leaders secured two advancements on climate change at the United Nations summit on Tuesday, but major challenges remain, say Northeastern climate scientists.

Nations at the 26th Conference of the Parties, or COP26, agreed to curb methane emissions and to end deforestation by 2030—both significant developments, says Laura Kuhl, assistant professor of public policy and urban affairs and international affairs at Northeastern.

laura kuhl smiling with trees behind her

Northeastern Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and International Affairs Laura Kuhl. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The pledge to end deforestation “is a breakthrough,” says Kuhl, who is running a one-credit pop-up course tied to the two-week climate summit. “One of the things that makes it different is the involvement by a lot of supply-chain actors, particularly soy and palm oil manufacturers.”

Securing the support of two industries that are drivers of deforestation “makes it much more likely that there will actually be implementation” of the pledge, Kuhl says. At the same time, she says, companies and governments don’t always follow through on their promises.

Kuhl’s pop-up course includes 30 students who have U.N. badges and will be official virtual observers. Throughout COP26, students will meet virtually with negotiators and other experts, observe formal negotiations, and participate in related events.

In addition, students in the course are collaborating with the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh to meet virtually with other students from around the world. They are also receiving dispatches from center director Saleemul Huq, who is among the biggest voices for developing countries in climate negotiations, Kuhl says.

Here’s what else Northeastern climate scientists are keeping an eye on:

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the annual conference in Glasgow, Scotland, one of the most exclusive and expensive conferences to date. This is particularly problematic for small island states and poorer countries—which are also some of the places most vulnerable to the devastation wrought by climate change—that were forced to send smaller delegations to COP26.

World leaders will likely see a renewed focus on reducing carbon emissions following the release of a new report by the U.N. last week, says Jennie Stephens, dean’s professor of sustainability and science policy, and director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. The report shows that countries aren’t meeting their emissions-cutting commitments from the Paris Agreement—and that even if they were, it wouldn’t be enough to keep global warming below a disastrous temperature threshold.

jennie stephens smiling outside wearing purple shirt

Jennie Stephens is the dean’s professor of sustainability and science policy, and director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. She is also the director of strategic research collaborations at Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“What’s very clear is a big gap between the pledges countries made, and what people can actually envision happening,” says Stephens, who will attend the second half of the COP26 as part of the delegation from the Global Council for Science and Environment.

Stephens says she’s also watching what could be a major shift in climate policy: phasing out fossil fuels. Already on the table at the conference is a goal to phase out coal by securing commitments from countries not to invest in coal-fired plants in the future.

“There seems to be a growing understanding that we may have to phase out all fossil fuels,” Stephens says, including natural gas, petroleum, and oil shales, among others.

And Kuhl says she’ll be watching closely for progress on the developing countries’ request for financial assistance from wealthier nations to help recover from losses and damages.

“Even as we develop better mitigation and adaptation techniques, there will be certain damages we can’t handle, and losses beyond our ability to adapt,” she says. Advocates are pushing to include disaster recovery as a third pillar of climate policy, Kuhl says, where it would join mitigation and adaptation as broad priorities for funding.

For media inquiries, please contact Ed Gavaghan at e.gavaghan@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.