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UCC and COP26 – The Most Significant COP since the Paris Agreement?

Orla Leahy – News Editor

From November 1st to November 12th, 196 nations of the United Nations will be represented in Glasgow at COP26, the 26th ‘Conference of Parties’  to be held since 1995. This particular COP is considered by many to be the most crucial since the 2015 Paris Agreement, to analyse if current pledges by countries are sufficient to keep green-house gas emissions to below 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. UCC is the only Irish university to hold observer status at COP26. Consequently, a multidisciplinary delegation of academics, researchers and students will be representing UCC at the summit. The delegation is led by Professor of Engineering and Director of MaREI (UCC’s Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine), Brian Ó Gallochóir. 

UCC has organised a number of events to mark the importance of Glasgow’s COP26, which will see the submission of new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by all countries to limit global warming to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels, as envisioned under the Paris Agreement. Firstly, a Model COP26 was held on October 26th in UCC’s Devere Hall. Mark Falvey, chairperson of the UCC Environmental Society noted that the idea for the Mock COP26 event was first raised at a meeting of the President’s Working Group mid-summer. This idea, spearheaded by the President’s Working Group, grew and soon encompassed the ERI, UCC Green Campus and the Environmental, Law, International Development, International Relations, Engineers Without Borders, and Co-operative Societies. 

Students from 15 different disciplines engaged in the Model event, which was opened by the President of UCC, Professor John O’Halloran. His impactful speech stressed UCC’s commitment to taking impactful climate action, as is to be seen in the renewable energy schemes on campus, and the fact that UCC became the first university to achieve a Green Flag from the Foundation for Environmental Education in the world. Following President O’Halloran’s speech, the British Ambassador to Ireland, Paul Johnston, provided an overview of COP26’s ambitions to “keep 1.5˚C alive” via video. 

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Mock Cop 26 debate with students in DeVere Hall UCC
Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Prior to the negotiations by the students at the event, Professor Áine Ryall of the UCC School of Law addressed the room, and encouraged the negotiators to take a human rights and climate justice approach to their negotiations. Dr. Fionn Rogan, energy and climate researcher at UCC, then introduced the event by assuming the role of UNFCCC Secretary General. 

Speaking outside of the event, Dr. Rogan highlighted the significance of COP26, “The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees mightn’t sound big but for many low-lying Pacific island nations it is the difference between existence and non-existence. The scale of the emission reductions required to achieve 1.5 degrees is difficult to comprehend. It requires a truly global effort but the countries of the world have very different historical responsibilities for global emissions and are on very different development pathways.” Accordingly, Mock COP26 offered students the opportunity to consider these implications and to strive for a fulfilling agreement. 

What followed was an evening of stimulating and engaging discussions and negotiations by the students with the aim of reaching a consensus to limit global warming to the 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels envisioned in the Paris Agreement. 

The first round of negotiations resulted in the agreement to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 2.2˚C above pre-industrial levels. Dr. Rogan reminded negotiators that such emissions would not be sufficient to avoid catastrophic climate disaster, and that it would disproportionately affect the Global South. As Darren Reidy, Acting Sustainability Officer of UCC’s Green Campus observed, “the realisation that the developing nations were carrying a disproportionate share of the climate action burden despite having disproportionately low contributions to historic GHG emissions slowly began to ripple throughout the conference centre. This spurred much active debate and animated negotiations as delegates were determined to reach a better agreement.”

In the ensuing negotiations, students representing larger nations, such as China, agreed to greater commitments, but only in the event that other large nations, such as the United States also agreed to greater pledges proportionate to their past contributions to climate change. Similarly, students recognised the inequalities of the climate crisis in developing countries, and sought to tackle this inequality by seeking a pledge of €100 billion per annum to the Global South by the Global North. The negotiations ended with sufficient pledges by the student negotiators to limit global warming to 2˚C. This result indicated to the student body the difficulties faced by countries in achieving goals in line with 1.5˚C global warming, and as Darren Reidy added, “especially when delegates must represent national interests, above that of a global solidarity.”

Dr. Rogan noted the importance of students negotiating, “on behalf of countries different to their own nationalities, for example, Irish and European students had to negotiate on behalf of the world’s poorest nations which are much more impacted by climate change.” He added that “this was designed to give the students a perspective that’s different to their own, which will hopefully lead to greater awareness of the challenges, as well as deeper empathy.” 

Mark Falvey also observed that Mock COP26 at UCC offered students an important learning experience – an opportunity to learn to compromise, and to make effective use of time to reach decisions, which he hopes they will take forward from the event. 

In addition to Mock COP26, UCC unveiled a sustainability mural to mark the beginning of COP26 in Glasgow. The mural is situated on the main campus, by the Engineering Buildings. It features a depiction of Cork as it is today, in comparison with a brighter, greener Cork City. The mural is accompanied by signage which asks thought-provoking questions such as “Come on, what can Cork city really do? This city is too small to have any impact on climate change,” and “I’m just one person, it’s too late, I can’t make a difference.”

Upon the unveiling of the mural, President O’Halloran stated that, “it is important that we point to solutions and work with communities in the urgent challenge that faces us all”, and that, “this mural seeks to inspire thinking, encourage conversations and provoke action to create communities that work with our environment in securing a sustainable future.”