COP26: A UConn Perspective on the Climate Change Summit

CIRCA's Jim O'Donnell shares his on-the-ground perspective from the momentous conference in Scotland

A television camera operator works in front of a COP26 logo displayed on a screen ahead of an event on the sidelines of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on November 9, 2021.

A television camera operator works in front of a COP26 logo displayed on a screen ahead of an event on the sidelines of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on November 9, 2021. (Photo by Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Professor of Marine Sciences and Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation Executive Director Jim O’Donnell traveled across the Atlantic this week to attend the 26th United Nations climate change conference, known as COP26 (“COP” being an abbreviation for “conference of parties”), where leaders from around the globe began meeting in Glasgow, Scotland on October 31 to confront the climate crisis. Read on for Jim’s perspective from what many hope will be a ground-breaking climate conference…


Saturday, Nov. 6

The UConn delegation to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland set off on from Storrs on Saturday afternoon. The party was comprised of fourteen students from across the University, and five faculty from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We are staying in the heart of the ancient city of Edinburgh (I have encouraged students to use the correct pronunciation: ed-in-buh-rah). We arrived at midday on Sunday after a long overnight flight and I led the group on a rapid two-hour walk around some of the city’s famous landmarks (the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street). The weather was good and the students loved the scenery.

The UConn delegation prepares to head off for Glasgow.
The UConn delegation prepares to head off for Glasgow (courtesy of Jim O’Donnell).

Since COVID19 remains a very serious concern for a large international conference, the “test and trace” precautions are extensive. I had a test in the US the day before departure, and then an LFD (lateral flow device) test this morning. The UK provides kits for all delegates to do this every day, and the results have to be logged through an app with Britain’s beloved NHS (the National Health Service). I also need to submit to another PCD test by tomorrow. Since all delegates have to do this, and masks are mandatory, COP26 is probably one of the safest places to be in the UK at the moment.

In the early stages of the industrial revolution, Glasgow was major source of coal, steel, and industrial innovation so I think it is an appropriate city to agree to the “consigning coal to history” agenda suggested by British political leadership. But expectations for that outcome has been dimmed recently by the absence of China and Russia, two major sources of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, equivocations by Australia, and reticence in the US senate. It may not work out to be the end of coal, but since the US, UK and 18 other countries have agreed to end financing of new coal-fired power plants, it is at least the beginning of the end of coal.

Monday, Nov. 8

The first session I attended prompted me to think of the Cities Race to Resilience page, where communities can join and pledge to:

  1. Integrate climate change adaptation and resilience in all aspects of urban planning and undertake a community-wide climate risk and vulnerability assessment that also includes all vulnerable communities.
  2. Plan to use available knowledge and scientific evidence, including data and spatial analysis, for decision-making and action, and outline interim targets and milestones as part of a long-term commitment for citywide action.
  3. Immediately proceed to taking action by committing to at least one of the resilience actions as listed on by COP26.
  4. Report commitments by COP26 – and progress annually thereafter, to an existing or recommended reporting platform. If you have not reported before, you will be contacted by partners for support.

To help CT towns consider ways to increase their resilience, check out CIRCA’s Ten Steps to Municipal Resilience webpage and fact sheet that describe each of the ten steps and CIRCA’s and other organizations’ resources and tools to help communities take action.

Tuesday, Nov. 9

Resilience is a new focus of the COP. I attended several sessions coordinated by staff of the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) today. The representatives of some African nations stressed the need for attention to, and support for local communities. They pointed out that the processes in-place at the UN humanitarian programs for reacting to disasters work well, but there is a great need for “anticipatory action” to reduce losses and costs. They need to develop accurate future risk estimates at local scales, and ways to finance projects. These conclusions are almost echoes of what we have heard in Connecticut.

Jim O'Donnell at COP26 in Glasgow.
Jim O’Donnell at COP26 in Glasgow (contributed photo).

Kevin Horburgh, a physical oceanographer I met in Wales a decade ago, and I was pleased to hear him describe the scope of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Green Climate Fund (GCF). He recently became the Climate Science Lead for the GCF.  The GCF was established at COP16 in Cancun to fund project to assist developing countries. So far it has committed $10 Billion in donor funds and leveraged $27 Billion, to projects in 127 countries. He projected that 50% of future investments would be in adaptation programs (including training and early warning systems). Impressive projects to track and forecast river floods have already been developed areas of Africa already. But Ibrahima Cheikh Diong, the Director-General of the African Risk Capacity Group argued that more effort was required to increase capacity in developing countries to address multiple risks and to project future changes.

Wednesday, Nov. 10

The impacts of climate change, and the associated costs, are not uniformly distributed across the world. Warming and sea level rise will affect some countries much more than others, and the burden of mitigation actions will be a major burden to the major oil and coal producing countries. But the inevitable costs of climate change, whether through adaptation (or losses due to inaction) or mitigation policies will also have huge costs to small groups of people and their families. In some states the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power plants will disrupt communities and families, for example, and the impacts of sea level rise will lead to more expenses for coastal home owners in Connecticut. I led the group discussion with the #UConnTalksClimate group at out Hotel in Edinburgh this morning and used it to emphasize to the students that it is important to recognize the difference in perspectives of people impacted by adaptation and mitigation policies when discussing them since insensitive language can raise barriers to communication and inhibit consensus development. It is not irrational to object to a policy that disadvantages you financially even if it is good for society.

A session at COP26 on building resilience.
A session at COP26 on building resilience (courtesy of Jim O’Donnell).

So some of the material discussed in a session I attended in the Resilience Hub today on “Building an Alliance for a Just Transition: Actions Across Different Level of Government” really resonated.  Scotland has appointed a Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work to oversee the development of plans and associated implementation strategies to move the nation to a sustainable and just low carbon economy. Professor Jim Skea co-chairs an oversight commission formed to track progress and he summarized some of the steps they are taking. He began with the assertion that an unplanned transition, as occurred in many parts of Scotland in the 1970s was unjust.  The current plan is extensive, including local engagement, skills and competence training, and retraining. Robert Pollock, another Scot, from the European Union Platform for Coal Regions in Transition, reported there are still 250,000 jobs in 35 different regions of the EU and that the transition challenges facing each is vastly different. The EU also recognizes that climate justice involves a plan and investment to offset the impacts of the climate transition on these workers and families.

Lee Waters, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change in Wales was really quite inspiring. He said we need to make it easy for people to want the right thing. The responsibility of leaders was to provide people who are going to be impacted a vision for their future that they will see as just. As a politician, he recognized that telling people they need to change is difficult, but in his view, that is what leadership is.

The lesson for adaptation policy in Connecticut is simple.  We must continue to raise awareness of the need for towns to act to reduce climate-driven coastal risks, but we must also recognize that people that complain about costs, their driveways becoming steeper and views being degraded etc., have substantial points. To be effective, and just, adaptation policy must recognize these real and perceived costs and offer incentives to make it easy for everyone to get behind the implementation of adaptation plans.

Thursday, Nov. 11

The BBC has been paying quite a lot of attention to the COP26 process and had a nice summary of where we are. The overarching agreement is “the parties agree to act to limit emissions so that the increase in the global average temperature is less than 1.5C.” If the commitments made at prior meetings were achieved, the increase would be 2.8 C. With the additional commitment made at the COP26, the increase would be 1.8 C. I can’t comment on the accuracy of translations from fifth century Latin to modern English, but I read that St. Augustine wrote something like “Oh, Master, make me chaste and celibate – but not yet!” I was reminded of this when I saw the draft of the COP26 resolutions today. It “Calls upon Parties to accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” Perhaps the summary should be “Oh, Master, make me NetZero – but not yet!”

I spent today in the Science Pavilion learning about the methodology used by the UK to project the consequences of expected climate change on human health. Prof. Dann Mitchell (@ClimateDann) of the Univ. of Bristol summarized the array of analyses completed. The collaboration between climate and health scientists allowed empirical relationships between temperatures and mortality to be established for all the regions of the UK. They then down-scaled the projections of latest climate models to each region and aggregated the total deaths per year for several different warming levels. The details of the results could be disputed and refined, but the result that warming of 2C will lead to thousands more deaths per year from heat-related illnesses deserves broad attention. They also estimated lost work time in outdoor occupations, and increases in indicators of emotional health, and they were also extremely worrying. We obviously need to reduce emissions to limit warming, but some change is now unavoidable and the report effectively translates climate variables to human and economic impacts. These have attracted press attention, and are being used to design and prioritize effective and just adaptation strategies too.

The second half of my day was spent learning about the effect of climate change on the availability of food in the UK. The analysis requires understanding of where food is sourced and the impact of warming and water availability on those regions. The UK food does not appear to be significantly impacted directly. But some effects that have not been assessed yet. For example, it is anticipated that the production of cereals in low latitudes will shrink, but if the demand for biofuels increases the global demand may increase. These impacts on both supply and demand will raise costs. Similarly, the availability of fuel for transportation and distribution is likely to be curtailed, or the costs increased by emissions reduction policies. These changes in global markets and supply chains could be very disruptive. Since trade in food is global and interconnected, it seems to me that studies of the resilience of the national food supplies is of limited value.