The 27th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference concluded Nov. 18 at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, after two weeks of deliberations. Ashish Sharma, an atmospheric sciences professor and climate and urban sustainability lead at the University of Illinois System’s Discovery Partners Institute, spoke with News Bureau physical sciences editor Lois Yoksoulian about the key takeaways from this year’s meeting and how academia can help implement those lessons.
Where do we stand in terms of meeting the goals set during the 2021 U.N. Climate Summit?
Last year’s conference in Glasgow resulted in lofty goals and pledges with high hopes for actions that would slow global warming. Twenty-four of 194 participating nations intensified their energy plans. However, we still see greenhouse gas emissions increasing by 10% by 2030.
The world economic, food and energy supply chain is disrupted not only by climate change and the pandemic, but by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a sharp rise in oil prices. In this time of energy crisis, many countries have resuscitated or extended their coal-fired power plants. This shift in energy production has torpedoed our ambitious global plans to increase reliance on renewables.
For example, Germany has begun to use decommissioned coal-fired power plants to create an 8.2 gigawatt reserve supply. Similarly, India plans to reopen 100-plus coal mines to address its immediate energy demands from heatwaves. I hope this will be treated as a stopgap measure and that this instability in the oil and gas supply does not reverse our momentum to keep our planet from warming over 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.
What are some of the more concerning climate events we have witnessed over the past year?
One-third of Pakistan, with 33 million people, was flooded. There were floods as well in Africa, Cuba was without power due to hurricanes and Europe witnessed one of the hottest summers in history.
The tropics lost more than 11 million hectares of forest in 2021 alone. Out of this, 3.75 million hectares of loss occurred within tropical primary rainforests – areas of critical importance for carbon storage and biodiversity – equivalent to a rate of 10 football fields a minute. Tropical primary forest loss in 2021 resulted in 2.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to a full year of fossil fuel emissions by India.
What are some of the key takeaways from this year’s conference?
This year’s meeting was designed around “implementation” aimed at fulfilling climate commitments and plans, and turning them into tangible actions through mitigation and adaptation initiatives, as well as discussions around climate finance for enacting these solutions. However, most of the COP 27 discussions centered on a fund to address climate-induced losses for vulnerable nations.
Nonetheless, there is positive news from COP 27. The U.S. launched the Net-Zero Government Initiative, inviting governments to lead by example and achieve net-zero emissions from national government operations by no later than 2050. Eighteen other countries joined in this initiative.
Similarly, around 150 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge, an initiative supported by the U.S. and the European Union to cut global methane emissions from energy, agriculture and waste from 2020 levels by at least 30% by 2030, which could eliminate over 0.2 C warming by 2050.
COP 27 saw progress toward ending deforestation by 2030 through the Forests and Climate Leaders' Partnership, which will provide $12 billion, of which $2.67 billion has already been spent. If the deforestation targets were reached by the end of the decade, this would represent 10% of the climate mitigation needed by 2030 to align with Paris Agreement goals of capping global warming to no more than 1.5 C. In addition, $4.5 billion more was committed this year at COP 27 from public and private donors.
Last year, we discussed the important role that cities have in implementing goals set at the annual COP conferences. Is there any progress in that area?
Showing fortitude that nations sometimes lack, groups of cities are taking action on climate change, nature protection and achieving U.N. sustainable goals. For example, COP 27 and U.N.-Habitat co-developed Sustainable Urban Resilience to focus on buildings and housing, urban energy, urban waste/consumption, urban mobility and urban water.
The U.S. also has recognized the role of cities in shaping climate action. Recently, the U.S. State Department and Bloomberg Philanthropies created a first-of-its-kind initiative, the Subnational Climate Action Leaders Exchange, to help cities, states and regions develop and implement net-zero, climate-resilient targets and roadmaps. Likewise, many other global city coalitions and nongovernmental organizations are bolstering climate action via the “think globally, act locally” mantra.
There seems to be a disconnect between what academic research warns us about regarding climate change and action on the part of industry and government. Do you think there is anything that academia can do to make that connection?
Academic institutions have institutional knowledge and expertise to create solutions, industry has thought leadership and capacity to scale, and cities have the will and desire to support climate-friendly policies. Together we can accelerate implementation at local levels.
The Chicago region is a perfect example. We are working with institutions spanning industry and nonprofit sectors to assess the impact of nature-based and technological solutions to prepare them for climate change risk to their business prospects, value and investments. Such partnerships will help the industry provide climate-related financial disclosures for risk assessment and capital allocation, and to develop strategic planning.
Academic institutions also need to revisit how we think about climate change solutions and climate education. For example, we at the Discovery Partners Institute are aligning our climate research portfolio to help advance basic and applied science as well as working with a growing number of industry partners to collectively help achieve their climate and sustainability goals. We also are working on developing climate science curriculum and education at all levels of the workforce for corporations and institutions.
Such academic-industry partnerships and solutions will allow industry to revisit goals that will benefit not only their financial statements, but also their employees and the communities and regions where they work.