Meet the PhD students from across FoNS heading to COP26


Photos of the PhD students from across FoNS heading to COP26

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) has just begun in Glasgow.

COP26 presents a critical opportunity for countries and industries to commit to – and implement – ambitious plans for tackling climate change. Six FoNS PhD students are heading there as part of the Imperial delegation.  

We caught up with Courtnae BaileyKrista Halttunen and Sofia Palazzo Corner (CEP), Galina Jönsson and Patrick Walkden (Life Sciences) and Paloma Ortega Arriaga (Grantham Institute and Physics) to hear more about their hopes for the conference, and how they stay motivated and positive working in the area of climate change and biodiversity loss. 

Why is COP26 such a big deal? 

Patrick: Many recent studies show that this next ten years is crucial in our fight to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels. If emissions don't go down very, very fast then that limit is going to be overshot within the next 20 years, with catastrophic consequences. COP26 is an opportunity for us to regalvanise our ambition and renew the commitments put in place as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement; the evidence clearly shows that our actions over the past six years have gone nowhere near far enough. 

Courtnae: The key to achieving the Paris goals alongside policy is the mobilisation of sufficient capital to move from just planning to implementation. The long-term goal on climate finance was to collectively mobilise 100 billion US dollars per year by 2020 to pump into climate action. We're expecting a lot in terms of setting new collective finance commitments at COP26, especially as we missed the opportunity for negotiators to meet last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Patrick: The climate crisis is the most profound thing we’ve ever faced as humans. COP26 is hopefully an amazing opportunity learn more about the priorities and ambitions of different countries, and witness transformative targets being made. There's increasing fear in the younger population who’ve heard decision-makers rhetoric alongside inaction for too long. COP26 in some ways symbolises – to the public – political will about the existential issue we all face. 

Galina: Paris 2015 was great, but it was all about policy. Glasgow is about actually implementing the Paris Agreement, formulating the actions that will keep us under 1.5 degrees warming… and the stakes could not be higher. 

What's so useful about being there in person? 

Galina: One part of me wishes that I didn’t have to go, but the truth is we're seriously running out of time to safeguard the planet and its resources that we all depend on. If we don't do something about the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss many of my study species, and those of my colleagues, will likely be extinct within a few decades. Given the critical situation we find ourselves in, I reckon that the best use of my time is to throw myself in the deep end and learn as much about policymaking as quickly as possible, so that I can try to be part of the policy changes we so urgently need. COP26 presents an incredible opportunity, and I’m finding it more and more interesting as I’m learning about the intricacies of international environmental frameworks. 

I'm cycling from London to Glasgow as part of Ride the Change. Our aim is to bring a message of hope, determination and commitment to climate action – it’s a spectacle, but it’s also a pilgrimage of sorts. Sofia Palazzo Corner Research Postgraduate, CEP

Sofia: I'm cycling from London to Glasgow with about 100 other people as part of Ride the Change. Our aim is to bring a message of hope, determination, and commitment to climate action – it’s a spectacle, but it’s also a pilgrimage of sorts, speaking to people across the UK as we make our way up to COP26.

It feels especially important to be out now speaking to the public, academics, policy makers and the private sector after 18 months of remote working and lockdowns. I find people always take you by surprise with what they do and don’t know about climate change – it’s a very effective reality check for which messages have and haven’t made their way through. As UK academics, I think there’s also a stronger sense of ownership for this COP, so it feels important to be there in person. My research is about uncertainty in the Earth system, so I’m keen to see how that’s incorporated into the negotiations, and how it’s translated to an understanding of risk. 

Courtnae: COP provides a space where we’re able to draw on the expertise of so many different people who, outside of the conference, would be much harder to contact. In this one space we can get a better understanding of what negotiators are pushing for and listen to discussions we might not have thought were relevant to our work. You then start to realise more deeply how everything is linked and better understand how your work fits into the much bigger picture, which gives you an idea of what your next steps might look like – both for your PhD and your career. As it pertains to climate finance, I think there’s a disconnect between the languages the public and private sectors use, and COP presents that opportunity to see how both sectors are addressing climate change. 

We’re going as scientists, but we're also going there as people, citizens of humanity who have huge personal stakes in this along with everybody else. Krista Halttunen Research Postgraduate, CEP

Krista: I'm keen on the real-world context – how do we translate pathways to actions and what does it look like? For my PhD I talk to a lot of people in the oil industry and from the policy world, but I'm often focused on actors in the UK and Europe. I'm really hoping to use COP to engage with oil-producing nations who may have a completely different perspective on transition, particularly in terms of climate justice.

It's a chance to access information that you can't get elsewhere. We’re going as scientists, but we're also going there as people, citizens of humanity who have huge personal stakes in this along with everybody else. 

Paloma: COP should be an opportunity to see what the power dynamics look like, and gain broader perspectives on what's happening elsewhere, not just geographically, but in other fields of research outside my own. Many of the complex issues related to climate change and biodiversity loss are connected. To solve them we need collaboration between people from all disciplines from all around the world. As a researcher you spend so much time in your own bubble reading and writing papers, and sometimes it’s so useful to be able to talk to people face-to-face. Studying a PhD can be challenging, especially during the pandemic when many of us have been isolated, and the content of our PhDs can be overwhelming. It can be easy to give in to climate anxiety and question the purpose of our work, so heading to COP is very inspiring. 

What are your hopes for COP26? 

Of equal importance – and existential threat [to the climate change crisis] – is the biodiversity crisis, and we need to have an integrated approach. Nature is really key! Galina Jönsson Research Postgraduate, Life Sciences

Galina: I hope the UK as host nation steps up and mediates effectively so that we get nations together and actually get somewhere. In terms of my specific research area, top of my wish list would be getting a single body or unified monitoring framework that ensures that what both UNFCCC and CBD are doing runs in parallel.

Everyone is talking about COP26. Everyone is talking about emissions. There's no doubt, we need to reduce emissions. But COP15 Part One was a few weeks ago – no one talked about that! Of equal importance – and existential threat – is the biodiversity crisis, and we need to have an integrated approach. Nature is really key! 

Paloma: Most research into the energy question focuses on environmental impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. There is little attention on other impacts beyond emissions, such as water usage and biodiversity loss. It’s critical, especially now, to join the dots and appreciate just how much trouble our lifestyles and choices can cause. These aren’t separate issues. In concrete terms we need a lot of money to solve this, so one clear action is the need to mobilise government and private funding. The UK needs to demonstrate real leadership so that other countries are willing to do so as well. 

Krista: Yes, wealthy, developed countries need to take a bit of a hit and lead by example. I hope the conclusive ambitions don't get hugely watered down by one or two countries – like oil-producing nations or countries relying heavily on coal – this kind of thing has happened before. I'm hoping that the UK as host can remain firm and try to prevent hijacking of the final consensus. 

Courtnae: In order to have impact our ambition needs to be more than superficial – we need to put a number on things and meet these targets, and our ambitions must also be equitable in supporting developing countries so that they can also transition to a low carbon climate resilient development pathway. So, I hope Parties are able to not only set ambitious targets, but commit to the actions needed to achieve those. 

Has the climate change induced weather chaos this year focused minds on action? 

[The impacts of climate change] have been happening in developing countries for years, without such media coverage. We need to give a lot more attention to developing countries. Adaptation has been on their radar for decades. Courtnae Bailey Research Postgraduate, CEP

Patrick: It's tangible for many people now, and you would hope that this realisation galvanises us. This shouldn't be the new normal – the baseline for what we accept as the effects of climate change shouldn’t shift. There are a lot of very immediate social issues, aside from climate change, that need attention, which influence decisions at the ballot box, but it’s only going to get worse if we don’t take immediate action, it’s critical that COP makes meaningful impact. So much of it comes down to politicians in power making profound, transformative changes. 

Courtnae: It also signals to us that we can't keep waiting until we see catastrophes happen in front of us to propel momentum. The fires in California, the flooding in the UK – these events are bringing attention to the need to reduce emissions. Developed countries in the global north are starting to experience the impacts of climate change themselves, and this is driving a shift. But these impacts have been happening in developing countries for years, without necessarily having the global media coverage or the same significant realisation in response. We need to give a lot more attention to developing countries. Adaptation has been on their radar for decades. 

Krista: I think the recent media coverage has two sides. Seeing the impact closer to home has really brought the issues to the forefront in northern Europe, which is significant in terms of increasing pressure from voters towards politicians. On the other hand, major political leaders, like Putin and Xi Jinping, are possibly not even going to attend COP26, so I think we have quite a specific view here in the UK where both major political parties are motivated to action net zero. That alone isn't enough. We have to bring the whole world on board, including countries like Saudi Arabia who depend on oil. 

Mexico was one of the first countries to adopt climate legislation in line with the Paris Agreement [but] the current administration is now betting on oil and coal [which] illustrates how fragile these commitments can be. Paloma Ortega Arriaga Research Postgraduate, Grantham Institute

Paloma: I think having more coverage of people facing weather chaos has raised the alarm and I expect to see this reflected during the COP negotiations, but it’s also important to have the political will to implement those commitments afterwards.

I'm from Mexico, which was one of the first countries to adopt climate legislation in line with the Paris Agreement – especially important as Mexico frequently suffers from hurricanes and droughts. However, the current administration has shown little interest in the energy transition and is now betting on oil and coal for the foreseeable future, by investing in a new refinery, among other things. This just illustrates how fragile these commitments can be, even in countries that are themselves highly vulnerable to climate change. It's really important to engage with people who don't think it's an issue. The discussions at COP will feed the narratives we use to communicate about the crisis... we need everyone on board. 

Krista: What's upsetting is that people who implement new policies for things like coal and oil refineries want to support their local economy, but long-term they’re just making it worse through accelerated climate change. It's really frustrating to see this cognitive dissonance, but it’s part of our job to make the reality clearer to the decision-makers. 

How do you stay positive as researchers involved in climate change? 

Patrick: As scientists we’re painfully aware of how close to disaster we really are. It can be difficult to remain optimistic, but there's evidence showing we still do have an opportunity to act now – I really hold onto that. And scientists are still optimistic. There are lots of ideas about the different solutions we have, and just hearing the passion and energy of other people in the face of this crisis gives me positivity about the future, about how dedicated we are. We just need to push that urgency and energy onto decision makers so that they can implement the action. 

As scientists we’re painfully aware of how close to disaster we really are. It can be difficult to remain optimistic, but there's evidence showing we still do have an opportunity to act now Patrick Walkden Research Postgraduate, Life Sciences

Sofia: It’s hard, but the positive message is that we do have agency. Climate change isn’t binary: we’re not talking about either no climate change at all, or all of the climate change we can imagine happening in one go, however much it may sound like that at times. That means it absolutely makes a difference what we do now, in the next decade, and the decade after that. And there are loads of good news stories when you start looking for them, like the success of the UK’s first climate citizen’s assembly

Paloma: Seeing the activism of younger generations in response to the world they’re going to inherit – it’s terrifying, but also gives me hope that they are already engaged and taking matters into their own hands. 

Galina: Anxiety about the climate crisis is real and valid, and if you’re finding it overwhelming it’s really important to reach out for help, whether that’s by connecting with people, doing exercise or finding out more about therapy that’s available – especially to students. There are resources at the university so don’t just brush off the worries you have about it. Share them and talk to other people. 

Krista: I've had very bad climate anxiety since I was a child, but what has helped me has been getting more involved in the sustainability space. Working in this area is giving me more perspective on the huge efforts that are happening, and where I can fit into that. I also honestly believe, despite what it might seem like on Twitter and the media, most people are good people who want to do good things and who want the best for themselves and their loved ones. If you get past certain divisions, people can have different views and at the same time be unified in wanting to protect the planet. We have to find the common ground that emphasises how meaningful this crisis is to us all.  

Courtnae: It’s often depressing learning about the social and economic impacts climate change is having on developing countries, and how it is undermining sustainable development. I’m given hope by the engagement from the younger generation and their desire to make a difference, but also by the sub-national and private sector driven initiatives to address the problem. I think now that developed countries are being affected more by climate related disasters, the financial implications of physical climate and transition risks are becoming more recognised and appreciated— ‘money talks’, so I think with greater understanding of the risks there would be greater efforts to address them. It is still dauting, but there is hope.


Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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