Author: Sagar Shah

The People, Not the Presidents

“Wow what an amazing experience! What was COP like?!” For anyone I haven’t had the chance to talk to since returning, I’ll put my answer here. At some point, you can’t wait for a head of state to commit to net-zero or a United Nations pact to solve climate change. Although I am much more optimistic of international negotiations than the media coverage of COP tends to be, I still found little inspiration from the Presidents or Prime Ministers. However, the observers I met throughout my week at COP26 sparked this immense drive to continue dedicating my life’s work to the clean energy transition that will save our generation from the catastrophic impacts of human-induced climate change. I met some of the most amazing people from around the world, all contributing to this effort in their unique ways and in their own communities. My biggest takeaway from COP: the people of this world will continue to fight against climate change until they are no longer physically able to do so. The biggest contribution I can make is to continue doing the same thing in my own community.

Now going back to the point about the international negotiations and media portrayal. Reading the New York Times’s coverage of COP26 can make one really pessimistic about climate change negotiations. One of the extremely human aspects of COP is that most of the negotiations happen in the final hours (and usually extend past the deadline). After all the dust has settled on the official Glasgow Pact, the document accomplishes more than even I was expecting. I put together this table of some of the goals of COP and the outcomes achieved through the Glasgow Pact and announced by individual countries during the two weeks. 

Doing this exercise, made me realize that COP26 actually achieved more than I expected and more than I think the world expected. Even so, we should continue asking our world leaders to increase ambition and continuously integrate climate solutions into every aspect of governance.

Lastly, in the week since returning from COP I was asked to present my experience to the program office in the U.S. Department of Energy that I worked for this past summer. I realized over the course of preparing for this presentation that when a world leader promises to “do the work of fighting climate change”, what they really mean is to commit effort and resources via their government offices to make incremental and niche tweaks to the existing economy. The work of fighting climate action occurs in these program offices all across the U.S. government and all across the world. My former colleagues felt inspired by my commentary and found inspiration from what I was discussing. In these program offices, there is a tendency to feel like the work you are doing is small and not part of this big picture of climate action, but when you zoom out you realize it is the fundamental work of solving climate change. 

As I stated earlier, I truly believe the people of this world, not just the Presidents, will be the ones to impart the crucial changes in our fight against climate change.

An Economy in Transition and Collaborative Dialogues

The first two days of COP were confusing, to say the least. The World Leaders Summit occupied the beginning of COP and drew so much attention that the pavilions (where most informal events are held) had limited schedules. It wasn’t until Wednesday that we really started to get into the groove of things and gain a firmer understanding of how we wanted to tackle COP. We focused on attending pavilion events, where countries assemble panels of public and private sector leaders to discuss efforts and progress occurring in their country. The events cover a range of topics and match the theme of the day scheduled by the COP organizers. For Ben and I, we were most excited about Energy day on Thursday since panels would be discussing topics we have the most prior knowledge and interest in. 

Thursday mostly tracked around the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Green Hydrogen Catapult, an initiative that brings together industrial companies from around the world to make commitments to green hydrogen production. The day began with a private roundtable among CEOs and Ministers of the Environment on the potential for green hydrogen. Ministers shared what their countries are working on and the Director for Energy in John Kerry’s office spoke about the First Mover’s Coalition, a group of businesses committed to purchasing green hydrogen in an effort to demonstrate the existence of demand. The second event was part of the Marrakech Partnerships and was a short panel on green hydrogen. Jules Kortenhorst, the CEO of RMI, moderated the panel of business leaders and facilitated a discussion on their commitments to green hydrogen. This was sort of the leadup to the big event RMI was working on, the launch of the Green Hydrogen Catapult. At this event in the Action Hub (a beautiful multimedia space) a similar panel announced that the Catapult of 11 companies from around the world were committed to operating 45 GW of green hydrogen by 2027. The size of this announcement is enormous given the International Energy Agency projected that the world will need 80 GW of green hydrogen to stay on track for 1.5°C goals. 

Overall, Energy day reflected an economy in the midst of a clean energy transition. There was hardly any talk of energy efficiency, wind, solar, or any other early stage clean energy technologies. Instead, talk was about technology that will hasten existing decarbonization efforts and programs that will facilitate sharing lessons learned. 

Additionally, We were pleasantly surprised that dialogue from the United States was about collaboration within the government, between governments, and between the public and private sectors. Events at the U.S. Center avoided boasting about redundant efforts and focused on innovating together with partners. The center successfully incorporated individuals working in “the weeds” of climate innovation into direct dialogue with high-level messengers like Secretary of Energy Granholm and White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy. 

The conversations around climate governance and technology development show a degree of maturity in our collective decarbonization effort. Leaving COP26, we are hopeful that global dialogues around climate will continue to be collaborative and allow innovation to be shared across borders. This is a step in the right direction for international dialogue and a necessity in our fight against climate change.

– Ben Joseph and Sagar Shah

Our “Last Best Chance”

I heard about the Duke UNFCCC Practicum course from a fellow Duke undergraduate three years ago. Since then it has been one of my goals at Duke to take the course and attend a Conference of Parties (COP). Three years and a global pandemic later, here we are. On my way to Glasgow to attend COP26: our “last best chance” at limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C. In a span of three years marred with intensifying droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, we are experiencing the impacts of human-induced climate change. Glasgow feels like a public and scientific tipping point, yet from a negotiations perspective (according to our guest speakers in the class) this COP falls far short of the significance of Paris 2015.


Which means…I honestly have no idea what to expect. What does an international climate change conference entail in the midst of a global pandemic? How do you host a gathering of 25,000 people when millions of individuals suffering the impacts of climate change don’t have access to the COVID vaccine? What does solving climate change mean when Glasgow is being called our “last best chance”? I hope to answer some of these questions in the coming week and I imagine I will leave asking myself a whole lot more.


As for what I will be doing at COP26, I will be working with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) All In Pledge and Green Hydrogen Catapult. I will be staffing events on several days, including an event where U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry might be speaking (credited with saying “last best chance”)?! I am interested to see how COP functions as both an international negotiation event and a public-oriented media event. I will be mostly working on the media side, welcoming attendees, taking meeting notes, and sending quotes at the various panels and press conferences. The specific days I am working with RMI (Tuesday and Thursday) are jam-packed with event after event and then of course the receptions after the events. I am particularly looking forward to my Thursday, helping with RMI’s launch of the Green Hydrogen Catapult, a collaborative effort with the business community to demonstrate and further the development of green hydrogen. RMI’s CEO Jules Kortenhorst, will be speaking that day giving a presentation and a press conference for the program launch. Given my work on green hydrogen in U.S. Congressional appropriations, it will be exciting to watch the topic unfold on the world stage.


Lastly, I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to travel internationally and attend a gathering of the United Nations. My great grandfathers were involved in the early work of the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization and it feels historic and reverent to engage in a similar forum that my generations prior did. I am excited. I am nervous. I am honored. It’s go time. Let’s use this special moment in time and place to take one big step forward in solving the biggest problem our generation will ever face. Because according to the science, it’s our last best chance.

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