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What will it take to actually fight climate change?

Cop28 is over. The final text has been released, delegates are home, and my classmates and I are now Duke UNFCCC Practicum alumni. The day COP28 ended, someone in the researchers’ constituency group chat sent the link to this Guardian article about the winners and losers of COP28, and it seemed to sum up my own observations at COP pretty well. Among the winners: the fossil fuel industry and clean energy companies, and among the losers: scientists, youth… the climate. An interesting juxtaposition. 

I want to spend my last blog post reflecting on my experience as whole, on what I will say to people who ask what COP has been like, and on what will it take to actually fight climate change.  

First – what do I think about the agreements? It was disheartening to receive the news that fossil fuel phase out language was not included in the final document (although Luna’s blog brings up interesting points about translations and potentially celebrating incremental steps). It was also extremely frustrating to follow along with other scientists and researchers about the rocky negotiations regarding the Global Stocktake (GST), where the science was being misinterpreted, intentionally left out, and not acted upon. And this is all the more disappointing after spending the past week, after I switched with the second half of the Duke class on Dec 7, at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, surrounded by intelligent, passionate natural scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding more about our planet and the impact we have had.  

The experience of attending even just part of COP28 in person has been crazy. I was in spaces that I have only dreamed about, listened to so many different talks about so many intersections within climate change, and learned from so many different people. Some of the most impactful sessions that I attended were those led by indigenous leaders and community members from regions around the world, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from them and hear their stories.  

I’ve been thinking about who’s voice was not being heard at COP, who was a COP28 loser because they couldn’t even be here or couldn’t enter this space successfully. Ceci’s post talks about the very high barrier to entry, and from the language to the cost of being here to the lack of opportunity to get a badge, there were so many people who are being left out. And in that same vein, there were a few people whose voices were amplified, the COP28 winners.  

So what is next? Where do we go from here? What has become so apparent to me is the need for a full-frontal, multilateral and vertical effort from all people to fight climate change. From scientists to governments of all levels to farmers to artists to civil society to private companies to everyone – we all must address climate change and we must work together to do so. Dania’s post asks if COP is even the right method to keep going, and no one has all of the right answers. The past two weeks I have been inspired and disillusioned, excited and frustrated, but most of all resolved. We must fight for climate  action, for climate justice, for an equitable and just transition, for accountability and responsibility, for science-based action, for a livable future. COPs will not be the only solution, but I hope we can keep building off of the momentum from COP28. The titles (and contents) of Katie’s posts are words that I want to end on: the importance of thinking about who or what does your work serve and that the work continues after COP28. 

My final, final words – thank you again to our fabulous TAs Ina and Gabriela and our incredible instructor Jackson. Biggest hugs to my wonderful classmates who clearly (from all of my links) inspire me and push me to think more and be better – I’m ending my COP28 experience with gratitude and passion because of you all. 

The Transnational Judicial Dialogue in the COP28

Climate change litigations are ongoing across the globe: from domestic courts to regional human rights courts, from The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to International Court of Justice. Never had I expected such litigations would be discussed in the COP28, a place for negotiating international climate change agreements.

On the morning of Dec. 10, I attended a high-level dialogue between Chief Justices, Supreme Court Justices, and experts explored approaches and solutions to climate change-related disputes arising before domestic or regional courts across the globe. The judges came from Supreme Courts of Nepal, Pakistan, South Africa, Brazil, as well as International Court of Justice (ICJ). Indeed, this is the first time that senior judges have had an official event at a climate COP.

On the afternoon of Dec. 10, in the the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)Pavilion, several high-profile experts, including Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and Christina Voigt, Chair of IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law, also held a panel on “Islands Driving Forward Climate Change Law.” This panel mainly discussed how small island states brought climate change disputes into international courts in the form of advisory opinions. Given the significant of the ITLOS and ICJ opinions, such advisory opinions would have a significant, long-term impact regarding states’ obligations.

Given the seriousness of climate crisis as well as the legislative delay, it is easy to understand the judicial activism in domestic states across the globe. Importantly, the COP28 provide an international platform for judges from different countries to share their unique practices, to talk with each other, to listen each other, and to learn from each other. These judges are practicing transnational judicial dialogue, referring to exchanges among courts and judges that belong to different national and international legal regimes.

Such possibility of transnational judicial dialogue at the COP28 should be attributed to the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law, which has prepared the submissions and acting as legal counsels for related climate change litigations. However, IUCN may have some conflicting roles in organizing the transnational judicial dialogue and in acting as legal counsels for related climate change litigations.

Indeed, the fascination of international climate change law lays in this aspect: the transnational judicial dialogue can test the limits of many aspects of law: constitutional law, torts, administrative law, international human rights law, law of sea, and etc. The COP28 provides a perfect opportunity to observe this “dialogue” in real, in person.

Trade and Climate Change: Two Models of International Law-making

The Global Stocktake has revealed that the world is falling far short of the greenhouse gas emissions cuts required to avoid the worst effects of climate change. States have to deliver greater emissions reductions. Then how do we move from current greenhouse gas emissions trajectories toward net-zero emissions by mid-century?

Trade can offer such a policy tool – indeed, one that has been largely under-appreciated.  Indeed, the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), holding the Presidency of COP28, has declared the first ever thematic Trade Day in the 30-year history of the climate change summit meetings. The Trade House Pavilion held many events on the intersection between international trade and climate change. At COP28, two projects explored how to reconfigure international trade toward a sustainable future.

First, the Remaking Global Trade for a Sustainable Future Project – representing a world-wide network of academics and other researchers – has generated a WTO reform agenda under the banner of the Villars Framework for a Sustainable Trade System. At COP28, I had luckily attended its organized event “Remaking the Global Trade System for a Sustainable Future: From COP28 to MC13” in the Trade House. Through the talk afterwards, I learned that how the founding partners of this project set up a team, slimmed their agenda, elevated this project to international forum, built international consensus, and reform international trade agreements.

Second, the Making the Trade System Work for Climate 2.0 Project also shared its report in the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate Pavilion. It explores three emerging models of cooperation relating to Border Carbon Adjustments (BCAs), namely the G7 Climate Club, the transatlantic talks on a Global Arrangement on Sustainable Steel and Aluminium (GASSA), and the Inclusive Forum on Carbon Mitigation Approaches (IFCMA) launched by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); and assesses the prospects for each model.

Compared with the second project, the first project is more systematic, strategic, action-oriented. Indeed, these two projects of reconfiguring international trade aligning with climate change demonstrate two approaches to international law-making. This first is the build-up approach: one group of scholars/policy makers tries to illustrate the need to incorporate new principles/content into existing international agreement; and the second is regional experimental approach: regional state parties would like to make agreement among their small circles and hope their reginal agreement could accepted globally in the future. In the face of the most serious challenge—climate change, these two approaches are ongoing at the same time.

International trade could help to ensure that green technologies, projects, and infrastructure get disseminated across the world at speed and scale. Only with the disseminated green technologies, projects and infrastructure, could the oil-dependent economies transition away from fossil fuels and embrace renewable energies.

The Fallacy of Phasing Out Fossil Fuels?

“End fossil fuel: Fast, Fair and Forever”! Young generations –their future is at stake—were protesting in the COP 28. One major issue was whether there should be a “phase-out [abated] fossil fuels” language in the final agreement. There emerged several groups of interests against phasing out fossil fuel:

First, the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), holding the Presidency of COP28 is an oil-dependent economy; it would be naïve to rely on the UAE to push the agenda to phase out fossil fuel to against its own interests. Second, not only OPEC economies, small countries such as South Sudan and Bahrain derive more than 70% of their revenue from petroleum. All of them are against ending fossil fuel. Third, the most vulnerable states and the least developed states, indeed, want more financial support rather than phasing out fossil fuels. The clear language of financial contribution from developed states means more than phasing out fossil fuels.

Here, I also would like to share the viewpoints of a government official from an oil-dependent state. It does not mean that I agree with what he shared with me. On my last way, when I was waiting for the scheduled closing ceremony, I was told that the closing ceremony would not happen accordingly since the negotiations had not come into fruit. As I sadly sat in the room, I saw another person was also waiting there. I told him that the closing ceremony would not happen that day and he could leave. Then we talked more, we talked for more than two hours. He was a government official from an oil-depend country and shared with me his thoughts about phasing-out fossil fuels:

First, fossil fuels are closely related to economic growth and human progress. As long as there is human demand, we need fossil fuels, not to mention that there is an increase in human demand. One solution would be that: we people go back to 100 years earlier. However, people are not willing to go back. Second, regarding to renewable energy, not every country has that capacity or resources to produce renewable energy. For instance, his country does not have capacity to produce EVs. Third, even if the oil-dependent states have the capacity to renewable energy, what’s the future of their economic growth if they don’t sell oil? What can they sell? Will developed states consistently provide financial support to these oil-depend country? Here, oil industry is an important economic tool.

Ending fossil fuels needs to be linked with green tech transfer as well as financial support. Indeed, anticipating the backlash from oil-dependent economies, in advance of the COP 28, the United States and China in the Sunnylands Statement emphasized the role of tripling renewable energy capacity rather than phasing out fossil fuels, as a practical way to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation.

Undoubtedly, the COP 28 achieved significant progress: it is the first time to call states to “transition away” from fossil-fuels. Similar debates in phasing out fossil fuels can still happen in the COP 29 in Azerbaijan, another oil-dependent economy. Young generations—and their future—cannot wait for the hesitation.

What is Next for Climate and Health?

My experience at COP28 has been overwhelming but life-changing. This course and culminating with the conference has been a highlight for the semester. I have learned a great deal about how international actors solve problems, an essential skill for my global health career. I have learned the complexities of reaching a consensus amidst the contrasting interests of varying parties. Despite not accomplishing the desired targets at the adjournment of the COP28, it offers avenues of what to pursue next.

One of the reasons for attending COP28 was to develop research skills. I met different researchers conducting various observational studies to identify how high heat influences maternal morbidity and how particulate matter has led to the emergence of respiratory illnesses. It was inspiring to witness the amazing work other researchers have already conducted. However, significant gaps still exist to address and explore the link between climate and health. With the several connections made, I have support in my search to study climate factors that influence MI patients.

The clients I worked with at the conference were amazing! The Global Climate and Health Alliance was one of the leading health organizations in the health and climate space. They were committed to tracking gaps in the negoatiations and reaching out to countries to pursue them in the right direction. Much more work is needed in advocacy and outreach, and I would like to continue working with them to fulfill their mission. RTI International has impactful interventions in the climate and health space. It would be a great organization to be affiliated with to learn how impactful I can be in adaptation and mitigation.

The final results of the negotiations at this conference sadden many people’s hearts. Despite all the overwhelming evidence, parties were still reluctant to take strict measures to phase out fossil fuels. Nonetheless, the passion of the health delegates, indigenous communities, and youth was encouraging. We will keep fighting for what is right!

Lastly, the climate space is vast, and several avenues exist for making a difference. While still uncertain about my role here, I will utilize the network, clients, and skills I have learned to figure out my next step. The climate and health space is novel to many health workers; my role is significant in spreading awareness, influencing policies, and designing impactful interventions. Let us see where this road will lead!


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