Reflecting on COP26, 4 months later

COP26, hosted by the United Kingdom, in Glasgow, Scotland wrapped up just over four months ago in November 2021. I had the immense privilege and honor of attending COP26 with the University of Michigan’s Student Delegation made up of 13 graduate students this year. These last 4 months, as my day-to-day life fell back into a rhythm, my experience at COP26 has lingered and the lasting imprint of COP26 on my perspective and goals have become evident.

As a student pursuing a career in sustainability, I anticipated that COP26 would highlight what is broken in our systems, what is working, and provide valuable networking opportunities for my future career. Attending this global conference did highlight the difficulties of international collaboration, provide a global snapshot of the tremendous work being done by thousands to salvage our degrading environment, and I met a lot of people. However, the piece of COP26 that I have taken with me, is about the small events that happen throughout COP that are shining examples of Just Climate Action.

The Gender-Just Climate Solutions Awards, launched first in 2015 by the Women and Gender Constituency (one of the nine constituencies of the UNFCCC), was held on November 8th, during the second week of COP26, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the Blue Zone, in area C in an auditorium, barely filled. I had heard about the Awards from colleagues at the UN Climate Technology Centre & Network (CTCN), a co-host of the awards along with Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF) and others. I didn’t know what to expect, but on the eve of Gender Day at COP26, I wondered what would a Gender-Just Climate Solution Award mean or look like.

It was inspiring, to say the least, showcasing the work being done around the world for women and gender initiatives toward climate action. The 2021 cycle, had 157 applicants and 4 awards for Technical Solutions, Non-technical solutions, Transformational Solutions, and an Honorary mention were given at the ceremony. As a sustainability student, I often hear about the need for climate action initiatives to be scaleable, the need for equitable practices, and that it is up to me (and my peers) to be change agents. However, rarely am I given examples of successful initiatives that meet this criterion. Yet, as I sat in that auditorium, I heard about 4 of the 157 programs that meet the criteria of scaleable and equitable. I took home the publication of this year’s notable awardees and other inspiring programs, often started by grassroots, local communities. It is a guide for me, to think about solutions, to see what is possible. I share this knowledge with my peers, my mentors, my community as often as I can.

When just a short walk away, member parties were negotiating about the intricacies of wording, to create international agreements towards Paris Agreement targets, why were these solutions put off into a corner, in the evening, so easily missed? These initiatives cover issues surrounding water, agriculture, livelihoods, built environments, renewable energy, climate displacement, education, and so much more. There was wisdom, wisdom to learn from and to inspire, to help our global community take tangible, implementable action to limit global warming through a justice and equity lens.

Similarly, I found myself at the Health Pavillion, on one of the last nights of COP26, at the end of the day when many are leaving for dinner and other networking events. The session was called, “Climate Justice and the Burgeoning Mental Health Crisis”, where I heard from people experiencing first-hand environmental degradation, livelihood loss, the effects of the climate crisis on mental health. It was the only event that I heard about at COP26 that discussed mental health. This conversation is urgent and important, why is it deemed so irrelevant that it had such little platform?

We know from recent events in Ukraine, that human migration is a continued and building crisis of its own. Whether from conflict, resource depletion, or natural disaster, the climate crisis is spurring a new wave of human displacement and migration. Yet, it was only at one small side event at the EU Pavillion during week 2, “From Science to Policy and Action: Human Mobility in Times of Climate Change”, that I heard from any refugees at COP26. Indigenous and Local Communities are another group, that have not had the space and voice to share their deep wisdom on how to live in harmony with the Earth at COP26. Yet, in non-negotiating, non-plenary sessions, these voices are present. Our leaders, our decision-makers, and our communities must listen.

It is from these voices, that I learned the most at COP26. It is with my deepest gratitude that I had the opportunity to hear, listen, and take back with me the lessons I was taught. These voices must be uplifted at every opportunity because the solutions we need are there, waiting for us to listen.

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