Sina Löschke / IPCC Working Group II; Provided; Elizabeth Nelson
Sina Löschke / IPCC Working Group II; Provided; Elizabeth Nelson

Cornell at the COP27 Climate Conference

by John McKain and Krisy Gashler 

Ensuring a just transition to renewable energy, rebuilding regional food systems, establishing carbon markets, and supporting smallholder farmers and others who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change were among the themes that emerged as most important to Cornell’s delegation at the United Nations’ 27th Conference of the Parties, better known as COP27.

“Events in this past year should sound the alarm bell for governments about the urgent need for action,” said Rachel Bezner Kerr, Global Development, who coauthored the most recent United Nations report on climate change impacts and presented at COP27 on addressing food security and gender equity while building climate resilience. “Severe drought in East Africa, southern Europe and western North America, floods and heat waves in Pakistan and India, and the conflict in Ukraine all compound our vulnerability. This underscores our fragile global condition and the even greater need to get ourselves off our fossil fuel dependency.”

The university sent 12 faculty and staff members, all of whom are affiliated with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, and 11 students as delegates to COP27, which took place November 6–18, 2022 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The annual conference enables researchers, private organizations, and heads of state to collaborate, assess, and negotiate global progress in addressing climate change.

Under the umbrella of The 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative, Cornellians engaged policymakers and experts, presented research, and demonstrated the impact of university research in topics critical to climate negotiations, including climate change’s impact on oceans; accelerating the clean-energy transition; methane mitigation strategies; and the role of soil health, land use, and agricultural productivity in global carbon budgeting.

Nature-Based Solutions

At a November 12 side event at the United Nations Development Program Pavilion, representatives of Ghana, Vanuatu, and Ukraine shared how climate financing mechanisms are contributing to their countries’ voluntary emissions reduction goals required by Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. For example, with support from Switzerland, Ghana is leading the world in establishing a framework for voluntary carbon markets, a strategy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while providing funds that create jobs and increase food security. Erika Styger, director of the Climate-Resilient Farming Systems Program in the Department of Global Development, co-presented at a panel on the new markets at COP27.

Styger leads efforts to make rice more resilient to climate change while increasing production. One of her most significant projects, Scaling up Climate Resilient Rice Production in West Africa, developed when she met African partners at COP24 in 2018.

Traditionally, rice growers flood their fields to drown weed competitors, but this strategy compacts soils, releases climate-harming methane, and uses huge amounts of water: rice production uses one-third of global freshwater resources and is responsible for 12 percent of human-made methane emissions, Styger said. In contrast, the System of Rice Intensification—the method Styger works with—relies on restoring soil health, which enables rice plants to thrive without flooding. Through her work over the past 15 years, 50,000 farmers across West Africa have adopted the system. Farmers participating in the new carbon markets could be paid to adopt the more-sustainable growing techniques, which would also increase farmers’ economic resilience.

“Because common rice production practices generate excess methane, it’s very hard to deal with the contradictions inherent in expanding agricultural production and reducing emissions,” Styger said. “But if you look at regenerative agriculture, the benefits are a win-win. By rebuilding soils we increase production, win back biodiversity, reduce the demand for fertilizers, reduce intense water use, and reduce methane emissions.”

Global Methane Pledge

One week before COP27, Australia became the latest country to join the United Nations’ Global Methane Pledge, a pact aimed at reducing methane emissions 30 percent by 2030. Other signatories include such large livestock-producing countries as the United States, Brazil, and Indonesia. Joseph McFadden, Animal Science, presented his research on understanding and reducing methane emissions from livestock, including one session in which he partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund, and another with Cornell Atkinson’s The 2030 Project. Methane emission per unit of protein is much higher in developing countries, relative to developed countries, so research should focus on strategies that can efficiently and rapidly reduce methane in those countries, McFadden said.

“But we must do so without compromising the prosperity, health and nutrition, and dignity of smallholder farmers that rely on animal farming for their livelihoods,” McFadden said. “Livestock production must remain in the world, and its removal would have negative consequences on humanity; however, we need to rapidly identify approaches to reduce methane emissions to slow global warming in accordance with the Global Methane Pledge.”

More Food, More Resilience, Fewer Emissions

On November 18, after hours of contentious negotiations, a decision on the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) was presented and adopted at the final COP27 Plenary on implementation of climate action on agriculture and food security under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Allison M. Chatrchyan, senior research associate in the Departments of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Global Development, negotiated at COP27 in the KJWA talks on behalf of Armenia. The decision calls on governments, researchers, and organizations to share information, technical advice, and support to assist countries with implementation of climate actions, she said.

“We need to scale up the implementation of best practices, innovations, and technologies in an inclusive and participatory way, informed by scientific, local, and Indigenous knowledge,” Chatrchyan said. “Innovative policy and social approaches, such as institutional arrangements, partnerships, and farmers’ empowerment, can incentivize implementation and support an enabling environment for scaling up best practices. And the COP27 decision on agriculture will help ensure that this happens.”

Engineering the Energy Transition

Ahead of COP27, the United States State Department, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Bezos Earth Fund announced a partnership to create an “energy transition accelerator” to “catalyze private capital to accelerate the clean energy transition in developing countries.” This comes three months after President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains the largest-ever investment by the United States government in clean-energy research and implementation.

[E]nergy access needs to be part of an integrated effort to bring income-generating activities to communities and promote sustainable development.”

Semida Silveira, professor of practice in the Systems Engineering Program at Cornell, presented as a member of the United Nations' Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition, which met in person for the first time at COP27. Near the end of the two-week session, the council released a statement calling for rapid advancement of emerging clean-energy technologies and faster deployment of existing technologies. They also asserted that technical solutions must be matched by policy solutions to ensure that the energy transition will be environmentally and economically just, including for low-income and remote communities.

“A common denominator in the efforts to bring reliable electricity access to remote communities, whether in developing or developed countries, is the role of the local community: without local engagement, it is not possible to have a sustainable solution,” Silveira said. “This discussion is aligned with the growing understanding that energy access needs to be part of an integrated effort to bring income-generating activities to communities and promote sustainable development.”

Sadaf Sobhani, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, presented her research on carbon dioxide utilization, additive manufacturing, and advanced low-emission combustion. The insights gained at the conference are highly relevant to her research on high-efficiency, low-emission energy systems, she said.

“Recent legislation from the Biden administration on advancing decarbonization and clean energy is really significant,” Sobhani said. “I’m feeling inspired as a researcher to continue working in these areas emphasized by the Department of Energy, including clean hydrogen and carbon dioxide conversion.”

Oceans, Climate, and Universities

This year also included the first-ever Oceans Pavilion, and three Cornellians presented about the role of universities in understanding how oceans are protecting us from even-worse climate impacts but paying for it through damages such as coral reef death and loss of seagrasses. Kathy Bunting-Howarth, associate director of New York Sea Grant and assistant director of Cornell Cooperative Extension presented alongside students Eva Fenningdorf ’23 and Katherine Cornett ’23, who were two of the 11 students who attended COP27 as part of Cornell’s delegation.

Bunting-Howarth also participated on a panel exploring the role of universities in taking sustainability from the margins to the mainstream. She spoke about a new Climate Stewards Program, which trains adult volunteers across New York on climate impacts, mitigation, communication, and the role of local governments. At the end of the program, volunteers work with a local government to help it achieve its climate goals. Participants were intrigued by the Land Grant and Sea Grant models bringing university research into communities and informing researchers about community research needs, she said.

“It’s really important that we’re not just an education or research institution for a certain population, but we have an imperative to serve our entire community,” Bunting-Howarth said. “The breadth and depth of the topics presented by Cornell researchers at COP27, combined with our efforts to link that knowledge to communities, demonstrates how Cornell truly is the land—and sea—grant to the world,” she said.

Funding for the Cornell COP27 delegation and the Cornell COP27 exhibit was provided by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability; funding for student delegates’ travel was provided by deans of the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, and the College of Engineering.

John McKain is director of strategic communications for Cornell Atkinson. Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson.

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