COP28 Highlights YSE’s and Yale’s Leadership on Climate Solutions
From greening global trade to reducing the “embodied” carbon emissions in building materials to de-fossilizing our economy through innovation in green chemistry and green engineering, Yale faculty participating in COP28 emphasized a multidisciplinary approach to addressing the climate crisis.
With over 80,000 registered participants, COP28, held in Dubai, UAE, from November 30 to December 12, was the largest gathering in the three-decades-long history of the annual U.N. climate summit. Yale has sent a delegation of faculty, staff, and students to each of the 28 annual climate summits since its first iteration Berlin in 1995. This year, for the first time, Yale unified its messaging at COP. The Yale School of the Environment (YSE) and Yale Planetary Solutions Project partnered to host a series of events in the conference venue’s Higher Education-focused pavilion that highlighted the university’s solutions-focused, multidisciplinary approach to addressing the climate crisis.
For coverage of YSE and Yale at COP28 visit our COP news page.
“With the big news of this year’s COP being the global stocktake, countries are all looking for ways to take their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to climate change action to the next level,” said Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy, who took leave from Yale to work with World Trade Organization Director General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on a sustainability agenda for the global trading system.
At the “Remaking Sustainable Trade Project” panel discussion, Esty and fellow panelists Doris Edem Agbevivi, an Emerging Climate Leaders Fellow at the Jackson School of Global Affairs and Chantal-Line Carpentier, chief of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), outlined the case for leveraging the international trade system to move the global economy toward sustainability. They covered a range of topics and proposals from a subsidies reform strategy that considers sustainability alongside trade impacts; new emphasis on inclusively established sustainability standards; trade system incentives to promote a circular economy; and revamping WTO governance to create a more dynamic and deft institutional structure. The event was held on the first-ever Trade Day in the almost three-decade-long history of the climate summit.
“Trade represents a major opportunity — and the WTO secretariat’s ‘Trade Policy Tools for Climate Action’ offers concrete guidance that many nations might want to take up,” Esty said. “I think COP28 participants were excited that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was in Dubai — and pleased that those managing the trade system were working hard to align their efforts with a ramped-up response to climate change.”
While Esty’s work at the WTO is focused on reducing emissions associated with global trade, a recent UN Environment Programme/Global ABC report co-authored by Anna Dyson, Hines Professor of Architecture at the Yale School of Architecture (YSoA), and Mae-ling Lokko, YSoA assistant professor, explores pathways to removing “embodied” emissions from the built environment. On Day 7 of COP28, the day dedicated to Multilevel Action, Urbanization, and Built Environment/Transport, Dyson and Lokko discussed the proposals and findings outlined in “Building Materials and the Climate: Constructing the Future.” The built environment sector is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for at least 37% the global emissions, Dyson noted. To date, most efforts (and progress) in decarbonizing the sector have focused on reducing emissions created from heating, cooling, and lighting, or the “operational carbon of building.” Far less investment has been devoted to developing effective ways to reduce the “embodied” emissions generated from the design, production, and deployment of building materials, such as cement, steel, and aluminum.
During the panel discussion, Dyson and Lokko discussed three urgent pathways — or an Avoid, Shift, and Improve strategy — to reducing embodied emissions and decarbonizing the built environment. These include avoiding emissions through the advancement of circular economies that encourage the reuse of buildings and recycled materials whenever possible; shifting to regenerative material practices by using ethically produced low-carbon earth- and bio-based materials whenever possible; and improving methods to radically decarbonize conventional materials such as concrete, steel and aluminum (and only using these non-renewable, carbon-intensive, extractive materials when absolutely necessary).
Although methods for implementing the three decarbonization principles will vary across climates and regions, Dyson noted that one commonality was the need for more comprehensive, cross-sectoral data. “It is possible to dramatically reduce embodied carbon in building materials by 2060,” she said. “Achieving this goal is dependent on many complex factors and conditions, but one of the most critical is access to reliable data on the lifecycle of materials to ensure that they are genuinely sustainable, meaning they have not been made using unfair labor practices and are neither detrimental to local biodiversity nor harmful to regional populations.”
Also, headlining Yale’s program on Day 7 was a panel discussion co-led by Paul Anastas, Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment at YSE, and Julie Zimmerman, vice provost for Planetary Solutions and professor of engineering at YSE. The “Green Chemistry: Addressing Climate Change from Molecules to Megacities” event explored the potential of green chemistry to combat climate change and advance decarbonization across scales; highlighting the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering’s work on de-fossilizing the global economy. "Because chemicals and materials are ubiquitous, green chemistry can touch all aspects of our lives, from shifting the smallest ingredients in our daily personal care products and medicines from petroleum based to bio based to very large scale applications, such as making fuels and building materials like concrete from captured carbon dioxide,” Anastas said, noting that the Integrated Biorefinery Project at the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, which is based at YSE, makes a wide range of products including biofuel and nutraceuticals.
Biweekly, we highlight three news and research stories about the work we’re doing at Yale School of the Environment.
Realizing the ambitious climate goals outlined at COP28 requires professionals with the knowledge and skills to implement them, so it is not surprising that green jobs and green skills were on many participants’ minds at the climate summit. Ambassador Paul Simons, senior fellow at the Jackson School of Global Affairs, and Bilha Ndirangu, Emerging Climate Leaders Fellow, discussed the potential of green jobs to tackle unemployment in Africa at the “Human Capital Strategies for Africa: Can Green Jobs Tackle Unemployment in Africa?” panel discussion, exploring a range of topics from the most promising sources of green jobs in Africa to the the barriers or obstacles to that growth.
“Africa holds 40% percent of the world's renewable energy potential and is expected to account for more than half the global population growth in coming years,” Simons said. “The principal challenge we raised in this event is the tremendous opportunity to match that renewables potential with skilled labor in Africa. We suggested the creation of a ‘green jobs index’ to measure such progress.”
More than 30 faculty, staff, and fellows from across the university participated in COP28, including representation from the Yale School of the Environment and its Three Cairns Scholars program, the Jackson School of Global Affairs and its Emerging Climate Fellows program, the School of Architecture, and the School of Public Health. Students from Yale College and the Schools of the Environment and Public Health showcased their research through panel presentations on topics ranging from opportunities for transformative change in the Global South to sustainable food systems to financing adaptation and resilience in the blue economy.
“This was my third COP representing Yale, and, as always, Yale faculty, students, alumni, and fellows stood out for their high-quality research and policy work,” Simons said.