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Reflections from COP26 by ASPHER Fellow Rana Orhan

Publication date: 18.11.2021
Author: Rana Orhan

The long-awaited COP26 came to an end almost two weeks ago. In Glasgow, Scotland, almost 40,000 delegates got together to discuss needed steps to mitigate climate change. This was the year that health got a strong voice. As one of the most prominent advocates said to me in the Shilling Brewing Company – the place where health advocates came together every evening to debrief and connect: “It is good to see so many people from the health field here.”

It was, indeed. I attended the COP26, not from the inside like many others, but from the outside. Being in Glasgow during the first week got me to search for, be directed to and find some interesting events happening throughout the city. There are two of them that I will not forget soon. The first one is the panel organised by Dominic Hinde, an inspiring Lecturer at the University of Glasgow. Dominic has a background as a journalist and is pursuing an academic career as a multi-disciplinary researcher in climate change and the role of media. The panel got together three scholars with different backgrounds: Sam Walton (literature, Bath Spa University), Lewis Coenen-Rowe (arts and humanities, Creative Carbon Scotland), and Naveeda Khan (anthropology, Johns Hopkins University). The talk focused on the diversity of debates surrounding COP26. It made me realise, first, how cool people from other disciplines are, second, as someone with a public health background, how much there is still to learn from them. In the past years, we have talked about breaking silos many times. This is what that looked like.

The panel is available on YouTube.

The other moment that made an impact on me, is while walking along with the march organised by Extinction Rebellion – a non-violent grass-roots organisation active in many countries. I was invited by an activist from the Netherlands. The march attracted thousands of citizens, active and not active in the organisation.

The connection between these two events lies in what Lewis Coenen-Rowe from Creative Carbon Scotland said during the panel: those inside the COP should talk with those outside and listen to their demands. That sentence stuck with me. Coming back home after a week in the UK, I opened my Twitter and saw message after message that people were disappointed. Not enough was done. Speaking on behalf of the Climate Justice constituency is Asad Rehman, conveying their disappointment in strong words. As Naveeda Khan said, the COP is the place for the Global South to finally be on an equal level with the rest.

I am grateful for ASPHER to have provided me with the great opportunity to travel (as green as possible) to Glasgow. I met great colleagues whom I like to thank: Alison McCallum (University of Edinburgh), Helen Ross and Marc Davies (UK Faculty of Public Health) and many others. I saw how the health voice needs to be even stronger, as is being reflected two weeks after COP still, in the health advocates group chat. But COP is not an end station; as ASPHER, we are doing what we can and what we do best – climate and health education. We will continue advocating and working together with our members and partners to ensure that we did our end, preparing the current and future workforce to be ready to address climate change’s impact on health.

For those who have not followed the COP26 happenings as closely, I am glad to be able to share a summary by Arthur Wyns (Climate Change and Health Unit, World Health Organisation):

  • Overall: a mixed outcome, with a huge difference between what is being demanded (and needed!) in the real world, and what has been decided in these halls. We finalised the Paris Rulebook, some useful processes have been set up for country support, but we ended up with a rather bureaucratic and unambitious outcome that does not match reality.
  • Mitigation: 1.5 is still alive, but it has a very weak pulse: the temperature gap has been closed significantly, new NDCs for those who have not submitted yet are expected next year, the UNFCCC will now produce annual synthesis reports for NDCs and LTS, and ministers will meet every year to take stock. For the first time, methane, coal and fossil fuel subsidies are also addressed (although with much watered down language).
  • Adaptation: the need to adapt to increasing climate impacts finally got the attention it deserves. A work programme was adopted to develop a Global Goal on Adaptation, and adaptation finance will be doubled by 2025. This was a priority for Egypt, who is next COP's host, so expect to hear much more on this next year.
  • Loss & Damage: many powerful interventions at COP26 showed how climate impacts are already causing losses and damages. The Santiago Network on L&D and Glasgow Dialogue on L&D were set up, but were left without funding, or even promises for future funding. Island states and other vulnerable countries are devastated by this result, and many are starting to explore avenues outside the UNFCCC to tackle this issue.
  • Finance: despite a flurry of new financial pledges before and during COP, the 100bn USD finance goal is still unmet, and might not be met until 2023. Rich nations have promised to make up for this by delivering 600bn by 2025, and a programme has been set up to determine a new post-2025 finance goal. 
  • The Paris Rulebook: the rulebook is finally done, albeit 3 years late. New reporting rules and methods will help us keep countries to account, a 5-year timeframe for NDCs has now been agreed, and carbon markets have been set up with the most blatant loopholes closed, but some serious risks remain for greenwashing and undercutting carbon prices and human rights.
  • Health: the health community mobilised in unprecedented numbers, calling for urgent action in the months leading to COP, and delivering the health argument for climate action to many different sectors and leaders at COP. Over 50 countries committed to transform their health sector to be resilient and sustainable, and the health community has become a more visible and relevant part of the climate negotiations.
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