Depending on whom you ask, COP28 was a historic success; a disappointment; a step in the right direction; dominated by Big Oil; and a framework, not a magic bullet (among many other reactions). Such disparate responses are due in part to just how large COP has become; 85,000 people from almost 200 countries descending upon Dubai’s Expo City for 12 days this past December. There’s no way for any one human to experience the entirety of what the conference has to offer.
Columbia Climate School faculty lecturer and COP28 attendee Andrew Kruczkiewicz expands on this point, saying even the definition of success at COP is relative: “Any progress towards a key goal, such as phasing out of fossil fuels, can be seen through a variety of lenses,” he says. “Perceptions of success or failure are based on a variety of factors including speed of achieving the goal; the degree to which the steps outlined are binding or not binding; and the extent to which the most vulnerable populations will receive increased benefit.”
Even Columbia’s presence at the conference was “multifaceted,” according to Climate School Dean Jeff Shaman, with “faculty, researchers, students and alumni representatives from the Climate School, the School of International and Public Affairs, the Business School, Arts and Sciences, Lamont, the Mailman School of Public Health, to name a few.” But size can confer enormous advantages: “COP is huge, but there really is opportunity at the event to meet across sectors—to bring academics and students together with governmental officials, activists, business and philanthropists,” Shaman says. “This convergence of people from so many sectors is a real opportunity.”
Gender equity was another COP28 theme, with Melissa Lott, Climate School’s professor of professional practice noting “the importance of centering gender equity” in the energy transition at an event co-hosted by Columbia University. Lott was joined by Columbia’s new president, Minouche Shafik, and Columbia Climate School adjunct senior research scholar Catherine McKenna, who said of the event on X, “Frank discussion about challenges faced by women working on climate to be seen & heard [including] at #COP28. But huge opportunity to tackle climate with women at the forefront! Women are leading the new climate revolution!”
President Shafik added to that sentiment, saying that she “enjoyed hearing from all the extraordinary women how injecting more female voices at this time of enormous urgency can make progress on climate change happen even faster.”
With COP28 in the rearview mirror, it’s still challenging to assess to what extent the pledges, commitments and actions are sincere or not, says Kruczkiewicz. “That said, the fact that the specific phrasing of ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels’ is included, is a step in the right direction,” he says.
Dean Shaman agrees. “The consensus agreement to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels is noteworthy. Specifically for COP, I’m hoping to develop opportunities for Climate School students to engage in the negotiation process at future meetings. There is so much work to be done, but I remain optimistic it can be done.”