May 10, 2023

Reflections on COP27: Imperfect but Impactful Progress

By Michael Sanduski T’23

Set amidst the sun-soaked shores of the Sinai Peninsula in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, COP27 demonstrated both trials and triumphs in the global effort to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Through the generous support of Tuck, I was fortunate to spend a week observing negotiations among the parties, participating in discussions held by national delegations the world over, and jockeying for terrible free coffee between events.

Progress at the conference toward arresting the most catastrophic effects of climate change was imperfect but impactful. For the first time, developed nations agreed to provide a fund for climate-related damages. According to the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research, the average American produces more than 150 times more emissions each year than the average Ethiopian. And yet, developing countries—who are least prepared to weather the impacts of drought, famine, and extreme weather events—are those who bear the brunt of climate-related events. The fund for damages is a vital step in the right direction for climate equity.

What was less exciting was the seeming death of the fight to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the level at which heat stress, species die-off, and massive increases in poverty, among a litany of other effects, is expected. While averting emissions required to achieve the 1.5°C level might be technically feasible, COP27 has shown that it is politically untenable. And yet, there are still many reasons to be hopeful.

I was pleased to see the rightfully expanded role that indigenous groups were given at COP, not just in badges, but in actual space on the floor and at the podium. According to the UNFCC, indigenous peoples safeguard an estimated 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. We simply cannot afford to exclude them from the conversation. In one particularly touching moment, I observed two indigenous men, one from Brazil and one from Peru, exchange greetings and expressions of solidarity with one another in Portuguese and Spanish, respectively.

I was also thrilled to experience a true coming together of people across nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and the many other things that so often divide us. The lightning-fast development of the MRNA Covid-19 vaccine has shown us what is possible when the collective ingenuity of humanity is united in a common purpose. While the fight for 1.5°C might be politically untenable, every tenth of a degree of warming that we do prevent will avert the suffering of millions. No country alone can change the path that our planet is currently on. Only by coming together can we find the solutions we need.

Look for what’s missing. As someone passionate about decarbonizing the built environment—which accounts for nearly 40 percent of global emissions—I was underwhelmed by the conversation (or lack thereof) on reducing operational and embodied carbon. As Europe faced an energy crisis this winter, we found that simple solutions like electric heat pumps are key to both energy security and a decarbonized electrical grid and yet we are still overly reliant on fossil fuels. This conference motivated me in my passion for decarbonizing the built environment and to do what I can to bring that conversation to the fore.

Focus on what’s important. One of the most impactful days of my experience was my last full day in Sharm where I had the privilege to dive in Ras Muhammad National Park, a 480 km2 marine park protecting some of the most vibrant coral reefs in the Red Sea, and for that matter, the world. Over the course of three dives, I took in the splendor of more marine life than I have ever seen in my more than fifteen years as a certified diver. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the corals for the most part had been spared the bleaching that has afflicted almost every reef the world over. The day was a timely reminder of just how much is at risk. The World Wildlife Foundation estimates that we are losing between 1,000 and 10,000 times more species than the natural extinction rate. I can only hope that one day my children will be able to take in the same sense of wonder that I had that day in Ras Muhammad.

Don’t lose hope. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 stands to catalyze the most significant investment in clean sources of energy the U.S. has yet seen. And among my Tuck classmates, there is a feverish desire to find new and innovative solutions to arrest and maybe even turn back the catastrophic impacts that we are already starting to see. There is an opportunity to create a better, more sustainable world in every industry, not just the ones associated with climate tech. I am hopeful for the impacts that my Tuck classmates and other graduates of MBA programs will be able to drive in working towards this goal.

I am sincerely grateful to the Center for Business, Government & Society and the Revers Center for Energy, Sustainability & Innovation for supporting our journey to COP27. Gratitude to Hannah Payson, April Salas, Tracy Bach, and Madeleine Booth for facilitating these wonderful experiences.