Climate Enlightenment


“We now have a large alumni network around the world working on climate change. Many of these alums will be at the Paris COP and this time it is their job to be there.

Dr. Dave Reay

Prof. Dave Reay

Six years ago this month we were busy finalising plans for the University of Edinburgh’s delegation to COP 15 in Copenhagen. A large delegation had been out together made up of staff and students from our new MSc in Carbon Management. Hopes and excitement were high. Discussions in lectures centred on what the COP might deliver for business, policy and regulation, while every coffee shop meeting ended up in discussion of who was going to which ‘must see’ side event.

In the event COP 15 was a triumph for our students, despite being an abject failure for the global climate change negotiations.  Partnering with the Scottish Government and the British Council, our delegation led a day of discussions at the COP around Scotland’s role in tackling climate change. The students met a host of state leaders, made some wonderful contacts, and delivered a set of speeches that had every delegate in the place on their feet applauding.

This time around the pre-COP discussions here in Edinburgh have been no less engaging, yet our plans for the Paris COP have taken a very different shape. We now have a large alumni network around the world working on climate change. Many of these alums will be at the Paris COP and this time it is their job to be there. From advisors to the French Presidency, through national negotiators, to NGO leads and energy consultants, Edinburgh’s alumni now represent our most powerful impact on the climate negotiations. Current staff and students will of course be there too, but with a University of Edinburgh delegation that is outnumbered by its former students in Paris.

For the negotiations themselves, I’ll be following two key elements very closely. The first is the issue of ‘stock taking’ – effectively the proposed mechanism whereby every nation’s INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) is reviewed every 5 years to assess its efficacy in the context of the best scientific evidence. If Paris fails to deliver an agreement that will avoid 2oC of post-industrial warming (i.e. ‘dangerous climate change’) then this mechanism is the best game in town to bridge the emissions gap. How it would work and, crucially, who would do this stock taking will be the subject of much discussion. Scientific bodies such as the IPCC have been suggested and certainly such assessments would need to be clear, independent and scientifically robust.

For me, the other crucial element of the Paris negotiations is that of capacity building. It has been referred to several times in draft negotiation texts – options that may be debated include the creation of a specific ‘capacity building mechanism’ that will more directly deliver financing. Certainly, capacity building must be addressed if the myriad contributions, commitments and targets that will whirl around the Blue Zone in Paris are actually to be delivered around the world.

This need is most obvious in the developing world, but applies in every nation. Without it, even the best efforts to increase climate change resilience and decarbonise energy systems risk being hobbled. Through our undergraduate, Masters and PhD programmes Edinburgh and universities like it are already helping to grow such climate change skills capacity. Innovations such as online learning and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are further extending our reach, but there is a lot more to do.  Helping potential students around the world to overcome the many financial, social, and physical barriers to education that they face is, I believe, the most important challenge for universities in the coming years.

Six years ago we left Copenhagen frustrated with policy makers and inspired by our students. In Paris this year some of those students are now themselves the policy makers. Whether this will help bring about a robust agreement remains to be seen, but it’s at least one small step towards the capacity building that will one day deliver global climate security.

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