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Why UCC is going to COP28

Dr Maria Kirrane, Head of Sustainability and Climate Action Office, outlines why UCC will send a delegation to COP28

From November 30th to Dec 12th this year the UN’s annual Climate Change Conference, COP 28, will take place in Dubai.  That COP28 is being hosted in a major oil producing country has prompted significant criticism, and as a result there has been an important and valid debate as to whether UCC should attend.

By way of background, UCC was the first university in Ireland to gain “observer” status on the UNFCCC in 2015, and since 2021 the President’s Office has sent an official delegation to the meeting.  Observer status entitles UCC to:

-          attend the sessions of the Convention

-          submit statements during the official proceedings

-          organise side events and exhibitions

-          participate in workshops and meetings mandated by the COP or subsidiary bodies.

UCC’s delegation is selected by the President’s COP working group and is made up of academic staff, researchers, postgraduate and undergraduate students. 

This year’s COP has been the source of significant controversy. The choice of Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the CEO of a national oil company, as President-designate of the summit has led many, including former US vice-president Al Gore, to accuse the organisers of greenwashing.  Fake Twitter accounts and edited Wikipedia pages have done little to instil confidence amongst climate groups and some world leaders1.

There are of course additional grave concerns amongst the global community regarding the UAE’s “abysmal human rights record”2.  Human rights organisations, and the UN themselves, have documented a litany of human rights violations perpetrated by the state over decades.  While the UAE has pledged an inclusive COP, there are concerns that the event may be used to “cynically promote an image of openness and tolerance”2.

However, this isn’t the first time that the choice of location for the COP meeting has come under criticism. In 2018, the meeting took place in Katowice, a town in the heart of Poland’s coal country.  In 2021, it took place in Glasgow; let’s not forget that the UK is also a major oil and gas producer.  Were it to take place in the USA, the world’s biggest producer of oil, would we also consider not attending?

Universities are rightly being scrutinized for the carbon emitted as a result of student and staff overseas travel3.  At UCC, staff and student academic travel (mainly flights) accounts for 15% of our total carbon footprint.  Within our Sustainability and Climate Action Plan we have set an ambition to be net zero by 2040.  To deliver on this ambition we need to continually reduce travel related emissions until we are left with only the most valuable and necessary trips, and then find an equitable and verifiable offsetting option. 

So why are we going to COP?

-          First and foremost, the feedback and level of engagement of our previous attendees gives us confidence that the UCC delegation participates in a valuable and meaningful way, and that the participants gain significantly from their experience both personally and professionally.

-          The reality is that the people and groups that are likely to be most concerned about the carbon footprint of their travel (and indeed the location) are likely to also be the ones that care most about the outcome of the meeting.  As one of our student leaders put it, “if we don’t go, then nobody who cares will be in the room”.

-          The location might not be ideal, but this is still the only official process for driving global climate agreement.  2023 now looks certain to be the hottest year on record, the UN have said that current pledges are “not credible” and are in fact setting us on track for a “hellish” 3⁰ of warming.  This COP must deliver more ambitious plans, and we must engage in the process.

-          On a practical level, were UCC to not travel to COP this year, we would forego our privilege to do so in other years.

What are we doing differently?

This year, thanks to the dedication and effort of our UCC Student Union Environmental and Sustainability Representative Dearbhla Richardson, we are allocating 3 of our badges to activists from MAPA (most affected people and areas) countries.  Dearbhla will travel with the MAPA activists, supporting them to engage with the process and you can follow them, and our other UCC delegates, through UCC’s social media channels and website updates.  This will again ensure that those who care the most, are affected the most, and need their voices heard the most, will be in the room when these critical decisions are being made.  


Photo: UCC's COP28 delegation (l-r) Niamh Guiry, Dearbhla Richardson, Claudia Hihetah, Dr Kian Mintz-Woo, Dr Marie Aronsson-Storrier, and Dr Archishman Bose. Picture by Michael McSweeney/Provision