Illustration by Su Ji Kang.

A Case for NYUAD Students at COP

NYUAD used to support student attendance at COP. This involvement must be brought back if NYUAD is to stay true to its scholarly ideals of leadership.

Earlier this month, the eyes of much of the world turned to Glasgow. In the first two weeks of November, nearly 40,000 representatives of governments, businesses, academia and civil society gathered for COP26, the UN climate change conference. I took part in COP as one of the self-funded youth selected to participate through the pool of badges designated for YOUNGO, the youth constituency. As the climate crisis is becoming the number one topic everywhere: from the Pentagon's agenda to academic curriculums, the COP has turned into one of the most anticipated events globally. Hence, a question emerges: is there a role for NYU Abu Dhabi to play there?
The Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, henceforth referred to as COP, is the largest annual gathering organized under the auspices of the United Nations. Since 1995, it has been a space for governments to coordinate their response to global heating. COP does not only serve as a space for intergovernmental negotiations — it is a prime stage for unveiling commitments and launching initiatives to protect the environment. It is also a critical place for activists and advocates to speak truth to power and directly confront officials from their respective government. This is particularly important for those who would be at risk for speaking up in their home countries.
In past years, students from NYUAD used to be selected by the Green House SIG to attend the event as a part of the UAE national delegation. Within the delegation, they would support government officials with note-taking and relaying information from events where UAE representatives were unable to attend. Such a mode of participation provided unique insight to students interested in careers in policy and international relations, especially those focused on climate and environmental issues. Beyond COP itself, NYUAD students would attend preparatory meetings where they would learn background information about the intergovernmental climate space and prepare to support the delegation. Overall, it was a valuable exercise in diplomacy and climate negotiations.
This year, due to pandemic-related university-wide restrictions, NYUAD did not sponsor students to attend COP in Glasgow. It was a decision that some students received with disappointment but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on the value of NYUAD’s involvement in the summit.
As outlined above, COP is a space that attracts the attention of global media and provides an opportunity to interact with top decision makers, academics and business leaders. NYUAD has recently been making strides to elevate the importance of environmental stewardship in its agenda through the inauguration of Antonios Vouloudis, the first Director of Sustainability. Hence, COP could be an opportunity where milestone achievements and major research work at NYUAD could be showcased and discussed with partners and leaders. For example, in Glasgow, Columbia University held an event where they presented the new Columbia Climate School and separately, held a roundtable discussion between former President Barack Obama and youth.
In 2021, showing one’s commitment to climate action is no longer optional. Just over the last few months, the UAE has announced a series of groundbreaking pledges, including a net zero emissions goal for 2050, a successful bid to host COP28 in 2023 and a contribution of 400 million USD to the Global Finance Platform to Accelerate Renewable Energy. For NYUAD to stay relevant as a centre of knowledge, a focus on climate must be at the core of education, research and outreach work. Attending COP is an avenue to showcase this commitment and build connections that will advance this mission.
There is, however, a word of caution when it comes to participation in COP. Firstly, the ability to attend COP needs to be recognised as a privilege. Every year, scores of civil society organisations representing youth, indigenous people and other marginalised groups call for inclusive and equitable participation that gives voice to those who are most impacted by the climate crisis. And every year, many end up disappointed. This year was particularly challenging because many had to take weeks off from school or work to travel despite quarantines and other restrictions, paying hundreds of dollars for Covid-19 tests, on top of their travel costs. Those well endowed have much easier access to the event. If we, as NYUAD students, end up going to COP, we ought to remember that for each of us, there are a dozen deserving young people somewhere in the world who will not get to have their voices heard. We must not take this opportunity for granted.
Secondly, COP is overwhelming. It was my second time at the conference and I was representing the SDG7 Youth Constituency, a network of young energy professionals, and as such, I had a relatively clear set of goals for the event. Still, I easily got lost amid all the side events, meetings and negotiations. For their engagement to be meaningful, it would be best for NYUAD students to continue going to COP with the UAE national delegation or get in touch with other UAE-based organisations that could advise on the best utilisation of their time at COP. Otherwise, they risk becoming “climate tourists” and joining many other completely clueless young people who managed to make it to COP because of connections to an accredited organisation and a few hundred dollars in their pocket.
Hopefully, the break from participating in COP was only a one-time incident for NYUAD and the administration will earmark the necessary funds to attend the event in coming years. The next two iterations of the conference will take place in Egypt and the UAE, respectively, which only highlights the importance of the climate crisis to the MENA region and, by extension, to NYUAD.
Beniamin Strzelecki is an Environmental Columnist. Email him at
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