University of Chicago students recently had the unique opportunity to attend the United Nations’ COP28 climate change conference, where they learned from and networked with leaders in government, industry and NGOs.
A delegation of 19 UChicago students—12 from the undergraduate College and seven from the graduate schools—took part in the event in Dubai. Supported by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, the University’s Office of Career Advancement, the Booth School of Business, the Harris School of Public Policy and the Law School, students spent a week listening to panel discussions, exploring tech innovation showcases and learning about the global effort to combat climate change.
The undergraduate students attending included Aman Majmudar, Annie Yang, Ashton Oh, Ellen Ma, Ethan Jiang, Hannah Rogers, Julia Ferreira, Natalia Larsen, Shama Tirukkala, Haley Coleman and Ava Hedeker. The graduate students included Mohit Jindal, Ramya Polavarapu and Kelsey Sawyer French from Chicago Booth; Alejandro Garcia Cabrera and Satvika Mahajan from Harris Public Policy; and Michelle David and Elisa Epstein from the Law School.
COP28 came at a critical moment in the fight against climate change: 2023 has seen unprecedented floods, wildfires, heat waves and drought worldwide. The conference brought 197 nations and territories together to review emission inventories and assess progress toward the goal of cutting global emissions in half by 2030.
A greener future
For third-year College student Ava Hedeker, the conference represented a glimpse into the future of urban planning. COP28 was held in Expo City, an area of car-centric Dubai featuring pedestrian-friendly, sustainable infrastructure that reflects the unrelenting Middle Eastern sunlight in an effort to cool surface temperatures.
“One unexpected but positive aspect of attending COP28 was becoming inspired by the sustainability of the host city,” she said. “As an aspiring urban planner, it was quite exciting seeing the implementation of a 15-minute city in Dubai, and seeing firsthand ways that the infrastructure increases the site’s albedo [reflection] effect.”
Fourth-year student Rohan Mathur spent 10 years living in the United Arab Emirates. “I enjoyed hanging around with and exchanging points of view with the passionate and clear-eyed group of Maroons that I had the privilege of traveling with,” he said. “I also really enjoyed introducing them to Dubai and the multicultural mosaic that is the UAE.”
Mathur was particularly interested in a panel featuring financial leaders, who discussed the role of their institutions in promoting transitions to greener technologies. He learned about partnerships in Indonesia which work to replace thermal power plants with renewable energy sources, using carbon credits as currency.
While visiting the conference’s Start-Up Village, Chicago Booth student Mohit Jindal observed an increased sense of urgency to cut methane emissions—particularly from the agricultural sector.
“I had the fortune to engage with leading Breakthrough Energy-funded startups that have figured out how to reduce methane emissions from cows by reducing their burps,” said the second-year MBA student. “For example, Rumin8, a startup based in Australia, has developed a specific cow feed formula that can cut methane by 80%!”
Jindal said the company is currently applying for approval in several countries to test the product across multiple cow breeds.
A global effort
Having grown up in Houston, one of the world’s largest energy hubs, third-year College student Natalia Larsen said that she was eager to witness how international diplomats address the global issue of climate change.
She was drawn to panels discussing the interconnectedness of climate and conflict, particularly one led by Abdallah Al-Dardari, a former Syrian government official, on “Climate Peace and Security.”
“Climate and conflict exacerbate the other—environmental disasters force migration, limit resource access and destabilize governments while political conflict impedes collective action to mitigate or adapt to climate crises,” Larsen said. “Given the high stakes, addressing both problems brings high rewards, bringing a powerful potential for improvement.”
Second-year College student Haley Coleman said that she is a strong believer in global cooperation, and that she looked forward to COP28 “affirming [her] faith in diplomacy.”
But she couldn’t ignore some contradictions that were evident at the conference—an overt display of green initiatives juxtaposed with what she described as hollow sustainability efforts left her grappling with the authenticity of the messages conveyed.
Nevertheless, Coleman said she had meaningful conversations with a diverse range of attendees, from artists to entrepreneurs, highlighting the power of dialogue in fostering climate solutions.
“This conference taught me that cultivating a sustainable mindset, universally, indiscriminately, is the key to climate change,” she said. “It is hard to deny that [COP28] represents one of the only spaces where the president of an oil company will sit across from environmental activists, eye to eye, and talk about decarbonization.”
Harris student Satvika Mahajan echoed Coleman’s observations on the strong spirit of collaboration and need for collective action on the pivotal Day 4 of COP28.
Mahajan, currently pursuing a specialization in energy and environment, was struck by an address by John Kerry, the United States’ Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, who underscored the urgency to implement crucial initiatives.
“Perfect should not be the enemy of good, traceable, and accountable,” Kerry said.