COP26 Retrospective from GCSE Science Delegates from Higher Education Institutions and Local Governments

December, 2021

"Let all disciplines be involved in issues of climate education and sustainability... whether it's drama, education, or sociology. Let it be mainstreamed."

- Dr. Michael Nkuba, Post Doctorate Researcher, University of Botswana


A. Alonso Aguirre, Chair, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University

Paola Fajardo, Community-Based Conservation Expert and Senior Research Fellow

Diane Husic, Dean, School of Natural and Health Sciences, Moravian University

Erica Smithwick, Distinguished Professor of Geography, The Pennsylvania State University

Michelle Wyman, Executive Director, Global Council for Science and the Environment


The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) was held in Glasgow from 31 October – 12 November 2021. This meeting was considered one of the most important in the history of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In August 2021, the Working Group I (WGI) contribution to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6)1 on the physical science basis of climate change stated that it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred. 

COP26 was an opportunity to figure out the rulebook of how to implement the Paris Agreement. Since the Paris Agreement, research has been published and widely accepted as to the impacts of 1.5 vs. 2.0 degrees of warming and the speed of global environmental change. Moving forward, we need zero emissions or even negative emissions. Adaptation is critical as it has never been fully addressed or financed. Even if emissions went to zero tomorrow, global warming and other climate change impacts would continue for decades.

The event drew massive crowds, over 40,000 were registered to attend, twice the number of  the last UNFCCC in 2019. The UNFCCC set four ambitious goals which provided the agenda and articulated the ambition for COP26:

  1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees centigrades within reach 
  2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats 
  3. Mobilize climate finance
  4. Work together to deliver; we can only rise to the challenges of the climate crisis by working together 

The Global Council for Science and the Environment (GCSE) received observer status just before COP26 and quickly assembled a delegation a few weeks prior to the meeting. The delegation consisted of an intergenerational, interdisciplinary and geographically-diverse group including undergraduate/graduate students, deans, chairs, decision-makers, youth activists and distinguished professors. GCSE delegates expertise focused on climate science, health, adaptation, resilience, and youth leadership. Besides their observer role, GCSE delegates served as expert presenters at side events centered on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability, climate education, plenaries on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, co-chaired the Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations (RINGOs) meetings;a stakeholder group recognized by the UNFCCC and relied upon for formal inputs, presented on the Technology Executive Committee taskforce, and contributed to the creation of the newly launched GCSE Youth Global Science Partnership.

With global attention focused on the productivity of COP26, outcomes included the Glasgow Climate Pact committed to doubling adaptation finance and increasing the pressure on countries to present more ambitious climate pledges at COP27 to be held in Egypt. Perhaps one of the most important outcomes was the declaration on forests and land use, in which 141 countries representing 85 percent of the world's forest cover promised to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Additional commitments included a global methane pledge; a clean vehicles pledge that includes planes and ships; and the halt to public financing of fossil fuels. These are just the commitments that topped the list of concrete, progressive outcomes. COP26 clearly served as an accelerator to the work necessary to curbing the pace of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.  A breakthrough agenda item that resurfaced was related to clean technologies and sustainable solutions to meet the Paris Agreement. And finally, COP26 held the first ever Paris Agreement meeting focused on health and climate change. Of note, the World Health Organization reiterated the findings from the IPCC special report published in August 2021, that climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. 



graphic depicting climate vulnerability and health risks

Figure 1. “An overview of climate-sensitive health risks, their exposure pathways and vulnerability factors. Climate change impacts health both directly and indirectly, and is strongly mediated by environmental, social and public health determinants.” From “Climate Change and Health”, published by the World Health Organization, October 31, 2021.
GCSE Delegate Esther Obonyo with White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy
GCSE Delegate Esther Obonyo with White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy.

An important outcome of COP26 was the completion  of the Paris Agreement “rulebook” after six years of negotiations, as finally countries reached agreement on the guidelines for regulating voluntary cooperation, and the Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (ITMOs) among Parties under Article 6, including Voluntary Emission Reductions based on market and non-market based carbon financing, and reporting mechanisms to prevent double counting.

On the downside, COP26 concluded to phase down rather than phase out coal. Climate finance was a key focus and will continue to be, as will the contribution amounts and mechanics for distribution of funds to qualifying nations. Many calls were made by participating nations to stop financing climate change causes, especially to shift these funds to adaptation, and loss and damage, along with mitigation. Importantly, coal will be phased out, forests are in. No clear policies emerged on how to keep to 1.5 C yet and the need to do so, however there was clear acknowledgement by participating parties of the imperative to not exceed 1.5C while recognizing this is likely not achievable without immediate and substantial action by all nations across all sectors. It is important to note that the largest delegations of Indigenous Peoples and youth activists from around the world participated in COP26, the largest of both in the twenty-six climate conferences. This is important as Indigenous Peoples and youth are increasingly recognized as central actors in the global climate discussions underway, and also as the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. 





Key Highlights and Participation From the GCSE Delegation

  • GCSE Delegate Paola Fajardo at one of the plenaries during COP26.
    GCSE Delegate Paola Fajardo listening in on a high level plenary session.
    GCSE Delegate Alsonso Aguirre participated in the round table “Why Climate Literacy & Civic Skill Building Will Solve the Climate Crisis - Answers from Civil Society, Educators, and Governments” hosted by Earth Day Network. The delegate expressed that focusing on zero deforestation will require legislation to end deforestation in many countries. Illegal systems and corruption continue to happen and these practices need close monitoring. Perhaps a series of incentives to farmers linked to environmental services can promote major productivity while protecting forests. Net zero is a weighing point. Countries need to be ambitious and engage in the supply change. 
  • GCSE Delegate, Paola Fajardo, participated in plenaries and negotiations on Article 6. The delegate stressed the great significance of the inclusion of wording regarding human rights in Art. 6, which was not previously enclosed in any article of the Paris Agreement. Yet, she emphasized that it would be key to include in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and carbon financial mechanisms ambitious commitments around human rights and the recently recognized human right by the United Nations Human Rights Council to having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Coming from a forested country, Paola Fajardo expressed the “Declaration on Forests and Land Use” was a crucial pledge that if implemented based on a participatory and rights-based approach considering non-market based mechanisms could make meaningful contributions to people from local to global levels, and the planet.
  • Erica Smithwick, Distinguished Professor of Geography at Pennsylvania State University, reflects that COP26 was historic in keeping 1.5-2C alive, but more action is needed. There were signs of hope: mainstreaming the importance of Indigenous and youth voices in decision-making, the stepping up of private sector investment, and a deepening of the conversation about nature-based solutions to include social justice and co-benefits (e.g. biodiversity). And, for the first time, fossil fuels were named (a “phasedown” of coal and a “phaseout” of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies).  While watered down, this is an important step forward that sets the stage for real progress next year.


It is important to highlight the significant pledges and Paris Agreement partnerships that were announced at COP26 including:

Dr. Boone stands masked waiting for his plenary
GCSE Delegate Christopher Boone getting ready to sit in on a plenary panel.
  • The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by 137 countries focused on ending deforestation in tropical forests. This is the biggest pledge on this topic in history. 
  • The Global Methane Pledge to cut methane emissions which is critical as methane is one of the most damaging greenhouse gases with some of the highest warming potential equivalent to 28 times higher than carbon dioxide.
  • The Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement signed by country representatives from national and subnational levels of government and multinational organizations. This pledge is of significant value as ​​coal power generation is the single biggest contributor to global warming.
  • The Global Finance Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) signaled a tripling of decarbonization investment (70% from private actors) by 2025 (compared to 2016-2020). The ~450 companies and banks included in the agreement represent over $125 trillion US  in private assets and sets forward a roadmap for decarbonization investments, regionally and across sectors (agriculture, forestry and other land uses (AFOLU), buildings, electricity, industry, low emission fuels, and transport).

In summary, COP26 served to engage the world in the gravity of climate change. The global stage drew unprecedented numbers to the host city of Glasgow, while offering the option for virtual participation to those individuals with UNFCCC credentials as well. The level of media coverage coupled with social media provided substantial opportunities for digging deeper into specific aspects of climate change risks, impacts, and also the opportunities that mitigation at scale might offer. Overall, while not hailed a success specific to the level of action required to avoid catastrophic climate change, COP26 did provide a much needed platform to rally engagement, action and accountability by the world’s nations who together are grappling with the grave realities of global climate change.

During COP26, GCSE delegates shared their daily experiences in the following video series which can be viewed in full by clicking HERE.


                                                         COP27 and the Road to Egypt 

    GCSE is actively planning for COP27. Please stay tuned, and for detailed questions or inputs, please email  


Opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the GCSE or its members.