Prof. Johannes Lehmann, soil and crop sciences, discusses soil carbon at COP 23.

November 7, 2017

Cornell Students, Professors Participate in UN Climate Conference

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Sixteen of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. However, progress toward minimizing increases in global temperatures is slowly being made. In 2015, 198 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement, the first major pledge by countries to limit global temperatures to 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Now leaders and academics from around the world will be returning to the conference at which the historic agreement was signed, the 23rd Conference of the Parties in Bonn, Germany from Nov. 6 to 13. Taking part in these negotiations will be 10 researchers, 11 students and two staff members from Cornell University.

Since its inception in 1995, the conference has been the focal point for important progress in the fight against climate change. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol, which sought to establish legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, was signed at the conference.

The United States’ position at the conference is unclear. Even though the current administration revealed its intention to withdraw from the Paris agreement in June, states and businesses across the country have pledged to abide by the Paris agreement. Among other controversies, the United States is expected to promote the use of cleaner coal and natural gas as an answer to climate change. Speakers from Peabody Energy, the largest private sector coal company in the world, are also expected to be part of the U.S. delegation.

“When the United States government announced in June that we would withdraw from global climate change conversation, I was especially motivated to be involved in the conference to gain more knowledge about climate change science and policy, and to inform policy makers from all over world about the world renowned climate change research taking place on Cornell’s campus,” said Emma Bankier ’19, a member of Cornell’s delegation to COP 23.

With the effects of extreme weather phenomenon being felt in countries all over the world from wildfires and hurricanes in the United States to floods in Nigeria, there is an increasing sense of urgency among scientists to find ways to reduce global emissions. With this in mind, at COP 23, leaders aim to their share solutions as well as review existing transparency measures.

“Over the next two weeks, we will be attending a series of events and discussions led by climate leaders from all over the world regarding several issues including renewable energy, melting polar ice caps, sea level rise and low-lying island states, indigenous communities, and agriculture,” Bankier said.

The delegation will also be sharing climate change related Cornell research publications at the conference in the hope that other nations can draw on these experiences to meet their own targets.

In particular, a pressing issue many developing nations face is the tradeoff between employing environmentally friendly agricultural practices and food security. At a press conference on the first day of the event, Prof. Johannes Lehmann, soil and crop sciences, shared his opinions on the connection between the two, hoping to “demystify the common stereotype that these are not combinable targets.”

“Soil carbon has been recently recognized as being the big elephant in the room. There is much more carbon in soil than in vegetation and atmosphere combined,” Lehmann said. “The Paris Agreement made a forward move in calling out that increases in soil carbon stocks may mitigate the missing emitted carbon that would otherwise lead to carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere.”

As he shared examples of projects in Ethiopia, Lehmann explained that focusing on ways to sequester carbon in soil could improve crop productivity and protect them from the impacts of climate change. He also emphasized that finding the correct soil management strategy required understanding the cultural, political and socio-economic aspects of the local community.

“Food security and climate change can hang together in a mutually reinforceable way through soil carbon,” Lehmann said.

Along with these presentations, students of the delegation also designed a survey for COP 23 attendees. With it, they aim to understand the effects that student and researcher participation has at the conference and the influence that each delegation has on negotiations.

“We hope to draw conclusions that will help Cornell and other research universities determine the importance of our role at the conference and strengthen our research contributions in upcoming years,” Bankier said.

“If it is still not clear that climate change deserves our full attention, I believe it is our job as Cornell students to share the evidence that proves it is.”