Last week, international climate negotiations wrapped up at COP28, the 28th annual convention where United Nations member states come to discuss climate change. With nearly 200 countries represented and around 85,000 participants, the world’s largest international climate conference is intended for government leaders to agree on policies that would prevent global temperatures from rising higher.
Nearly every country agreed to transition away from fossil fuels—the first time in 28 years that the words “fossil fuels” were even mentioned, despite it being the main driver of climate change.
Kenza Bezzat is a senior biomedical engineering major at Worcester Polytechnic Institute with an interest in finding innovative approaches to making medical advances more sustainable. She attended the historic conference and joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to share her experience at COP28. The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: First off, tell us how you came to be at COP28.
Kenza Bezzat: Sure. This opportunity came about through my Arabic class. This past semester, we were working with students from the American University of Sharjah [in the UAE]. The virtual exchange program was funded by the Stevens Initiative, but the project specifically was under a program called the Transformative Sustainability Project.
Through this project, my class was separated into groups. My group specifically was working with one of the sustainability development goals to identify cultural influences on the understanding of sustainability and comparing that to the WPI community and the American University of Sharjah.
Through this project, we were interviewing students on campus and then comparing our analyses to find similarities and differences through these cultural understandings. Also, through this project, this opportunity was brought to me by my professor. I went through an interview process, and I was selected to go along with two other students to attend the conference.
Rath: Your research sounds super interesting. Were the talks and presentations that you attended all related to that, or did you go to everything there?
Bezzat: Our trip was very much short-lived. We were only able to attend the first two days of the beginning of the conference. They were invite-only, so the conference itself was not super crowded at the time, which gave us the opportunity to explore many different places.
One of my favorite lectures or conversations I attended was hosted by PWC, a consulting firm. We were talking about how the youth can become more engaged, active and motivated to talk action against climate change.
It was a really diverse group of students, and it was amazing to hear. There were students from Nigeria, Rwanda, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan—everyone, just talking about how climate change has impacted them and why they think it’s important to get involved, but more importantly, ways that we can motivate the youth to get involved.
Rath: Your particular area of interest involves cultural influence and sustainability. Did you come away with any insights regarding that from this conference?
Bezzat: I definitely would say that the youth—we are responsible for the change that’s going to come in the future. In this conversation, it was really interesting to see the ideas that everyone had to share.
I definitely think, from another aspect of it, there is still this disconnect between the innovation that surrounds climate change and the communities it helps. One of the students—a student from the Philippines—was mentioning how his home had become a flood zone for typhoons, and it was really impactful for him when he returned home a few years ago to see that his home had been wiped out because of the flood zone.
This was a great motivating factor for him to speak up about the injustices of climate change, as well as accessibility to the innovations that help these communities that are underserved.
Rath: It must have been very powerful to connect with people who are obviously feeling some of the worst effects of climate change.
Bezzat: Yeah, it was amazing.
Rath: As we mentioned, this year’s convention ended with nearly all countries agreeing to move away from fossil fuels. That's a step forward, but it seems like probably one we should’ve taken a long time ago. I’m curious about your reaction, especially as a young person having been to that part of the conference you were able to attend. Do you feel more hopeful? Less hopeful? About the same?
Bezzat: I mean, it’s always important to stay hopeful about these issues, especially given that there’s this global agreement that in 2030, we want to hit a certain goal concerning climate change. I do agree with you that this is a very small step in the right direction.
I was actually doing research about the decisions of previous COP conferences, and COP26 is when they had just agreed on the final rules of the Paris Agreement and the signing of the Glasgow Climate Pact. It seems that this progression is very slow, given that we have this 2030 goal, which is—you know, it’s almost 2024. We don’t have a lot of time to be taking such small steps.
I think the greatest issue is not only unity internationally, but also regulation and motivation to follow these rules, I would say. Everyone is on the same page, but also, how are we going to enforce that to make sure everyone is following these rules to reach the 2030 goal? It’s good, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.
Rath: Well, I’m curious because you’ve studied this: How would you say that the agreement on fossil fuels compares to Glasgow or Paris in terms of its significance?
Bezzat: I mean, I just think it’s missing the action part, right? The words have been said—there is agreement. Everyone is on the same page. How do we move forward? It’s great that everyone is in agreement that fossil fuels are an issue, but are we funding more of these clean energy initiatives and, at the same time, developing more carbon capture technologies?
The underlying issue here is still the trade of oil and the use of oil and gas that needs to be significantly reduced. Oil and gas are very prominent resources for many countries, and their economy depends on it. How can we also make sure that these companies don’t suffer at the expense of trying to lead a cleaner way of life?