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On the ground at COP26 in Glasgow: Dr. Alonso Aguirre shares his experience

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) was held in Glasgow from 31 October – 12 November 2021. Department of Environmental Science and Policy Chair Professor A. Alonso Aguirre attended the event as part of the Global Council for Science and the Environment (GCSE) COP26 delegation, and also representing the College of Science at George Mason University. In a series of pictures and daily logs, Dr. Aguirre shares with us his experience on the ground at COP26 in Glasgow.

What exactly is COP26 and why is it important? Read the full text of COP26 Explained.

What needs to be achieved at COP26? Four goals, as outlined below:

1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
3. Mobilize finance
4. Work together to deliver

Pictures and content by A. Alonso Aguirre; edited by Aikwan Chong 


Aguirre at the Japan pavilion where
they were taking photos with a barcode.

My first days were spent learning about water, impacts of climate to the European Union, and Brazil and Colombia’s approaches to reach net zero and green businesses.

Some thoughts to share:

  • There is a major imperative of climate action to protect human health. I will go further and say  - to protect the health of all species in the planet. We need to have a clear understanding on how human, animal, plant and ecosystem health connect through One Heath/Planetary Health. This will be the only way forward to implement change.

  • The Arctic and Mediterranean regions are warming faster than any other regions on the planet, and integrated strategies for mitigation and adaptation are needed.

  • The political, social, and economic benefits of changing our ways are obvious, but we need to make a case for the general public to understand climate is changing, the poles are melting, and we cannot continue with business as usual. Knowledge through research and integration of databases is key.

  • Transdisciplinary collaborations are instrumental in reaching out to climate change, health, biodiversity and sustainability communities. We call them communities of practice. These need to be integrated to implement practical solutions to bring mitigation and adaptation together.

  • I am optimistic that this meeting will be able to steer the future of humanity for a positive outcome. Water is vital and we need to reach out to all scientific communities across disciplines, ecosystems, and species that will link science, practice, communication, and transformative change.


COP26 is considered to be one of the most important COPs due to the urgency to reduce emissions 50% globally by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. The event drew massive crowds - over 40,000 were registered to attend, doubled from the last UN climate conference in 2019.

The organizers were overwhelmed during the first days of the conference, where all participants needed to show proof of COVID testing in a daily basis. The first days would take up to 3 hours (!) to get into the venue. 


On my second night, I watched a wonderful concert: Vital Signs of the Planet Concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall which included new footage of climate change from NASA and National Geographic. It was the most beautiful live show I have seen in years. The Royal Orchestra performed impressive and powerful pieces, starting with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, giving us hope. The voice of a young leader from indigenous peoples in Panama, a young YMCA leader in Ghana, and a National Geographic Explorer were among those who asked for the opportunity to act now, to let them contribute to change our ways. The new generation is ready and is acting to implement transformative change, applying nature-based solutions and breaking down disciplinary barriers. This was a wonderful evening bringing science and the arts together by connecting our foundational knowledge (what we know), our humanistic knowledge (what we value), and our metaknowledge (how we act). Last night, the young professional musicians, the artists and the performers brought us together in a truly amazing transdisciplinary and transformative experience of Science+Art at its best.

Plenary session at the Blue Zone: Leaders, mostly behind
closed doors, discussed many decisions that need to be made
moving forward to achieve the IPPC 2021 targets.

WHO representatives called this meeting the first COP for Health after 26 COPs. Finally, Health is on the COP agenda. Many countries opposed adding this topic in the past because they didn’t want to be sued "for killing people." In fact, ~7 million premature deaths occur globally every year due to air pollution alone. Data was presented on the benefits of carbon reduction on air quality. Sophie Szopa, coordinating lead author of Chapter 6 of the AR6 IPCC WG1 IPCC 2021 report, added that a reduction of air pollution leads to a slight additional warming due to decrease of aerosols; however, the net warming will be lower in the long term. Also, methane has a pivotal role and needs to be mitigated. Decarbonization will need strong systemic changes in all sectors.

Policies across sectors and international organizations need to be integrated in order to be successful and begin to focus on achieving the SDGs as One Health/Planetary Health overlap with all 17 objectives. These integrative, transdisciplinary, and transformative approaches need to reach governments, NGOs, the private industry, policy makers and the general public. 

Youth voices for climate justice - young people are ready to tackle
climate ​​​​​change, the largest threat to humanity, as theirs and their
children’s futures are threatened.

Youth Voices for Climate Justice -Climactivists from the world rewriting COP26’s agenda was a wonderful panel of five young advocates in their early 20's, and moderated by Jacopo Bencini from the Italian Climate Network and Serena Bashal from the UK Youth Climate Coalition Ltd. hosting a diverse, inclusive panel from Africa, Europe, Middle East and Latin America.

A peaceful march of over 100,000 people, led by Greta Thunberg.
They marched to downtown Glasgow on Saturday, November 6th.

All panelists pleaded for an opportunity to fully participate in the decision-making process during the negotiations at the closed sessions of the summit. They referred to the lack of inter-generational justice, equity, and inclusivity. They stated that young people are ready to tackle the largest threat to humanity as it is their lives and their children’s future which are being threatened by climate change.

There are many youth organizations across the planet rewriting policies and statements for this and the upcoming COPs, expressing many emotions described as eco-anxiety: feeling discouraged, frustrated, guilty, worried, and having an urgent need to implement change. Organizations such as We Are Tomorrow Global Partnership are showing solutions, implementing actions, and they want to collaborate globally with decision makers on the climate change agenda. There is no better time to launch the Global Youth Science Partnership next week here at COP26.

(from left to right) Kathleen Rogers, President, EARTHDAY.ORG; Haldis Holst, Deputy General Secretary, Education International; Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General, UNESCO; A.A. Aguirre, and Moderator Andrew Jack, Global Education Editor, Financial Times.

Country negotiations to implement change is a long and slow process. The future generations are concerned that there is no time left. Since I arrived at COP26, I have felt that my presence here was more self-serving than contributing to the progress of negotiations that have already occurred. However, I was happy to have had the opportunity to participate and share my point of view as part of a roundtable “Why Climate Literacy & Civic Skill Building Will Solve the Climate Crisis - Answers from Civil Society, Educators, and Governments” hosted by

A. A. Aguirre (George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA)
and Alex Godoy-Faúndez (School of Engineering, Universidad
del Desarrollo, Santiago, Chile), both delegates representing
the Global Council of Science and the Environment at COP26,
Glasgow, Scotland.

One of the focuses of COP26 was on land use change and nature to address deforestation and to accelerate sustainable agriculture. Leaders of 105 countries covering 85% of the forests in the planet announced the "Action on Forests and Land Use" initiative to end deforestation by 2030 by “promoting and inclusive rural transformation” and committing over USD 22 billion. This has been declared in past COPs, but now we have the governments, leaders, youth organizations, companies, financial actors, and entrepreneurs, united and committed to achieve this. 

A panel on SMEs (small to medium enterprises) organized by GEFs on sustainable agriculture and forests discussed the Sustainable Riceland Initiative to transform food production in partnership with industry and local communities in Indonesia. Several actions including how to focus on healthy soils and biodiversity included farmer practices through procurement requests to make the government aware and apply science and practice on the ground including coordination with 6 UN organizations linking health and environment. Also, Paraguay has implemented specific initiatives with the directive of maintaining carbon in soil using/recycling previous harvests. Their minister of environment highlighted that they would halt early transformation of land use and apply sustainable livestock pasture systems; for example, multi-crop multi-livestock sustainable approaches like soybean and meat production will be important moving forward.

US climate envoy John Kerry in many of his engagements
at the US Center Pavilion, is confident of an agreement at COP26.
“Negotiators from almost 200 governments are trying to strike a
deal on how we tackle climate change.” BBC, 2021.

I was also made aware that PlugAndPlay, a company that connects blue chip corporations to the brightest startups across the globe, had developed a sustainability program focused on three key words: produce, protect, and include. There is no good or bad in sustainability, but it is just a state of transition. Many landscapes and multi-holder organizations need to be connected. We need to bring investment for large scale transformation; for example, the Cocoa Forest Initiative in many countries is bringing social and environmental change. In addition, we need to fund partnerships close to forest hotspots and not away as we may be financing farmers who don’t need those incentives.

My thought is that focusing on zero deforestation will require legislation to end deforestation in many countries. We have partly reduced cutting forests and changed agricultural use, but 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. Companies need to be ambitious and engage in the supply change. The current momentum that is building should be used to tackle deforestation.

During the last day of COP26, over 200 countries struck a deal to do more for climate change. Wealthy nations will double their commitments and funding by 2025 to reduce emissions and reduce fossil fuels globally. However, youth and many activist groups believe that these agreements won’t do enough, that better deals and more commitments should have been accomplished to reach our planetary goals. While talking to my fellow GCSE delegate Diane Husic, we discussed attending this conference as a unique experience to think about what we see/learn/think - an experience most people in the world would never get to experience. It was an opportunity to network and create new friends and relationships that will impact not only ESP, but COS and the University. As Diane told me, “One of our responsibilities is to seriously consider what we each do with this information when we go back home.”  Most importantly, our attendance at COP26 increases our credibility with state and local decision makers. Perhaps I can provide input for policy development related to adaptation, risk reduction, and capacity building on climate change in Virginia. I am hopeful for the future of humanity, species and ecosystems. Together, we will take care of the “little blue dot.”