As the snow settled around the hills of Edinburgh, things were heating up in Dubai at COP28, hosted by the UAE. Scientists, negotiators, activists, and lobbyists converged at this global gathering, aiming to intensify efforts to prevent catastrophic increases in global temperatures.

The University of Edinburgh was well represented at the two-week-long event. Among its representatives was Dr Sian Henley, a Reader in Marine Science in the School of Geosciences. Elliot Convery-Fisher, an Advanced Earth Fellow at the Edinburgh Earth Initiative, seized the opportunity to catch up with Dr Henley and capture her immediate reactions to the agreements reached in December.

Dr Henley outside the COP28 venue in Dubai

Dr Henley outside the COP28 venue in Dubai

What do you research, and how is it linked to climate change?

I research the polar oceans, focusing on the effects of climate change on Antarctica’s ecosystems. Additionally, I investigate how climate change affects polar weather and how it contributes to further global climate change.

How many COPs have you been to?

My first COP was COP26 in Glasgow, and I’ve been there every year since then.

What brought you to COP28?

I attended COP28 as a representative for three delegations: the University of Edinburgh, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), and the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI). My role was to support ICCI’s efforts in presenting scientific evidence on the cryosphere – any part of the earth influenced by ice – to inform policy negotiations. Additionally, I participated in various side events, including scientific exhibits. I contributed to a massive open online course (MOOC) of 10,000 learners developed by the Moray House School of Education and Sport at the University of Edinburgh.

Scientists, including Dr Henley, illustrate the potential impact of a 10m sea level rise in Dubai, projecting it through the COP28 venue.

Scientists, including Dr Henley, illustrate the potential impact of a 10m sea level rise in Dubai, projecting it through the COP28 venue. This scenario is likely by 2300 with sustained high emissions. Image Credit: Irene Quaile

Who did you speak to at COP28?

We had originally organised an event to be attended by the President of Chile, the Prime Minister of Iceland, and the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. But those very important people had other things come into their schedule at the last minute, so our meeting was cancelled!

However, the following day, we had the opportunity to meet with the Chilean Minister for Foreign Affairs. He visited our scientific exhibit and spent ages talking to us. As a result of this interaction, we were invited to brief the entire Chilean delegation. This opportunism is just what happens at COPs!

Once we had established a strong connection with the Chilean delegation, we were invited to an Antarctic science dialogue with Chilean scientists. So, that link with Chile became very strong, opening up further conversations with other South American delegations. I also had an opportunistic meeting with António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, before he gave a plenary address. We discussed the importance of protecting the cryosphere by limiting global warming. He told me it must be an exciting life to be an Antarctic scientist, and I said it must be an exciting life to be Secretary-General of the UN!

Dr Henley during her discussion with António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations

Dr Henley during her discussion with António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations

What was your message?

Our message was that we need to limit global warming to within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels to safeguard against ice sheet loss, sea level rise and their potentially catastrophic impacts.

What were your hopes going into COP28?

I wanted to see strong language on fossil fuel emissions to keep warming below 1.5 degrees. Additionally, I hoped for improved inclusion of underrepresented groups in the decision-making process. Furthermore, I wanted to ensure that the aspects of the Earth system I specialise in were well-represented.

Before going to COP, I must admit I was nervous. There had been negative reports regarding the event’s location and leadership. During my 11 days at COP28, there were moments when progress was tough, and things weren’t going that well. And whilst the final result is not as strong as we had hoped, it is certainly better than it could have been!

What do you think about the final agreement?

Many are pleasantly surprised by the final agreement. There’s strong wording on moving away from fossil fuels for the first time. The loss and damage fund operationalisation was a significant win, although more funding is needed. There’s also a commitment to triple renewable energy investment and double energy efficiency.

In the global stocktake decision, the cryosphere and the oceans were reasonably well represented there, but we had to fight hard for it!

The big disappointment is that the wording on fossil fuels could’ve been stronger, and there should’ve been a more solid commitment to financing the actions we’ve agreed upon.

Does much actual fighting take place?

No! No actual fighting, but it’s an extraordinary process. The draft text for the global stocktake can swing wildly between extremes. We might see a strong emphasis on the cryosphere one day, and then the next day, it’s hardly mentioned.

Eventually, the final text included what we wanted. It’s like a rollercoaster with highs and lows as the text goes back and forth between Parties. Some days, you feel like you’re making great progress; others, you’re in total despair when certain actors block it.

What is it like being at COP?

COP is an intense experience. You definitely don’t get enough sleep with long 12-hour days, sometimes longer. We start our days with meetings to plan but need to stay agile and responsive to the evolving negotiations. It’s about identifying opportunities and positioning ourselves effectively as a team to connect with negotiators, ministers and delegations.

In previous COPs, civil society had a stronger presence with numerous demonstrations. However, civil society participation was tightly controlled in the UAE, and some protests were shut down due to their nature. There was a climate justice march that almost didn’t happen due to security concerns, but it was a really moving experience when it did.

My role at COP is to convey the science of climate change, but when you witness people marching with banners, traditional dress, and their demands for change, you realise that climate change is not just about numbers and graphs; it’s about people’s lives. Many people’s lives, livelihoods, and cultures are under existential threat. That’s the critical point that should be spurring action at every level of every society.

A demonstration by Pacific Island communities during the climate justice march

A demonstration by Pacific Island communities during the climate justice march