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“Despite a lack of diversity in certain fora, women are traditionally very active in environmental and climate matters”: Alessandra Lehmen’s first-hand insights from #COP26!

Nov 12, 2021
Alessandra Lehmen is an outstanding Environmental and Climate lawyer qualified in the US and Brazil. She has an LL.M. degree in Environmental Law and Policy from Stanford, a Ph.D. in International Law from UFRGS and an MBA from FGV. Alessandra is a Postdoctoral Laureate at the Make Our Planet Great Again Program of the Presidency of France. Alessandra was a speaker at the COP26.

Praveen Gupta: It is ‘billed’ as the ‘whitest’ COP of all?

Alessandra Lehmen: The pandemic and the recession that followed suit posed a significant barrier to emerging countries’ participation. The UK Presidency relaxed quarantine and vaccination requirements and extended access to vaccines to participants, but it was an uncertain and costly process that, in practice, prevented wider participation from Global South delegates. Online participation was possible, but that would require proper access to the internet, something that is not readily available to all emerging countries’ delegates.

PG: Did you see many women leading the events and getting their due place in the sun?

AL: I did. Despite a lack of diversity in certain fora, women are traditionally very active in environmental and climate matters. The same holds true for Environmental and Climate Law, where notable women have been inspirational leaders for decades. One of the panels in which I spoke, for instance, was comprised only of women attorneys.

PG: Were women and youth from the Global South visible and audible?

AL: Yes. Just to give you one notable example, Txai Suruí, a young indigenous leader and the first representative of her people to attend Law school, was the only Brazilian to speak at the opening ceremony.

PG: Oil and gas industry continuing to play a spoilsport?

AL: According to NGO Global Witness, oil and gas industry representatives were the largest group at the summit, surpassing Brazil, which had the largest official delegation. At the level of the negotiations, countries that have been historically blocking measures related to phasing out fossils, such as ending subsidies, have continued to do so. Also, major producers have not adhered to the coal phase-out pledge championed by the UK presidency, but important consumer markets, such as Canada, Poland, and Chile, have done so.

PG: Does the conference first draft shock you?

AL: I see the document as comprehensive, but somewhat watered down in diplomatic language. The US and China’s joint announcement that they will work together on a number of climate-related actions has sparked some cautious optimism as negotiations draw to a close. It will remain to be seen if, before the end of the conference, further progress is made on topics that I see as crucial for keeping the 1.5 degree goal alive, such as fossil subsidies, the Article 6 rulebook, and finance.

Alessandra with Txai Surui.
Protests are an integral part of COPs, and there were plenty of rather creative manifestations both inside and outside the venue. Perhaps the one that touched me the most was Simon Kofe’s, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, who has filmed his speech from a podium knee-deep in the ocean. It was a stark reminder that the current generation of children could be the last to grow up in the small island state.

PG: Heroic and valiant attempts by protestors, how impactful?

AL: Protests are an integral part of COPs, and there were plenty of rather creative manifestations both inside and outside the venue. Perhaps the one that touched me the most was Simon Kofe’s, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, who has filmed his speech from a podium knee-deep in the ocean. It was a stark reminder that the current generation of children could be the last to grow up in the small island state.

PG: Was it a good idea to have a COP15 (re: biodiversity, at Kunming) ahead and separately of COP26. Deforestation being a critical component, did it receive the deserved attention?

AL: Biodiversity COP15 was aptly dubbed by the media as “the most important COP you have never heard of”. Biodiversity issues are closely intertwined with climate change, particularly in a pandemic: more climate change leads to more habitat loss, which in turn leads to more exposure to pathogens. Deforestation did receive attention at COP26, though: more than 100 countries – including Brazil – pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 and the documents include almost $19.2bn in public and private funds.

I have seen commentators mention that the pledge is limited to illegal deforestation, but the statement makes no such caveat. It remains to be seen if the pledge is interpreted and implemented in a way that is conducive to effective alignment with the 1.5 degree goal.

PG: Is Net Zero a mirage?

AL: I use to say that, although a race to the top of climate ambition is welcome, I am more interested in assessing what concrete, measurable progress a country or a company has to show for by the end of the next fiscal year, rather than in who makes the biggest net zero pledge for 2040 or 2050. I mean, we know where we want to go, now let’s get moving. Also, net zero and carbon neutrality are not synonyms, so we need absolute reductions, as opposed to only relying in compensations, to get there.

PG: Many thanks for these wonderful just in time first-hand insights, Alessandra! Hearty Congratulations for your leadership.

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