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A PhD student's perspective from COP28

"I am a PhD student working in the Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge. Specifically, my research focusses on refreezing the Arctic by enhancing the albedo and light-scattering properties of marine clouds using only seawater, a process called marine cloud brightening.

Last month, I attended my first United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28 in Dubai. As a student at the Centre for Climate Repair, my goal was to humanize my research on marine cloud brightening.

Yashas Raj at COP28

My experience in Dubai was surreal to say the least. Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room: it was a very strange setup. The United Arab Emirates is a major oil producer, the President of COP28 is CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and there were at least 2,456 fossil fuel representatives present. Furthermore, my hotel room had a view over Jebel Ali Power and Desalination Plant, the world's largest gas-fired power plant.

Being a young person at COP was confusing. There was a surface-level appreciation of our presence, but it felt often like tokenism rather than meaningful involvement. Despite that, attending the event was still an incredible experience and I was able to present my field in a few panels in an effort to humanize climate intervention research and represent a young researcher's perspective. 

You also never knew who you'd run into. During my first day I attended a session moderated by Hilary Clinton and had a random conversation with someone who turned out to be the Green Party leader of Kazakhstan! Some sessions offered unique perspectives as well, from the Vanuatu representative seeing his island slowly sinking due to rising global sea levels to the ClimateFresk delegation using simple communication techniques to increase climate literacy. 

The sheer enormity of the venue and number of attendees involved was overwhelming, there were hundreds of events running concurrently in 100 different pavilions. In many ways it felt more like a business expo than a climate conference. There were golf carts zipping around because it was too hot and too far to walk anywhere, and while Expo City felt otherwordly, almost everything - from the pebble fountains to the flower displays - were made of plastic, which was quite ironic for a climate conference. 

The main concern of many attendees was if the UAE were genuine in their messages of climate concern or if they were simply hosting COP28 as a way to sign oil deals and greenwash discussions. Day One brought the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund and - after nearly 30 years of COPs - transitioning away from fossil fuels was finally mentioned. However, the actual language of the agreement was weak and open to loopholes; it remains to be seen what its impact will be. 

Despite the greenwashing, I do have hope that COP28 marked the beginning of a journey towards change and the phasing out of fossil fuels. However, looking forward to COP29, hosted by another petrostate, Azerbaijan, the lack of women on their climate committee is exceptionally disappointing and highlights the fact that discussions on climate action must extend beyond just the two weeks per year of COP. Reflecting back on my experience , I am more motivated than ever to play my part in combating the climate crisis and developing solutions to refreeze the Arctic. But with a growing need for action, it's crucial that global change is not delayed before it is too late for meaningful progress to take place.