The 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) kicked off this week. As the third meeting of the parties to the Paris Agreement – the 2015 treaty concerned with limiting climate change to 2°C (ideally 1.5°C) and with urging states to become net-zero by 2050 -, and as the first gathering of its kind since December 2019, it’s gathering a fair bit of media coverage. With pensioners protesting in the road and the formidable Greta Thunberg calling young people to action, climate change has become an increasingly familiar feature of daily news. With a view to this, I sat down with Luke Hatton, the president of Oxford Climate Society (OCS) to discuss his hopes for COP26, and how OCS is empowering students to tackle the climate crisis.

I began by asking exactly what Oxford Climate Society is. In his own words, the aim of OCS is to inform future climate leaders by exploring multidisciplinary perspectives on climate-change. As such, OCS runs a range of educational initiatives, speaker events, andaction campaigns in the university pushing for more ambitious net-zero targets, diversity gain targets, and divestment from fossil fuels. Politically minded environmental activism, such as that of Extinction Rebellion, frequently has similar aims. So, I couldn’t help asking whether he considers OCS a political society. Not particularly, he tells me, beyond the extent to which we’re all affected by climate change. He describes the society as apolitical, preferring to concentrate on the science; exploring and answering questions about the practicalities of achieving net-zero, and ensuring that we limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C are at the heart of OCS’s work.

One of OCS’s most successful initiatives is the Oxford School of Climate Change, through which Hatton took his first steps towards involvement with the society in 2019, during his first year. This eight-week lecture series, delivered by Oxford academics, covers different aspects of climate change, from the scientific theory, to the effects and impacts, and – crucially – solutions. In recent years, the School has opened up to Oxford and non-Oxford students alike, taking advantage of the switch to an online format necessitated by the pandemic. Over 1500 participants have now been able to access this term’s program.

Climate anxiety is on the rise. Nearly 60% of young people approached in a global survey reported feeling ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’. So what can young people do? Hatton provides some suggestions for making your life more sustainable: thinking more consciously about emissions when travelling, and offsetting if you do need to travel; using public transport or cycling; eating less red meat; or adopting a plant-based diet. 

Still it’s interesting, Hatton muses, that responsibility for the climate crisis has been pushed onto individuals. While he agrees that climate-conscious choices should be encouraged, we must also recognise that  large companies – particularly those in the oil industry – capitalise from this to deflect corporate responsibility. Indeed, the concept of a “carbon footprint”, a popular measure of personal impact, was ‘the brainchild of an advertising firm working for BP.’ So the best thing, in his opinion, is to educate yourself, to have these discussions, and to learn a bit of the science. All of these actions foster collective social consciousness – something which is especially relevant to COP26. 

Hatton, alongside other members of OCS, will be attending some of COP26. Though they were unable to secure a stall in the Green Zone,where the public (i.e. youth groups, charities, academics) can have their voices heard, he hopes to present their experiences of the conference to the rest of the society in an event/social media takeover later this term. There’s already been a lot of speculation about what will emerge from COP26, some of which are more optimistic than others. Ideally, Hatton hopes that the negotiations will lead to strong commitments from the largest emitters to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 or sooner, upholding an emissions journey that will keep global temperature rises within 1.5°C. How realistic these goals are, however, – considering Rishi Sunak’s recent budget made no mention of climate finance & green energy and compounded by the absence of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping from the conference – is, he concedes, unlikely.

Nonetheless, the COP26 Universities Network student-led policy briefing – to which Hatton contributed alongside students from Cambridge, UCL, and SOAS, among others – is encouraging. It lays out tangible policies which governments could implement to make substantive progress towards net zero targets, whilst ensuring that the long-term consequences are minimised. Among these, decarbonising the energy system – one of the largest contributors to UK emissions – is asserted as critical to achieving net zero by 2050. Hatton cites the example of Ørsted, the largest energy company in Denmark, which transitioned from oil and gas to renewable energy solutions to produce 100% green energy. So it’s clear that change can be achieved. The question for the UK energy system, then, is not one of how, but when? How far the UK government and others will consider such questions at COP26 remains to be seen.