Dr. Sarah Burch is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Governance and Innovation and a leading expert in transformative responses to climate change at the community scale. She currently leads the international partnership-based research project TRANSFORM, accelerating sustainability entrepreneurship experiments in local spaces, and is an advisor for Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy.

This past November, Burch attended COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The United Nations climate change conferences have always drawn criticism and this year is no exception. The lack of opportunity for protest and exorbitant costs to attend meant that some crucial voices from low-income countries and civil society were largely excluded from the proceedings. These were just some of the valid criticisms circulating, prompting us to ask Burch — is COP still relevant in leading our sustainable future?

Sarah Burch

Dr. Sarah Burch   
Professor, Faculty of Environment
> Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Governance and Innovation 
Executive director, Waterloo Climate Institute 

Opinion by Dr. Burch

For two long, noisy weeks this November, I was one of tens of thousands of government representatives, researchers, lobbyists and activists who came together for the United Nations climate conference, COP27. While on the surface this annual affair appears to be part circus and part elite social event, in reality it is much more than this.

It is a crucial opportunity for 193 countries and the European Union to do the hard work of agreeing how to meet their climate change commitments. It is a mechanism for countries to put pressure on one another to ratchet up their ambition, prove that they’re making progress, and find ways to move faster to address the rapidly unfolding and devastating effects of climate change.

But responding to climate change is not the sole territory of national governments. It is the complex, dirty work of building a social movement, developing technical expertise, sharing what we know and demanding that we move faster.

Alongside the negotiations, a vibrant and diverse community of climate workers and advocates has grown. Scientists studying how warming is accelerating the spread of disease, engineers developing new battery technologies and Indigenous advocates calling for justice. These networks and communities host hundreds of pavilions and side events which are an essential element of what COP has become. They’re central, not peripheral or optional, and part of the momentum-building that COP needs.  

If future COPs separated climate workers and advocates from state negotiations and moved the pavilions and side events to another date on the calendar, there would (and should) be an enormous outcry. After all, national level governments implement only a slice of climate solutions. City networks, civil society, researchers and practitioners are integral in supporting the negotiations. It would also fracture our ability to work together as many people who support the negotiations, some of whom have decision-making authority, like ministers, would choose to attend one event and not the other. This is a wildly undesirable outcome that would stunt future progress.

As an example, this year’s negotiations produced a historic commitment to create a new “loss and damage fund” that provides financial assistance to the most vulnerable countries suffering irreversible losses from climate change. But it failed to make commitments to phase down all fossil fuels, which are the culprit creating the problem in the first place. The work of exposing these inconsistencies is done in part by engaged and vigilant advocates, alongside scientists raising the alarm that our chances of meeting our climate goals are rapidly dwindling.

A key value of COP is that it provides fuel to a global social and political movement. This movement is rooted in relationships and collaboration. It’s accelerated by the sharing of solutions and strengthened by transparency. This work is critical as we are in a new phase of our response to climate change. Having largely moved through the extraordinarily fraught period of establishing the scientific fact that humans are fundamentally altering the climate, the pendulum has swung between a focus on reducing emissions (mitigation) to more recent attention on protecting communities from the devasting floods, fires and heat waves that climate change induces (adaptation).

Sarah speking with student at COP27

Burch at COP27 with PhD candidate Isra Saeed


But the reality is that both mitigation and adaptation strategies must happen simultaneously, and fast. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear earlier this year, we are not on track to limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Despite this grim reality, we now know that there are at least a couple of dozen countries that are on track, such as Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. These examples give us a pathway to follow and solutions that work, and COP27 remains a powerful, if imperfect, potential accelerator to pursue such action.