November 29, 2021
On October 27, Elsy Milan (BS ‘18) took the bus from the Starhotels Ritz on Via Lazzaro Spallanzani to the Milano Convention Center, a postmodern structure whose undulating metal wave roof is meant to evoke a comet when viewed from above. She’d arrived in the city that is her namesake that morning—tested, vaccinated, and masked—to attend the 26th United Nations Climate Change Pre-Conference or pre-COP26 as a United Nations representative, with official sanction from the UN’s Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth.
She was chosen for her position not because of any party affiliation or wasta, but because of her research into carbon capture usage and storage under AUB Assistant Professor Kassem Ghorayeb at the Bahaa and Walid Bassatne Department of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Energy. Unlike their government counterparts, UN youth representatives must be credentialed in some form of climate policy or technology.
The bus arrived. The building's eccentric exterior belied a corporate-esque conference room. Flags of UN member countries hung from the ceiling. In the front row, a panel of ministers—their faces lit by a bluish-white spotlight—assured, applauded, and nodded along to calls from youthful representatives for action on climate change.
Elsy took the mic, removed her mask, clamping down on a smile that kept bubbling up, threatening her determined mien. How, she asked, might the ministers advise on Lebanon’s current political impasse, which makes all progress, climate-related and not, impossible. “I wanted to understand their point of view, where they’re coming from, and not only be accepted by them, but be taken seriously,” she says.
She’d made a point to distinguish herself from the banner-bearing protestors who, at one point, stormed the conference, interrupting a minister's speech to call for an immediate moratorium on the use of fossil fuels. “I can say ‘end fossil fuels now,’ but I know some economies are not going to do it. I want to approach them from an angle that’s feasible, so they can gradually start seeing results.”
Milan’s own research into carbon capture usage and storage is meant to help the energy transition. Carbon capture is considered a ‘bridge technology,’ which will help mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions en route to a sustainable energy economy.
Yet, when it comes to Lebanon, Milan thinks such bridges might not be necessary. “I don’t think the oil and gas push makes sense. There are the border issues. The consortium, headed by Total that came to drill explore here, they lost a lot of money during the lockdowns, will they come back?”
She believes Lebanon’s great potential for solar energy countrywide and for wind energy in Akkar can and should be accessed sooner rather than later. “But you need regime change for that to happen,” as private power producers tied to political parties are unwilling to make the necessary investments.
She noted her disappointment in the Lebanese delegation’s performance at COP26: “They came, only stayed for a couple of days and made a very basic statement. It’s as if they’d come to talk about the economic crisis, for reasons other than climate change. It made me lose a bit of hope.”
By contrast, her passionate calls for action, recorded and circulated on social media, garnered much praise, particularly from young Lebanese activists. “Seeing someone who is not politically affiliated, someone who didn't work with any political party to be there gave people hope.”
In between conferences, she took time to explore the city. “I wandered around every night. I saw the Duomo [Italy’s largest church] and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele [Italy’s oldest active shopping gallery]. I took the underground metro,” she says, laughing.
And so how—after such an eventful week—did it feel to return to Lebanon? “It’s funny. When we landed home, I didn’t know that we’d arrived. The lights were out. Everything was black. I’d still had the typical rush of ecstasy you feel after you’ve been celebrated and praised for three days, talking about being a woman in the Middle East, equality. But when I got here, there was no electricity and I had to carry my luggage up three flights of stairs in the dark.”