Descending on Dubai for the world’s largest climate change conference, more than two dozen delegates from Penn shared their expertise on topics ranging from the energy transition to urban climate finance to health—and returned to Philadelphia with new knowledge and connections.
Dubai was the host city for COP28, the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, held Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 with more than 70,000 attendees. COP, or Conference of Parties, refers to the 198 states that have signed onto the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since the treaty’s negotiation in 1992.
“For the first time, all countries have agreed to transition away from fossil fuels,” notes Perry World House (PWH) interim director Michael Weisberg, one of two people from Penn involved in negotiations, in addition to the 24 who traveled on a Penn badge with observer status. “This decision was joined by statements from all geopolitical actors calling for a new course to the future that does not include fossil fuels in energy, with most also expressing their solidarity with small island states and all vulnerable people.”
It was a contentious issue at the conference, held at the tail end of the hottest year in recorded history. Cory Colijn, executive director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, noted that prior to COP28, small island nations had been calling for an end to all fossil fuel production, whereas groups in the European Union had been taking a more incremental approach, different from the Saudi push for reducing greenhouse gases instead of phasing out fossil fuels.
The commitment to transition away from fossil fuels was included in the final draft of the first-ever “global stocktake,” a process for UNFCCC signatories to assess their progress toward the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5° Celsius. The bottom line is countries are not on track, which Colijn called “a reality check for the globe about the real harm of taking small steps on climate change.”
The Kleinman Center and PWH led the Penn delegation, which also included attendees from the Penn Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR), Stuart Weitzman School of Design, Penn Global, Penn Carey Law, Penn Medicine, the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, and the School of Arts & Sciences. Penn Dental Medicine remotely joined COP28 conversations through a panel discussion on oral health and climate action.
“Because the Kleinman Center focuses on policy, COP is the perfect venue for sharing our research with international policymakers, practitioners, and other scholars,” says Sanya Carley, co-director of the Kleinman Center. “It’s also a place where we listen and learn, continually improve our understanding of the complex challenges of climate governance, and expand our networks.”
Penn researchers talked about their ideas in daily events held in the Higher Education Pavilion, which Penn and other universities hosted for the first time this year. Also new this year was a connection with Penn’s Development & Alumni Relations offices that resulted in two alumni events in Dubai. One was an off-site visit to the American School of Dubai to share how Penn is engaging in climate policy, research, and teaching.
Penn delegates also contributed to an array of panel discussions at the Thai Pavilion, where PWH Visiting Fellow Kotchakorn Voraakhom is a delegate. PWH intentionally works with partners in the Global South, Director of Programs Lauren Anderson says, because these countries are being hit the hardest by climate change and have the fewest resources to cope with its impacts.
Anderson says the exchanges in the Thai Pavilion “pave the way for future collaboration between our respective countries and institutions, and they are a great way to foster knowledge sharing between policymakers and academics.”
The overwhelming array of side events are organized around the core piece: negotiations among member states. Weisberg and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, PWH Professor of Practice of Law and Human Rights, traveled not on Penn’s badge but with the Palau delegation, supporting the island country in negotiations.
“The first and foremost objective is to try to stop climate change from getting any worse, but given that things aren’t going in the best direction, then they’re trying to secure resources needed to build resilience,” Weisberg says. “We’re trying to bring the knowledge generated at Penn—Perry World House in particular—to bear on that. This will be the conclusion of these two big issues that Perry World House has worked on, the Global Goal on Adaptation, and the loss and damage financing arrangements.”
Finance for loss and damage, meaning the negative economic consequences of extreme weather events and the ongoing impacts of climate change, was one of the big issues at COP27 in Egypt. The parties reached a deal establishing funding for vulnerable countries, but left unresolved was who would finance and who would receive funds.
Weisberg explains that the Transitional Committee held five meetings and three workshops since last year, and after much contention, it agreed on a compromise text on loss and damage to send to COP28. In an unusual early win, the parties approved a draft plan on the very first day of the summit.
Bringing cities into the fold
Genie Birch, co-director of Penn IUR and Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research in the Weitzman School of Design, was excited to see a larger presence for cities at COP this year. Bloomberg Philanthropies and the COP Presidency hosted the first-ever Local Climate Action Summit, attended by 200 mayors and governors from six continents. “So much of the work has to be done at the city level, particularly when you talk about 70% of the greenhouse gases being created by cities,” Birch says.
Penn IUR is the Secretariat for the new SDSN Global Commission for Urban SDG Finance, which is the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s group tasked with developing ideas to increase finance for cities to meet the Sustainable Development Goals member states adopted in 2015. Birch co-directs the Secretariat with Penn Carey Law professor Bill Burke-White and Mauricio Rodas, a visiting scholar at Penn IUR, the Kleinman Center, and PWH. Rodas—former mayor of Quito, Ecuador—and Burke-White also attended COP28.
Rodas says the commission is pleased the Loss and Damage Fund has been operationalized “with the mandate of providing subnational governments with direct access to resources from the Fund. This is an important milestone. Now we need to make sure cities participate in the negotiation of the Loss and Damage Fund Operational Guidelines to ensure urban needs are duly considered.”
Birch, Rodas, and Burke-White noted in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed that according to the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance, cities will need $5.4 trillion annually through 2030 to adapt to climate change but are now only receiving 1% of that. Birch says three of the commission’s six task forces are focused on three potential finance mechanisms: multilateral development banks, existing or new funds, and the private sector.
Another Penn delegation member addressing the role of cities and private-sector finance was Lolita Jackson, senior advisor at PWH and adjunct professor in the Master of Environmental Studies program. She previously served as climate diplomat for New York City and is now Executive Director of Sustainable Cities for Sustainable Development Capital LLP (SDCL), a climate finance firm. On the first day of the Local Climate Action Summit, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced a £100 million investment to support decarbonization projects—such as heat pumps, solar panels, and electric vehicle charging—with half from the London Treasury and half from SDCL.
Jackson spent much of her time at COP discussing how private firms can engage with cities, noting in one talk that the International Monetary Fund says the private sector “will need to supply about 80% of the large climate investment needs for emerging market and developing economies. Trillions of dollars are needed, and there is simply no way governments and development banks can solely be the main entities doing so.”
She said in addition to money, this effort requires capacity building to identify shovel-ready projects, purchasing agreements involving multiple cities to increase scale and save each city money, and “patience and understanding regarding timelines and understanding local political considerations.”
The critical role of China
Scott Moore, Director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives, says since he teaches a course about China and climate change, “COP is an important way for me annually to follow China’s involvement in international climate policy and negotiations in particular.”
Part of his research agenda is the intersection of climate change, international relations, and security issues. He hosted a “Decarbonizing Defense” discussion with U.S. government and military officials about the military’s role in reducing emissions and responding to extreme weather events, and he participated in a U.S.-China climate dialogue. Moore also briefed a delegation of U.S. Senate staff.
“China’s role in the climate talks is really, really critical, especially in relation to the United States,” Moore says, noting that the Paris Agreement—which came out of COP21 in 2015—was made possible by U.S.-China cooperation. “What you’ve kind of seen over the last couple years is that relationship has gotten pretty rocky, because of broader tensions between the two countries.”
China suspended its climate talks with the U.S. in response to former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan in 2022, but talks have since resumed. Climate envoys John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua met in November, releasing a statement on enhancing cooperation to address the climate crisis, and presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping discussed the climate crisis in another November meeting.
Listening to Indigenous voices
Catherine Seavitt, Meyerson Professor of Urbanism and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture in the Weitzman School of Design, came to COP28 with a focus on equitable adaptation of cities with nature-based solutions. She has been interested in traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), meaning Indigenous and intergenerational knowledge of nature and land management practices, and the role this can play in decarbonization.
She attended several sessions from the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, hearing testimony on the interconnectedness of water, energy, and the conservation of indigenous food systems, and listened to people indigenous to the Amazon basin, a recent focus of her writing and research on Brazil.
Seavitt says she left COP28 feeling inspired by seeing so many knowledge holders from the Arctic and Amazon, and by young people, both the Indigenous activists and female climate activists on Gender Equality Day. “We need to embrace shared biomes, watersheds, and atmospheres, as well as recognize the interconnectedness of the equator and the poles,” she says. “Melting ice has a lot do with burning rainforests.”
Addressing food systems and waste
Food system change was on the agenda at COP28 for the second consecutive year. Steven Finn, who works in food waste prevention and teaches courses on sustainability for Penn’s Organizational Dynamics program, says this is important because the food system accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Food loss and waste alone account for 8-10% of emissions.
“If we reduce food loss and waste, we drive progress toward multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) simultaneously—cutting emissions, freeing resources to address food insecurity and root causes of poverty, reducing water consumption, easing pressure on soils and land, reducing plastics pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, and more,” Finn says.
He moderated a panel discussion with four global experts on the connection between food waste and climate change, touching on ways to inspire leaders to move faster on food waste reduction while exploring the barriers to acceleration of these efforts globally.
He says a lot of good came out of COP28 on this connection, citing a robust schedule of events at the Food Systems Pavilion and 150+ countries signing onto the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action. In addition, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released a new Global Roadmap on accelerating food systems transformation, and the U.S. government released its Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics. But Finn says food systems must be further integrated into the global stocktake to speed greater impact on the 1.5-degree goal.
Climate crisis as health crisis
Harleen Marwah grew up in a part of Southern California with frequent wildfires and some of the worst air quality in the country, but it wasn’t until later that she recognized climate change as a significant threat to health. As a pediatric resident doctor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Penn affiliate, she says she cannot ignore how climate change is impacting children’s health.
The World Health Organization notes that health impacts of climate change include illness and death from heatwaves and floods, the disruption of food systems, increases in diseases, and mental health issues. Marwah spoke in an event on incorporating climate change into higher education across fields, and in a panel on extreme heat with Anderson, Birch, and Eleni “Lenio” Myrivili, Global Chief Heat Officer to UN Habitat and a Penn IUR fellow.
Anderson says extreme heat is another example of how Perry World House—which last spring held a conference on the topic that advanced policy solutions—engaged with its diverse partners at COP28. PWH brought together UN agencies, municipal chief heat officers, and people working in informal communities in the Global South for informal exchanges in addition to panel discussions, Anderson says, which help stakeholders devise policy solutions.
Outside of panels, Marwah met with women trying to climate-proof their homes in informal settlements in Kenya and India, attended daily health policy meetings held by The Global Climate & Health Alliance, and was interviewed by NPR for a segment on young doctors at COP28. The conference also gave her the chance to speak with leaders in urban design, security, and more, and she offered her health perspective to inform their work.
This year was the first that COP had a dedicated Health Day, and Marwah says “watching health take center stage was historic and monumental. It was exciting to hear leaders and countries from around the world acknowledge that we need health in the conversation. We know this is only the beginning of the conversation and we need to continue to drive momentum forward for action.”
Penn Dental Medicine also participated in a satellite event, focused on the impact of climate change on oral health, at the tail end of COP28. Julian Fisher, Director of Oral and Planetary Health Policies within the Center for Integrative Global Oral Health (CIGOH), moderated a web-based panel discussion that included Dean Mark Wolff and CIGOH Executive Director Michael Glick, along with faculty from dental schools in other countries.