More than two dozen delegates from Penn were in Dubai late last year to attend and share their expertise at the annual United Nations Climate Conference (COP28), where key strides were made in addressing the climate crisis.
Among those major steps was a landmark agreement to transition away from fossil fuels, a first-ever summit for leaders of major cities, and a day of discussions on the nexus between climate and health.
While the conference, held Nov. 30 to Dec. 13, marked critical moves forward, were they enough to keep global warming below 2°C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, as called for by the Paris Agreement?
Perry World House Advisor and Fellows Lolita Jackson, Stephen Hammer, and Wolfgang Blau—who all attended COP28 in different capacities—tackled this question and more at a panel discussion last week at Perry World House (PWH) moderated by Michael Weisberg, PWH interim director.
Blau is the managing partner of the Brunswick Group’s global climate hub and an expert in climate communications. He is the co-founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network at Oxford University, which trains journalists from more than 400 international news organizations each year. He’s also an advisor to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Hammer, an expert on urban scale climate issues, joined the World Bank in 2013 and spent ten years there, advising senior management on global climate policy matters. He has been a leader on major global climate partnerships, including those with the G-7 and G-20, and represents the World Bank in international forums. Most recently, he served as a technical advisor to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Transitional Committee.
Jackson is the executive director of sustainable cities at Sustainable Development Capital, a climate investment firm. She previously worked for the New York City Mayor’s Office in a variety of roles, lastly as the Special Advisor for Climate Policy & Programs. Jackson is a frequent speaker at global gatherings and universities on the topics of climate diplomacy and public and private sector engagement on climate.
Weisberg, who also attended COP28 as an advisor to Palau, started the discussion by noting that Jackson has often said most of the world’s population lives in cities, and most of the carbon emissions come from cities, so cities should play a role in climate negotiations.
Jackson said that when she was working as New York City’s climate advisor people would come from other cities around the globe to learn about climate plans. “It became very clear to me—looking at the level of people who were coming to find out what New York City and other large cities and large states were doing—that approaches to climate change need to be discussed on a sub-national level,” she said.
Many cities and states were represented at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, but she said they were mostly on the sidelines of major discussions and action. “COP28 was very different,” in that respect, Jackson said. About 200 local leaders from cities around the world were represented, and two days of programming were geared toward them, allowing them to think together about how they could accelerate their climate goals, she said.
“Most cities in the world already have plans. It’s time to stop talking and start doing. And so these types of gatherings at places like COP28 are very important,” Jackson said. She also mentioned the new initiative called the Coalition for High Ambition Multilevel Partnerships, or CHAMP. This consortium will allow cities to finally have a voice in so-called “national determined contribution” discussions.
Weisberg asked Blau to talk about the role corporations and corporate governance played at COP28.
Blau said it’s important to highlight how COP attendance has grown over the years, in all sectors: COP28 had 100,000 registrations and 80,000 attendees; COP26 had about 40,000 registered participants.
Corporations aren’t seeing climate change as a risk or compliance burden but rather as an economic opportunity, Blau said. A “real shift” happened in the U.S. with the Inflation Reduction Act, he said, reshaping the narrative about climate and decarbonization.
Climate-related topics are “no longer peripheral to economic discussions about global competition,” he said. “It’s become the central turf upon which this competition is playing out for investors, for startups and for talent. And now we see startups leaving Europe, leaving Asia, to move to the United States to benefit from this.”
Blau also noted that much of the media attention focused on COP28’s closing document, which included the pledge to transition away from fossil fuels. “But it still took 28 COPs to get there,” he said. That pledge and other information, such as the prediction that world fossil fuel demand is set to peak by 2030, send signals to corporations about where and how to invest, he said.
And while powerful alliances between heavy emitters like steel, cement, and concrete firms were established at the conference, there were some big sectors missing entirely from the talks, notably aviation and the fashion and textile industries, Blau said.
Hammer started off by noting that COP28 has been portrayed as making significant progress in what seemed like a short time, adding that similar assessments came after COP26 and COP25. And it’s not quite the full picture.
“It’s all good news, but it’s slow progress,” Hammer said. “I don’t want to be the Eeyore, but this is the 28th time we’ve met and one of the challenges is not just who’s there, but who’s not there.” Often those who aren’t there are the entities causing the problems, impeding regulatory changes, or changing investments, he said.
Hammer said most of the 80,000 attendees never stepped foot in the negotiation rooms, where discussions move slowly and can be frustrating, highlighting the true challenges of the talks. He also noted the increasing role that big finance—including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank—has been playing in climate negotiations.
“Whether it’s in an open public session or a closed-door session, sitting across from the folks who disagree with you happens less and less at COP,” Hammer said. “It happens when you go home and it happens when you try and do all this good stuff and put it into practice and make the progress and make the follow up investments.
“The challenge is we’re continuing to talk past one another, even in the COP process,” he continued. “And if we could have more of those conversations, I think it would actually be more productive.”