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Here’s what Pennsylvania can learn from a world climate meeting

Hundreds of thousands of hours of climate negotiations come down to three questions: What are we going to do, how are we going to do it, and who is going to pay for it?

Each year, negotiators from around the world have a new opportunity to hash out the details of our climate future. The goal, of course, is to reach agreement on solutions to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to our already warming world.

At this year’s U,N. meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt — which comes amidst a war in Europe, a global energy crisis, and high inflation — the agenda focuses on money. Specifically, how the developed world will help developing nations build sustainable energy systems and prepare for the worst effects of climate change. And after a year of climate-related disasters — including devastating floods in Pakistan, drought in eastern Africa, and extreme heat in India — the need for immediate and decisive action couldn’t be more critical.

But, as can be expected at any meeting that attracts 35,000 attendees working on a complex agenda, it can be difficult to keep the collective eye on the prize. Ultimately, the hundreds of thousands of hours put into these negotiations can be boiled down to finding answers to three questions:

1) What are we going to do? (strategy)

2) Who is going to pay for it? (policy)

3) How do we build the coalitions to do it? (politics)

These are the key questions that every region should be asking itself when it comes to climate change. As one of the leaders for Penn’s delegation at COP meetings, I have spent much of this year’s meetings asking myself: What are Pennsylvania’s answers to these questions?

Our state’s energy future is complicated. We have a long history of energy production: The first modern oil well in the United States was in Titusville, Pa., in 1859.

There is also already a lot of money in our state’s energy industry. Today, Pennsylvania is the United States’ second-largest producer of both natural gas and nuclear power, and the third-largest producer of coal. Renewable energy sources generate about 4% of the state’s electricity. Pennsylvania truly has a little bit of everything.

In any discussion of energy in the United States, Pennsylvania is ground zero. It is precisely because of these riches that our state finds itself in the throes of a debate over how to manage the transition away from fossil fuels. And, like the negotiations at COP27, the devil is in the details.

The state’s Climate Action Plan 2021 outlines a road map to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% in 2025 and 80% in 2050 (from 2005 levels).

This is a reasonable — and imperative — goal. Since 1900, Pennsylvania’s average temperature has increased 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and is on track to rise an additional 5.9 degrees by the middle of this century. And because climate effects don’t stop at state borders, Pennsylvanians depend on other states and nations to do their part — a classic collective action problem.

Now, to the first question raised at COP: What are we going to do?

In Pennsylvania, leaders must put the state on track to meet 2025 targets. This list includes things like plugging leaks from oil and natural gas systems (an issue that can release significant amounts of greenhouse gas and has recently received attention by state rule-makers) and improving energy efficiency.

This is tied to the second question: Who is going to pay for it?

Pennsylvania must allocate state and federal funding — including money unlocked with the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act — to establish long-term strategies that can meet the 2050 goal. For instance, to reduce greenhouse gases by 80%, we must incentivize building and transportation sectors to switch from gas to electricity, and boost the supply of renewable sources of that electricity, such as wind and solar. For industries that can’t easily make the switch to clean electricity, the state must invest in new technology to help reduce emissions, and replace dirty fuels with lower-carbon alternatives.

Next question: How do we get this done?

As Pennsylvania tackles these challenges, there are many lessons to be learned from the international process unfolding in Egypt.

Just as this U.N. COP27 meeting focuses on developing nations most affected by climate change who are least able to adapt, Pennsylvanians have the same responsibility to our most vulnerable residents. None of these efforts can leave people behind, including low- and middle-income families, environmental justice communities, and Pennsylvania neighborhoods that were built on coal and other legacy fossil fuels.

Making these important changes will take decades, and is susceptible to being slowed by a lack of political will. So vote in every election you can. And take a like-minded friend to the polls with you. Make sure the decision-makers representing you at the state and national level are pushing the same climate-forward agenda that you support.

But perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned after 27 years of COP meetings is that even if diplomacy fails, we must continue. So much progress takes place in the space between the rulemaking, through bilateral and multilateral deals, and arrangements made between people who don’t represent specific countries and the private sector.

From Harrisburg to Sharm el-Sheikh, leaders want the same for their people: a bright, healthy, and productive future. Bringing creative ideas from this international forum home is one way to further progress. But as Pennsylvania transitions to a more sustainable future, it will have a lot of innovative solutions to offer our global leaders, too.

Cornelia Colijn is the executive director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design and one of the leaders for Penn’s delegation at COP meetings.