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From the U.N. climate conference, advice for Philly as it adapts to global warming

A delegation from the University of Pennsylvania attended the conference in Egypt and shares their takeaways for our city.

Staff illustration / Photos: The Inquirer / AP

For a dozen days this month, an estimated 35,000 people from around the world gathered in Egypt at COP27, the United Nations climate conference.

Among the attendees — in addition to representatives from the nearly 200 countries that signed onto the Paris Agreement on climate change — are students, researchers, and faculty from the University of Pennsylvania.

The conference is a global meeting, but it has implications at a granular level for our city and region, particularly with regard to climate finance — how governments at all levels can access the funding they need to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

We asked members of the Penn delegation for their ideas about how Philadelphia officials can best work to make the goals of the Paris Agreement a reality.

Green bonds may be the answer

By Eugénie L. Birch

In the past year, Philadelphia experienced the costly effects of global warming from the October 2021 flood and, in 2022, the hottest August since 1874. The flood resulted in loss of life, significant damage, and in loss of business. With real estate valued at $170 billion and 12% of the state’s population, the city has too much at stake to ignore climate change.

So-called “green bonds” — which underwrite climate resilient projects — may be one answer to help address mitigation and adaptation. Fannie Mae, the largest U.S. issuer of green and social bonds, floated $392 million for affordable and energy efficient single and multi-family housing. Might the Philadelphia Housing Authority attempt something similar?

Eugénie L. Birch is the Nussdorf Professor at the Weitzman School of Design and co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research.

Healthcare can be a focal point of climate action

By Andrew M. Hoffman

In the greater Philadelphia area, the healthcare industry is the leading employer. Healthcare — including human and veterinary care — contributes substantially to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for as much as 8.5% of U.S. totals, and between 4.4% and 4.6% of global emissions.

The majority of emissions from this sector comes from the supply chain. To address this issue, the National Healthcare System in the U.K. has set specific criteria for purchasing products like anesthetic gases based on their emissions profile.

Andrew M. Hoffman is dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and chair of the Climate Change Task Force for the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges.

Make more use of natural infrastructure

By Scott Moore

Philadelphia, like every community around the world, must do its part to reduce emissions in the face of accelerating climate change. But it must also prepare for more frequent extreme weather events, especially flooding of the kind that walloped the city during Hurricane Ida in September 2021.

The best way both to reduce emissions and increase resilience to these climate risks is to change the ways the city plans and builds. Development needs to emphasize walkability and links to mass transit, while building codes need to be updated both to increase energy efficiency and make structures more resistant to flooding.

Scott Moore is a senior fellow at The Water Center at Penn.

Reduce food waste

By Steven M. Finn

Philadelphia can mitigate climate change by taking a leadership role in reducing food waste, one of the developed world’s greatest drivers of social, economic, and environmental dysfunction. Wasted food represents a missed opportunity to reduce food insecurity. Waste of resources is also embedded in the production, storage, and distribution of that food.

The city can organize and lead regional and national progress with a multi-faceted strategy involving awareness-raising, educational initiatives, support for innovative, circular (upcycling) initiatives, regulatory changes (including a phased-in ban of organics to landfills), and policy changes (such as requiring food organizations of a certain size to develop a food waste reduction plan and report on results annually). It would be wise to draw on content and initiatives from the EU Platform on Food Losses and Waste, the Pacific Coast Collaborative, and the Use Food Well Washington Plan.

Steven M. Finn is affiliated faculty, Organizational Dynamics, University of Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia’s leadership must come to the conference next year in the UAE

By William W. Burke-White

Cities must be a part of the global climate conversation. Mayors from major cities across the world have already done so, traveling to Egypt to participate in COP27, but Philadelphia’s leadership is absent. Other mayors are talking with one another, national governments, the UN, major foundations, development banks, and a wide range of NGOs. Their conversations focus on the same climate change challenges that Philadelphia is already facing, like flooding and extreme heat, and the same solutions we are considering, like building clean energy hubs and reducing emissions.

Philadelphia must reengage in the COP meetings next year in the United Arab Emirates and in the process, our city will learn and also contribute.

William W. Burke-White is a professor of law at Penn’s Carey School of Law.

We can learn from other cities like Bangkok

By Lauren Anderson

The UN conference presents cities like Philadelphia an opportunity to better understand the global landscape for climate change response — including mitigation, adaptation, and finance. The conference offers urban leadership and city planners a global platform to share their successful climate change policies and approaches as well as to learn first-hand how other urban centers are tackling common challenges like flooding or extreme heat.

At sessions occurring in parallel to climate negotiations, delegates had the opportunity to engage with experts, as well as their larger networks, working to, for instance, design parks to mitigate flooding in Bangkok or to launch a funding mechanism (The Cool Stack) to address extreme heat in cities worldwide.

Lauren Anderson is the program manager of the Perry World House.

Philadelphia must rethink its transportation system

By Johan B. Stagstrup

Cars kill. Air pollution caused by cars’ emissions is responsible for thousands of premature deaths every year. Road transportation is also one of the main contributors to climate change.

To fight against climate change, the city of Philadelphia must rethink its transportation system, and it does not have to look outside the United States to find inspiration. In Austin, the city’s mayor has launched a plan aiming to cut car dependency in half by investing massively in light rails and electric buses. If successful, Austin’s citizens will have safer streets and spend less time in traffic, in addition to cutting emissions. And with the right investments, there is no reason why Philadelphia’s citizens cannot do the same.

Johan B. Stagstrup is a master of laws student at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law.

Pass progressive climate legislation

By Sam Wong

Although federal and state agencies cannot always provide totally sufficient funds cities such as Philadelphia need to combat the climate crisis, these agencies continue to roll out programs that cities can tap into to fund local work lowering carbon emissions, building resilient infrastructure, and protecting vulnerable and low-income communities from the increasingly harmful effects of the climate crisis. But Philadelphia must pass progressive climate legislation to access state and federal funds.

For example, cities that deploy renewable technology and work collaboratively with agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy will be able to access tax credits for these projects made available from the Inflation Reduction Act. And if tax credits, financing, and intergovernmental collaborations seem too high-brow or far removed from the lives of many, residents in Philadelphia and other cities should remember that progressive climate action has benefits that are both global and local.

Sam Wong is a student at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law.

Embed local input in funding proposals

By Alexan Stulc

Banks and funding organizations want to know that the money they provide is doing what it is supposed to. That is why Philadelphia and cities like must it to work with local communities to understand their needs and priorities with respect to climate change.

This means updating the city’s assessments of climate risks and vulnerabilities, and a creating a comprehensive adaptation plan to address to address them. Community engagement consultation is imperative to achieve this.

Alexan Stulc is a student at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law.

Climate action must serve justice

By Amy Montgomery and Cornelia Colijn

The question of who pays for “loss and damage” (climate reparations) and who pays for building resilience against climate change (climate adaptation finance) is at the center of the climate justice debate. Should the United States pay 20% of the total cost for each country to prepare for the effects of climate change that are inevitable because of our emissions? Or should all countries be held equally accountable?

The urban poor and their advocates are familiar with this debate. In Philadelphia, low-income neighborhoods (which often are Black and brown communities) are already suffering more than others. If we are to take climate justice seriously, international negotiations and local efforts must center on doing better for those who have suffered, and will continue to suffer the most.

Amy Montgomery is the managing Director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research. Cornelia Colijn is the executive director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.