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Students, Faculty Represent Drexel University at COP28 Through Dialogue and Research

January 12, 2024


The conference center in Dubai. Photo courtesy of Kacy Gao.

Drexel University’s attendees at COP28, the 28th annual United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Conference of Parties (COP), made strides in connecting with fellow climate changemakers and are bringing back plenty of ideas and new expertise.

COP is an annual look at climate change around the world and this year, it was hosted by the United Arab Emirates in Dubai. Among moves made was the creation of the Loss and Damages Fund, which countries who contribute heavily to carbon emissions, like the U.S., pay into in order to support lower income countries impacted by the effects of climate change. The countries also formally agreed to begin transitioning away from fossil fuels — the next step is implementing strategies toward that end.

As for Drexel’s attendees, their focus honed in on collaboration between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and universities, as well as with fellow universities, plus research into the carbon market and how health is impacted by climate change and military spending. Drexel sent 11 total attendees thanks to six passes, so each attendee got a week at the conference. Students and faculty received financial support from The Environmental Collaboratory, the Office of Global Engagement and the Pennoni Honors College to attend. For the first time, Drexel, through The Environmental Collaboratory, established a first-of-its-kind venue through a shared higher education pavilion with other universities, for programming events, allowing the University to connect with and share knowledge to and from fellow education leaders. There was a focus on community-based learning, Stanislaus said, and many sessions focused on making schools greener.

Attendees included:

  • Mathy Stanislaus, The Environmental Collaboratory’s vice provost and executive director
  • Hugh Johnson, senior director of Research Strategy and Development
  • Scott Cooper, PhD, president of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University
  • Franco Montalto, PhD, professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering
  • Kristy Kelly, PhD, School of Education associate clinical professor
  • Andrêa Ferreira, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at The Ubuntu Center.
  • Victoria Rodríguez Villarreal, public health ’25 in the Dana and David Dornsife School of Public Health
  • Kacy Gao, biological sciences ’25 in the College of Arts and Sciences
  • Avani Kavathekar, environmental engineering and peace engineering ’25 in the College of Engineering
  • Atara Saunders, economics and global studies ’25 in the School of Economics and College of Arts and Sciences
  • Oyunbileg Bazar, psychology ’26 in the College of Arts and Sciences

The conference center where COP itself was held was physically huge and welcomed about 85,000 attendees, making it difficult to make a cohesive schedule. Like many who attended COP, Kelly stayed about an hour and a half away from the conference center, and then walked 15,000 steps a day around the conference itself before and after that long commute, but it was well worth it.

“It’s a fabulous networking opportunity for students in particular who get to go,” Kelly said. “They have a unique opportunity to see not only how the science is represented in these global UN spaces, but also the politicking behind the scenes, how lobbying work, and how social movement actors are working to advance more equitable climate agendas. You can also see how the communication system works at UN conferences — from those at the center to those way at the periphery. As a social movement scholar, I think going to these kinds of UN conferences is really important to see how social change takes place over time.”

Kristy Kelly at COP28

Kristy Kelly at COP28. Photo courtesy of Kristy Kelly.

Drexel leading the dialogue

Drexel made a big impact this year by hosting events, including a young researcher networking opportunity, within the higher education pavilion, which was split with about 12 other universities. The pavilion was the first of its kind, and Montalto and Ferreira both hosted events with fellow universities throughout the two weeks. Making connections in previous COPs has paid off, as repeat attendees Stanislaus and Kelly both hosted events with partners that discussed cooperation and finance in climate activism.

“It was a win, after three years of attending COP and learning from the experiences of others, to host this event,” Kelly said about the side event she co-hosted, “Win-win for climate and gender justice & peace: Acting on military spending and military emissions at TEC’s shared Higher Education Pavilion.”

“It was very impactful and quite successful. It takes time to meet people and build those relationships up so you can work together all through the year to support each other’s activities and work,” she added.

Kelly met Tipping Point North South co-founder Deborah Burton at last year’s COP27 in Egypt and connected over her work on tracking military spending and how it relates to emissions and climate change, which relates to Kelly’s work in Vietnam looking at the long-term impact of war on forestry, fishing, women’s health, gender-based violence and more.

“Military budgets absorb 30 times more revenue than climate finance while contributing 5.5 percent of global emissions,” Kelly said. “We wanted to find a way to connect our research and draw attention to the issues at COP.”

When Burton wanted to host an event at COP28, she reached out to Drexel knowing the University’s long history with COP. Drexel hosted the panel along with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Burton’s organization, Tipping Point North South. The panel was well-attended and covered the impacts of military spending and subsequent emissions on the environment and different aspects of life.

“Military spending isn’t transparent, so we don’t actually know how much we spend on military, and therefore we don’t know the true emissions,” Kelly said. “We’re asking for more transparent accounting of military spending and emissions. We’re also asking for a UN special report on the role of the global military in climate change, possibly including conflict emissions, and a possible special submission to the UNFCCC to reappraise what’s going on.

Kelly and the panel hoped to flip the narrative from climate change drives conflict and leads to a need for increased militarization, to instead show how increased militarization and emissions are driving climate change, conflict and gender-based violence.

“It’s a big ask for people to start thinking differently, but we need to work on reframing the message. COP provides a great opportunity both in terms of hosting side events and connecting to other activists around the world as well as creating strategies for how we're going to keep the pressure on governments and the UN over the next year until we get to the next COP,” Kelly said.

Stanislaus, an annual Drexel attendee to COP, helped host a session with the University of Botswana about partnering with them to create a credible natural carbon removal project in Botswana. In this global partnership, the University of Botswana would lead the local engagement arm of the project to work with indigenous leaders and Drexel would help pull together scientists to authenticate the structure of the project.

In other sessions held at the higher education pavilion, Stanislaus said that many of the conversations with other universities in the higher education pavilion centered around collaboration and the importance of community-based work. There was also a lot of talk about the role universities can play in solving climate issues by getting around the “behind-the-wall" approach that keeps them within an academic bubble and bring expertise to work with communities.

“We had discussions about the challenges of advancing transdisciplinary work and I think we have all collectively felt that it was a good ambition that has not been fully realized, so one thing I’m planning to advance is defining transdisciplinary work in concrete areas like emergency preparedness,” Stanislaus said. “People in public health are an example of the type of expertise needed to solve a major global problem, and trying to identify the kind of expertise needed helps people see themselves in co-creating solutions to these big problems.”

Calling for transdisciplinary work doesn’t work on its own, Stanislaus said, so it’s important for universities to work together to define problems and necessary expertise before bringing experts together in an intentional way. He’ll take this idea back to the Environmental Collaboratory and develop programming around it.

“We were more intentional this year about organizing universities around a common framework and having deep conversations and engagements throughout the year,” Stanislaus said. One significant outcome from the discussions with other universities was to commit to collaborate throughout the year to build synergies of expertise to build solutions on the ground. 

Drexel students at COP28

Kacy Gao and Victoria Rodriguez Villareal. Photo courtesy of Kacy Gao. 

Demystifying the carbon market

Another area of interest for Drexel attendees, particularly Gao, biological sciences ’25, and The Environmental Collaboratory’s Hugh Johnson, was the carbon market, which is a trading market that allows entities including countries or businesses to offset their carbon emissions by supporting projects that remove, lower or cut out carbon emissions elsewhere. Carbon credits, which allow the holder to emit carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases, can be traded in the carbon market. Article 6 from the Paris Agreement dictates how those credits can get transferred and how they’re verified and measured, Johnson said.

Measurement, verification and reporting, or MRV, was a hot topic, Johnson said. An article in the Guardian in September 2023 detailed that many projects that companies are buying carbon credits for have either never materialized or failed quickly after launch. There’s a need for best practices when doling out carbon credits, Johnson and Gao noted.

Gao, who has a strong interest in environmental health, has been on co-op with The Environmental Collaboratory working on a project related to the carbon market and had a goal to network with industry stakeholders while at COP.

“I feel like from talking to them, I gained a better understanding of the challenges with our project, and I was able to identify pivot points and spaces in the market where the University could potentially have a role,” Gao said. “I’m very happy I got to talk to so many interesting people. They gave me great advice and I now have greater knowledge of the changes and current conditions of the market as well.”

She caught up with people in important roles in the carbon market like CEOs of carbon rating platforms, leaders of consulting groups, indigenous communities and those involved in the Integrity Council for Voluntary Carbon Markets, which is an international regulating body for carbon offsets, after events or whenever she could catch them.

“I think we’re seeing a quality assessment and technological shift,” Gao said. “Quality is a huge problem in the carbon market. There are still about 30 percent of offset projects that are high integrity, which is very troubling but it’s not true that all credits are fraudulent. ... But we should continue to be vigilant of the misuse of carbon offset projects and the focus should be on decarbonizing first and then having the offsets as a supplement for what you can’t decarbonize with your current technology. When done right, carbon offset projects really can have a huge positive impact on the local community.