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Environment & Science

‘The whole world is there’: Nazareth woman recounts COP28 climate summit in Dubai

Penn State at COP28
Olivia McMahon
From left: Professor Esther Obonyo, executive director of Global Building Network, Olivia McMahon and Mark Ortiz, presidential post doctoral scholar, faculty affiliate, Penn State Sustainability Institute were part of Penn State University's six-person delegation to COP28 in Dubai.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The first day Olivia Louise McMahon settled into an all-hands conference during the United Nations COP28 climate summit in Dubai, she was struck by the sheer scope of the meeting.

“I went early to make sure I got a seat, got all my notes ready to go and you look around and see little placards for almost 200 different countries, all of the representatives that are there,” said McMahon, of Nazareth. “And it's really true — the whole world is there.

“I think that speaks to the severity of the climate crisis, but also that there is a willingness on the part of the global community to come together and seek solutions.”

McMahon, a recent graduate of Penn State World Campus with a degree in energy and sustainability policy, traveled to Dubai as part of the university’s delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference. For the 28th annual meeting officials from the world over gathered in the United Arab Emirates from Nov. 30 through Dec. 12 to discuss how to limit the effects of climate change already present, and also prepare for and mitigate further impacts.

While there, McMahon spoke on a panel about youth and the role of higher education in fostering climate solutions.

“What was impressive is that it was so many people from across so many sectors, but people were not there just to push their own personal agenda forward,” McMahon said. “It really was people looking for opportunities to collaborate with each other and actually find solutions.

“So, while [climate change] is such a giant problem, there's so much opportunity for everyone to come to the table, and that was something that really came through when you're on the ground there.”

‘A win-win for everyone’

McMahon, who previously was a scientific glassblower at a research facility, had an interest in climate issues, but didn’t know where to begin. After starting her coursework at Penn State, she was accepted into the university’s Local Climate Action Program, or LCAP, in the fall of 2022.

“First and foremost, I would be remiss if I did not say that the only reason I was able to do any of this is because I have a super supportive husband, supportive family and just absolutely phenomenal professors at Penn State,” she said. “It was a great experience.”

The program pairs students with municipalities “to determine a community’s contribution to climate change and help that government develop plans to draw down carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate,” according to Penn State’s website.

McMahon, alongside Jonaid Lone, a graduate student, as well as two professors overseeing the project, was paired with Bucks County, who “were absolutely fantastic partners,” she said.

Over two semesters, the team created two emissions inventories — one for the community and another for county operations — and, from there, created a Climate Action Plan, or CAP.

“Thus far, our experience has been phenomenal,” Bucks County officials said on their CAP webpage. “Jonaid and Olivia have exceeded expectations and did an excellent job at assembling the data we needed for our emissions inventory.”

Bucks County's Emissions Overview
Bucks County
Olivia Louise McMahon, of Nazareth, was paired with Bucks County for Penn State University's Local Climate Action Program to work on a climate action plan. The project found the county's current emissions were calculated to be approximately 6.1 MMT CO2e per year. This was divided into 6 use categories including Commercial & Industrial Energy (29%), Residential Energy (24%), Transportation (39%), Solid Waste (6%), Agriculture (2%), as well as Water & Wastewater (1%).

Counties and municipalities across the commonwealth have for several years worked on creating and publishing emissions inventories and climate action plans. Both Easton and Bethlehem have published in-depth climate action plans, while Allentown’s Environmental Advisory Council has posted a climate action report with recommendations to create a city-wide plan.

In April, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission was awarded $1 million in grant funding to create a CAP after opting into the Climate Pollution Reduction Grant program, part of the federal Inflation Reduction Act. Officials last month shared some strategies to cut transportation emissions that could be included in the final plan, due in March.

The state’s climate action plan has set lofty goals, reducing greenhouse gasses by 26% by 2025 and 80% by 2050, both from 2005 levels. Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection last month held public engagement sessions to collect feedback and ideas for the statewide plan amid $4.6 billion in federal grants up for grabs in spring.

After the spring semester ended, McMahon stayed on in Bucks over the summer to help with stakeholder engagement and finishing up writing the plan.

“The LCAP is an amazing program,” she said. “It's really a win-win for everyone, because the students get to have real world experience — we produce a good product for the municipalities — and then the municipalities have access to real expertise.”

When she was chosen as an undergraduate to attend COP28 with the six-person Penn State delegation, McMahon said it was “quite an honor,” and attended from Dec. 6-12.

“It was amazing,” she said. “There's a large plenary, there's negotiating rooms, meeting rooms — things like that. But then there's also all of these different pavilions for all different industries: universities, different countries have pavilions, the ocean, the cryosphere, a faith pavilion, arts and culture, any of the sciences — I can ramble on. There were so many.”

During her panel, McMahon spoke about the importance of universities in creating spaces for collaboration. There’s no shortage of creative, motivated people who want to work on climate change solutions, she said.

“From my experience, and the work that I did, the university created that table. There's a capacity there to be able to bring the correct people together to do the work that needs to be done. I think it can really make a big difference moving forward.”
Olivia Louise McMahon

“I think sometimes we all hear, ‘We need everyone at the table. We need everyone at the table,’” she said. “But sometimes they're looking around thinking, ‘OK, well, where's the table?’

“From my experience, and the work that I did, the university created that table. There's a capacity there to be able to bring the correct people together to do the work that needs to be done. I think it can really make a big difference moving forward.”

‘A fraction of what the Lehigh Valley was’

There are almost 7,000 miles between the Valley and Dubai — but there was at least one exhibit at the conference that reminded McMahon of home.

On one of the walkways, an artist created “Pollution Pods,” she said, describing them as akin to geodesic domes.

“They rigged them up so that you could go in and experience the air pollution in different cities,” she said, describing the walk from domes representing London, New Delhi and Beijing. “I think Beijing was the one that had the highest parts per million.

“And I looked at it and thought, ‘This is like a fraction of what the Lehigh Valley was during the wildfires.’ And then thinking about Allentown being the worst place for people with asthma to live in the United States.”

The impacts of climate change in the Valley are clear. This year alone, the Valley was choked by Canadian wildfire smoke, Allentown was named the asthma capital of the U.S., the Lehigh River was added to a list of endangered rivers and the Earth’s hottest day was recorded.

While the conference closed with an agreement not everyone is happy with, leaders said it “'signals the ‘beginning of the end’ of the fossil fuel era by laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emissions cuts and scaled-up finance.”

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said Simon Stiell, the UN’s climate change executive secretary, in his closing speech. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

Some news accounts have been critical of the conference’s outcome, with one outlet calling it “the most promising disappointment yet,” but McMahon said there was a “whole other dimension” not reported.

“Climate change — it concerns every sector; it concerns every country, and there really was a lot of representation there from all different sectors, from all different places,” she said. “And on the whole, what I saw was a definite recognition of the challenges that climate change poses.

“But it was also a very large group of solutions-oriented individuals that were coming together in a spirit of collaboration.”