Cities assume leadership in the endeavor to fight climate change

Cities around the world are taking steps to curb emissions and address climate change beyond the efforts made by their respective national governments. As Reuters reports, more than 2500 cities have submitted plans to cut carbon emissions to the United Nations since late 2014. More recently, the 2016 merger of the Compact and Covenant of Mayors into the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy united more than 7100 cities around the commitment to set climate targets that will eventually be more ambitious than those of their respective national government’s NDCs.

The year since the adoption of the Paris Agreement has shown the clumsiness of national governments in implementing the actions called for in the accord. This has simultaneously underscored the progressive action currently undertaken by cities around the world and, along with the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, highlighted the ever deepening role that cities and subnational governments must play in delivering climate goals.

Cities do have a unique opportunity to determine the success of the historic shift away from fossil fuels needed to contain climate change. First, they are not encumbered by lengthy legislative processes or entrenched politics, as national governments are. According to the Earth Institute at Columbia University (New York), cities are also better able to coordinate the efforts of citizens, businesses and institutions, and to collaborate with one another. Second, cities are responsible for 60 to 80 percent of global emissions and 75 percent of natural resource consumption, and by 2050 will be home to two thirds of the human population. And third, because they house dense networks of infrastructure and concentrated populations, they are also most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including heat waves, floods, and water shortages. In short, as Somayya Ali Ibrahim, program manager for the Urban Climate Change Research Network puts it: “Cities are on the front line of both the cause and effect of climate change”.

But, as Reuters reports, as cities implement more pervasive and stringent programs, they are running into conflicts with national or regional governments. “Cities are starting to encroach past their boundaries on policies at a national level,” said Seth Schultz, director of research at C40, a global network of megacity mayors working to fight climate change. “There will be more and more conflicts,” he said, over policies to limit local air pollution and prepare urban areas for the potential impacts of natural hazards.

In Oslo, local authorities want to halve the city’s greenhouse gas emissions within 4 years by promoting “car-free zones”, capturing GHG emissions from the city’s incinerator, and imposing new road tolls on diesel cars. Oslo’s efforts, and especially the diesel toll measure, have incurred the hostility of the national government which is doing everything it can to hamper the City’s plans.

Meanwhile, Sydney is in the midst of a dispute with the federal government over its local electricity generation initiatives. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports, the City proposed an energy market rule change that would allow local businesses, community groups, and councils to sell and share the solar energy they generate. The federal government through the Australian Energy Market Commission rejected the City’s proposal.

Nevertheless, cities are not daunted. National governments’ action or inaction notwithstanding, numerous cities have recently reiterated their commitment to take concrete actions against climate change. In the United States, in response to the Trump adminitration’s backtracking on climate commitments and general disincentivization of climate research and action, 12 cities have reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement.

In light of the findings of the C40’s latest study—that mayors can deliver or influence just over half of the savings needed to put the world on a 1.5 degrees trajectory—action from cities is powerful and necessary.


(Image: Anne Hidalgo and Michael R. Bloomberg. Photo credit: Mike Bloomberg/Twitter)