Cities vs Climate Change

We’ve all heard the stats, cities are responsible for 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and by 2030, 60 percent of human beings will reside within cities. It’s crystal clear, cities are our biggest (and potentially growing) problem when it comes to the climate conundrum. Thankfully, it would also appear that they could be our salvation. Cities globally are showing the political will and ambition to tackle climate change head on and the momentum of initiatives like the EU’s Covenant of Mayors and UN’s Global Compact demonstrate the will to make voluntary contributions to the process. Why are cities stepping up? What is driving the ambition?

First and foremost, cities are often highly exposed to the impacts of climate change. Whether it be directly through rising sea levels, temperature extremes and severe weather (and the related risks to infrastructure) or indirectly in suffering from poor air quality, health and other socio-economic impacts, it is clear that they are exposed to high risk. Addressing all of these issues is clearly a priority whatever your political persuasion and fortunately the remedies are linked to those of climate change.

The business case for cities to tackle climate change is also improving all the time. Many city leaders now see climate change and the associated environmental aspects as key to developing sustainable and livable cities. As the municipalities try to encourage inward investment, it is clear that offering a green environment to do business is becoming ever more appealing. International and national development funding, alongside private sector investment, is increasingly being allocated to cities which can demonstrate environmental credentials, or show political will to develop their credentials. Having a robust and transparent evidence base for cities to showcase these aspects is key.

Finally, the citizens of large cities have the tendency and political leaning to take climate change as a real issue, a high priority and demand change. This is clearly not always reflected in national politics and so cities can demonstrate real political will, driven by the voting public, to take action in a meaningful way.

So clearly there is plenty to push cities the right direction. What are the bottlenecks or barriers slowing them down and holding them back?

Well, we are dealing with a complex issue. It’s fundamentally tricky to measure invisible gases as they float up into the atmosphere – it’s an obscure concept. Cities beginning on this journey need to develop internal resources and technical capabilities start to address the issues. Developing greenhouse gas inventories, climate action plans, targets and so on is not easy. Even with the various detailed guidance documents and support mechanisms, collecting data and engaging stakeholders is a time-consuming process and the science is still evolving.

Even more critically, once plans have finally been developed and policies and actions identified to reduce emissions and improve the livability, sustainability and resilience of cities, how are the policies and actions to be financed? Public coffers have generally built up significant levels of debt and self-financing is not always possible or appealing. Financial mechanisms are evolving but they are poorly understood and difficult to navigate.

Nevertheless, cities, towns and regions need to continue to shoulder the responsibility, for their own sakes and the rest of the world’s. They need to build their data and work with the private sector to finance their futures. They need to rise above their peers and show that they are places for the future and not industrial relics. They need to create clean, green and connected cities so that you and I will want to live there. And importantly, they need to follow up ambitious plans with ambitious action.

The battle to limit global temperature rises to 2 or 1.5°C will be won and lost in our cities – it has been estimated around 40% of the Paris Agreement can be met by cities alone. The challenges are clear, the solutions surmountable.

The UN Compact of Mayors and the EU Covenant of Mayors are now merging to become the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a single global movement of nearly 8,000 cities, towns and regions committed to taking on climate change which continues to grow day by day. The volume and momentum is truly impressive, but if the new Covenant is to be ultimately successful, it will be important that it is designed to ease the burden on cities to create the GHG inventories and to focus on how finance can be accessed. The data requirements need to be the minimum level that provides beneficial outputs. Countries will also need to step up and support their cities by providing sub-national datasets to ease the monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) processes.

The cities have shown the will, the new Global Covenant needs to lead the way.

Ryan Glancy

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