Cities can lead on climate action ahead of 2020 pledges

Even if an agreement is reached at this year’s Paris climate summit, national policy changes won’t kick in until 2020. But cities are ready to fill this gap.

Paul Aitchison

National governments from around the world are currently preparing to head to Paris in November for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. This is the biggest climate conference of our generation, and it takes place with the explicit goal of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius — the cut-off beyond which scientists predict catastrophic impacts.

It is now likely that a significant accord on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be reached in Paris. However, it is important to remember that even if such an agreement is struck, the actions it mandates will not be taken until 2020 — five years down the line.

Five years may not seem like a long time from a geopolitical perspective, but the planet pays no attention to our timelines. Emissions will continue to rise throughout this period. Pollution will continue to flow into rivers, and waste will continue to pile up in landfills. Cities will continue to grow, and demand for energy and transport will grow with them.

So while we must give all of our support to a global agreement in Paris, we must also plan for the five-year gap that will follow it.

Local and regional governments can bridge this gap. Cities and other subnational authorities are already acting on climate change, making their cities and municipalities more sustainable through initiatives in areas including low-carbon development, green infrastructure and “ecomobile” transport.

Most importantly, cities are committing to measurable, reportable and verifiable actions. For instance, over 500 cities are now reporting to the carbonn Climate Registry (cCR). This is a voluntary process designed by and for local and subnational governments to ensure the global transparency and accountability of their climate efforts. It allows cities to publicly report their climate and energy commitments, as well as their performance, mitigation and adaptation actions around greenhouse gas emissions.

This year, for the first time, the registry was able to match reported emissions-reduction commitments with performance on greenhouse gas emissions. This has allowed us to estimate the collective contribution of local governments’ commitments to global ambition. The information provided by more than 200 local governments from all over the world reveals that their commitments to community emissions reductions are estimated to reach 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2020.

How significant is this number? It is certainly no small achievement: These collective efforts are equal to the total emissions reductions achieved by the European Union between 1990 and 2012. The scale of this figure shows how much cities can contribute to global efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The cCR is also the prime data partner for NAZCA — the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action — which showcases commitments to action by companies, cities, subnational regions and investors to address climate change.

In parallel with these reporting efforts, cities are committing to the Compact of Mayors. This is the world’s largest coalition of city leaders addressing climate change by pledging to reduce their emissions, tracking that progress and preparing for the impacts of climate change. As of June 2015, 84 cities have committed, representing nearly 300 million people around the world.

Local and subnational climate action naturally facilitates the direct engagement of all stakeholders. This comprehensive engagement will be supported by this week’s World Summit Climate & Territories in Lyon, France, which will feature representatives of all nine NGO constituencies following the UNFCCC process as observers. The summit highlights what local government networks like ICLEI have witnessed over the last 25 years: Mayors and local leaders are best positioned to bring stakeholders along.

Collective, transformative action

Cities are therefore making ambitious, energetic and concrete commitments to become more sustainable. However, they can do more. The challenges that we face call for broad visions and projects that will radically improve sustainability in urban areas. Indeed, we need to think less about improving and more about transforming. What we require are transformative actions for our cities.

That’s why ICLEI is partnering with a range of major organizations to launch the Transformative Actions Programme (TAP). The TAP is a 10-year initiative designed to help cities and municipalities overcome financial barriers and pursue ambitious, innovative projects. It recognizes that climate change can be tackled most effectively at the local level, and it seeks to accelerate the implementation of local climate action.

“More than 200 local governments have already pledged to reduce their carbon emissions by 1 billion tons by the end of this decade — equal to the total reductions achieved by the European Union between 1990 and 2012.”

To achieve this, the TAP will do two things. First, through the extensive networks created by ICLEI and its partners, the initiative will mobilize key actors: local and subnational governments, development agencies, funding bodies and banks, and national governments. The programme will bring these actors into dialogue with each other, helping them to find solutions to implement transformative actions. Second, the TAP will make the resulting actions visible to decision-makers, hopefully spurring yet more investment.

Every year, the TAP will select, support and feature up to 100 outstanding local climate projects. These will be showcased on the online TAP platform (to be unveiled in October) and at TAP2015, the Local Government Pavilion, at COP 21. The pavilion is a physical space that will figure at each future COP climate conference for presentations, networking and debate. And together, ICLEI and partners will advocate at every opportunity for increased support for these and other projects.

This commitment is in keeping with the position of local government networks at the forefront of the climate change movement. From the Urban CO2 Reduction Project (1991) and the 1st Municipal Leaders’ Summit on Climate Change and Urban Environment (1993) to the Copenhagen World Catalogue of Local Climate Commitments (2009), local governments have pioneered critical climate initiatives that have subsequently been adopted at national levels.

From past experience, ICLEI and its partners know that local and regional governments already have plans and projects that can transform our future. The world needs these projects. Through the TAP, ICLEI and its partners are determined to make them happen.

We invite all cities and municipalities to join with each other and with us for genuinely transformative change. For more information on the TAP, please visit the website.

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Gino Van Begin

Gino Van Begin is secretary general of ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability.