Pope Francis, mayors pledge action on climate change and the urban SDG

Two-day Vatican City event brings together 65 city leaders.

Pope Francis speaks during a conference of mayors at the Vatican, 21 July. The pope urged a "very strong stand" on climate change the COP 21 climate talks in Paris later this year. (Tony Gentile/Reuters /Landov)

VATICAN CITY — Until a couple of years ago, few would have expected that an alliance between the pope and mayors from around the world would have been able to contribute to a more sustainable planet.

Yet an unusual such event held in Vatican City on 21 July was actually not as revolutionary as its focus on the link between social and environmental sustainability. After all, the event, which brought together some 65 mayors, focused on “The commitment of cities” to combating both climate change and slavery.

“The Vatican proposed [that we] deal with environmental questions in the same way we can address the social problems in the world,” São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad said. “In terms of environment, we have a global consciousness, different from the one we have in terms of poverty. The pope asked us to think [about] these in the same way — we have to deal globally with the two issues. The Vatican thinks universally, and that’s the beauty.”

In promoting such a vision, which culminated in a declaration signed by both the pope and the mayors, the Vatican puts itself at the forefront of the global debate on sustainability just four months ahead of the COP 21 climate summit in Paris. The event came just weeks after Pope Francis issued a landmark call for environmental stewardship and climate action. In the declaration that closed the 21 July event, the mayors warn that the Paris talks constitute “the last effective opportunity” to come to a global agreement on effectively combating climate change.

Also in that declaration, the mayors explicitly commit to implementing the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set to be finalized in September. In particular the declaration highlights proposed Goal 11, the urban SDG. Indeed, the day after the climate event, the Vatican hosted a second day’s conference looking specifically at the urban SDG.

“We want our cities and urban settlements to become ever more socially inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable,” the pope and mayors noted in the declaration. “All sectors and stakeholders must do their part, a pledge that we fully commit ourselves to in our capacities as mayors and individuals.”

‘New revolutionary moment’

Why did Pope Francis decide to extend this invitation, sent to the mayors of large and medium-sized cities, at this time? The pope himself offered a response of sorts in a speech, delivered in Spanish, that he gave toward the end of the event.

“Because, even though this conscience comes out from the centre to the peripheries, the most serious and deeper work is done by the peripheries to the centre, from you to the conscience of the humanity,” Pope Francis said. “The Holy See, or a national state, can deliver a good speech at the United Nations, but if the work doesn’t start from the periphery to the centre, it won’t have an effect. From here, it’s up to the responsibility of the mayors of the cities.”

Indeed, beyond the COP 21 motivation, the Vatican has increasingly shown its strong will to get urban communities and their decision-makers directly involved in solving the central social and environmental problems of our time.

“It’s very important to involve the mayors because they are the representatives of the people, the only persons who have the legitimacy which comes directly from the population,” Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which co-hosted the event, said. “They are directly elected and need to give the common good to the people.”

The gathering at Vatican City comes as increased attention has been given to unilateral city-level actions to reduce carbon emissions and jumpstart momentum ahead of COP 21. Echoing broader discussions, the mayors indicated that city leaders could take action on greenhouse gas emissions more easily than politically entangled national governments.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, pledged to reduce his city’s carbon footprint by 40 percent by 2030. De Blasio called the reduction a cornerstone of “the new revolutionary moment” needed to find common shared solutions to climate change. “We, the local leaders of the world, have many tools — more than we in fact realize,” de Blasio said in a speech, “and we must use them boldly even as our national governments hesitate.”

Others said that the Vatican’s own stepped-up involvement on the issue could bolster mayoral and other city-level efforts to urge action from national authorities.

“Mayors are the closest political level to the neighbourhoods,” said Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of the southern U. S. city of New Orleans. “The role of the Vatican is going to be very important: When you influence the leaders that are closer to the ground, you influence also those above them.”

Mayors who convened in Rome can now consider themselves to be Pope Francis’s partners in delivering the message of his recent environmental treatise, Encyclical Laudato Sì — including through their own actions. “We must think a lot about the example we give to citizens — like using the local transport system, as I usually do — in order to give an effective contribution to change people’s daily behaviours,” said the newly elected mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena.

The wide range of strategies and initiatives presented by the cities at the gathering are being seen by the Vatican as a valuable framework for additional collective action in years to come. That includes a particular focus on continuing to raise the awareness of urban leaders around global issues — and to foster their engagement.

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino has already announced that he would work to host again a follow-up event in 2017 to compare progress made in promoting human, social and environmental sustainability at the city level. The Vatican has welcomed the move.

“There are many different initiatives launched by the cities,” Chancellor Sorondo said at the end of the workshop. “Maybe we can follow some of these initiatives launched by the mayors and in two years have a new meeting here in the Vatican City.”

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Simone d'Antonio

Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.