Guiding, standardizing city climate actions a key focus at Paris summit

U.N. released “Guiding Principles for City Climate Action Planning”.

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PARIS — At the annual award ceremony for the C40 Climate Leadership Group, which took place here Thursday evening, perennial green cities such as Stockholm and Vancouver took home prizes, as did relative newcomers to the environmental scene, including Johannesburg and Wuhan.

Yet while C40’s members represent over 550 million people, with ambitions to grow well beyond that figure, they still account for only a small fraction of the total number of cities on the planet.

[See: Nearly three-quarters of megacities feeling effects of climate change]

“There are thousands of cities out there,” said Robert Kehew, who runs the climate change unit at UN-Habitat. “Think of the cities of five million in China that we haven’t even heard of. We can’t just stop at the C40 number of cities.”

Ultimately, every city — whether a C40 metropolis or a fast-growing provincial town in China — will have to do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with any eventual agreement at the ongoing U. N. climate talks, COP 21, which will continue through next week. Urban areas, after all, contribute some 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to U. N. estimates.

That’s why UN-Habitat on Friday released “Guiding Principles for City Climate Action Planning.” The guidelines offer eight mantras: that actions be ambitious, inclusive, fair, comprehensive and integrated, relevant, actionable, transparent, and verifiable and evidence-based. UN-Habitat is also the lead agency on next year’s Habitat III cities conference.

[See: Climate pledges from cities at record high ahead of Paris talks]

The initiative was born out of a need for basic protocols to which any city could adhere, simply in order to get out of the gate on climate-related action. For example, in 2012, the Cities Development Initiative for Asia (CDIA) surveyed 894 Asian cities about climate change planning. At that time, just 29 cities — 3 percent — had some kind of plan.

In part this lackluster figure stems from capacity issues. Rapidly growing cities in the developing world typically lack the resources to have robust planning departments, and many can barely manage existing challenges in housing, transportation, sanitation and basic infrastructure.

But, Kehew insists, thinking of climate change planning as a luxury is not an option. “If climate change will make something worse, address it now,” he said. “If flooding is an issue in 2015, it’s going to be worse in 2060.”

City-to-city learning — and comparisons

Already, UN-Habitat’s approach has gained traction with a diverse set of cities in the developing world that have taken its preventive message to heart. Relatively small Xinyu City, with under a million inhabitants, opted to turn a landscaping project with purely aesthetic intentions into a flood-prevention effort.

With that mindset, C40 has had tremendous success with peer-to-peer learning.

“We should all be copying ideas from other cities,” Rio de Janeiro Mayor and C40 President Eduardo Paes said Thursday. Having grown from 18 to 82 members in its first decade, C40 boasts 32 cities that have reduced their net greenhouse gas emissions, according to the network’s research director, Seth Schultz.

But the devil is in the data-collection details. “We need standardized measurements,” Schultz said. “Some cities report reductions, but when we look under the hood we see they were only measuring three sectors, or looking at a small geographic range, or just counting city-owned vehicles.”

[See: Filling the gap ahead of 2020 climate pledges: Cities?]

C40’s partnership with the U. S. Green Building Council and the launch last year of the Compact of Mayors are both designed to achieve consistency across the range of global cities in the network so that everyone is making equal comparisons when they talk about climate.

This data-driven approach was a key characteristic of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor of New York City. Now, it’s a methodology he has carried with him as co-founder of C40 and other climate initiatives such as Risky Business, an economic-risk reporting service that focuses on climate change.

“[Climate change impacts] have to be measurable, compared on a comparable basis, and easy to get access to the information,” Bloomberg said at a news conference following the C40 awards. “Governments don’t ever want to do that. But it doesn’t work that way at the city, corporate or family level. [At those levels,] you have to really solve the problem, and it’s your lives on the line.”

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