Where does the New Urban Agenda point on localizing climate action?

Advocates laud the Habitat III strategy’s guidance on local climate-action plans, resilience, energy efficiency, sustainable transport, urban food and more. But they worry it doesn’t offer the specific roadmap needed.

A man navigates through flooding in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2011. The draft New Urban Agenda is seen as strong on building urban resilience in the face of climate change. (501room/Shutterstock)

UNITED NATIONS — A year on from milestone global agreements to tackle pressing development challenges and the threat of climate change, the U. N. General Assembly convened last week in a congratulatory spirit.

As the conversation shifts from negotiation to implementation, U. N. officials and experts are acknowledging the vital role that cities play in advancing those agendas. However, world leaders fell short of recognizing the next major U. N. summit, Habitat III, which will directly address the role of local governments in the global arena.

On 20 September, heads of state commemorated the first anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to end poverty and improve livelihoods worldwide by 2030. The next day, U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted an event to encourage faster ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Together, these accords are the twin pillars of the U. N.’s social and economic agenda, and will be for the next 15 years.

“What once seemed impossible is now inevitable,” Ban said of the climate change deal, which appears likely to enter to enter into legal force before the end of the year.

At least 55 countries, representing 55 percent of global emissions, are required to ratify the agreement in order to cross that threshold. With the announcement this month that China and the United States — two of the big four global emitters, alongside Russia and the European Union — would ratify the Paris Agreement, momentum has been growing for one of Ban’s signature diplomatic achievements. On 21 September, another 20 countries formally indicated that they would ratify the agreement.

The SDGs, which are codified in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, also are gaining considerable political traction as national governments shift their efforts to meet the framework’s 17 goals and 169 targets. “More than 50 governments are making the SDGs a central framework of their national development strategies, and that signals that there is real momentum for the 2030 Agenda,” said David Nabarro, the U. N.’s special adviser on 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

Analysts increasingly are suggesting that these two bedrock agreements, which will define U. N. policy for at least the next 15 years, reinforce one another. On the occasion of the General Assembly, the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think tank, released a report analyzing the overlaps.

Nabarro agrees, and this week he honed in on the role of cities and local governments in delivering success. “Cities and subnational governments, as well as private-sector entities investing subnationally, are coming together now to devise and scale concrete solutions for climate change and sustainable development,” he said at a meeting of the Subnational Climate Action Hub, an initiative created last year.

“We’re seeing how cities, states and regional governments are the key loci for delivering the transformative agenda that’s urgently needed to address climate change and deliver sustainable development,” he said.

In light of these agreements, Nabarro said, there is “a new movement for subnational action. One that’s innovative, bold, measurable and reaching beyond economic, political and social boundaries.”

[See: Cities shut out of U. N.’s first SDGs review, advocates say]

Next month, the U. N. will address the role of subnational governments head-on at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador. The summit, which takes place only once every two decades, will adopt the New Urban Agenda, which advocates have called the roadmap to the “localization” of the SDGs and Paris Agreement.

‘Huge potential’

Close observers of climate change policy give the New Urban Agenda’s provisions on the topic a cautious endorsement. They differ on how strong it links with the Paris Agreement and are equivocal on the specifics of the document, especially around implementation. (The New Urban Agenda was finalized following marathon talks at the beginning of this month; its final draft is available here.)

“By making the Paris Agreement one of its antecedents and quoting its long-term goal, the New Urban Agenda is acknowledging the climate challenge in cities, and putting climate action at the core of urban policies at national and local levels — and that’s a good thing,” said Mark Watts, executive director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

[See: Habitat III must make climate change a top priority]

Benoit Lefevre of the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities was less enthusiastic. “The link between the New Urban Agenda and the Paris Agreement is not that explicit,” he said, noting the lack of any mention either to countries’ voluntary greenhouse-gas-reduction commitments or to the official platform for commitments made at the subnational level, the Lima-Paris Action Agenda.

Lefevre also pointed out the paucity of explicit mentions in the text. The Paris Agreement comes up just twice in the New Urban Agenda, whereas the SDGs are mentioned 11 times. Climate change, however, is mentioned 13 times.

Nevertheless, Lefevre called the New Urban Agenda’s climate change language “a great opportunity” with “huge potential”. He applauded a specific mention of the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree Celsius target and said he believes that the overall thrust of the New Urban Agenda could support national climate action.

“National governments should ‘take into account’, ‘consider’, ‘integrate’ local governments when they design their national strategies,” Lefevre said, quoting the New Urban Agenda’s word choice. “That’s a huge link, very significant for NDCs,” he said, referring to the “nationally determined contributions” that make up the core of governments’ climate pledges.

Watts said he was looking for a more fleshed-out conception of how cities should look and operate in an era of climate change. “Although the vision of the low-carbon, resilient city is not as strong as C40 would have hoped — and particularly the linkages between climate action, equity and prosperity are quite weak — there are many useful paragraphs related to climate action in the final draft,” he said.

[See: How to globalize the sustainable city]

Watts cited in particular language around local climate-action plans, adaptation and urban resilience, energy efficiency, sustainable transport, urban food and more.

Fuzzy implementation

Still, it remains an option question on how to turn the New Urban Agenda, a non-binding agreement, into action. “We haven’t secured that it will be implemented and support the objectives, goals and action plan that have agreed under the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change,” Lefevre cautioned.

Watts echoed this point. “In terms of finance for local governments, Paragraph 143 makes a great commitment on the access of cities to international climate funds,” he said. “But how do we actually get there? We need to build a strong roadmap with nations to make this commitment, and others, a reality.”

[See: COP 21 must encourage climate funding to reach the local level]

Details on how the New Urban Agenda will be operationalized are expected to consume the lion’s share of debate during Habitat III. Already, countries, cities, multilateral institutions, corporations, universities and NGOs have been invited to declare their commitments ahead of the conference through a web portal called the Quito Implementation Plan. At the conference venue, an entire theatre will be devoted to the “Urban Stage”, where such commitments will be announced publicly.

“We expect in Quito we will have some clear, concrete commitments from countries on what are they going to do and how they will integrate cities into their national plan,” Lefevre said, “how they will work to align their national efforts with the local efforts to ensure that low-carbon transition is happening.”

A Latin American specialist, he gave high marks to Chile, Colombia and Mexico in this regard. (The Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, is expected at Habitat III.) “The most proactive and progressive countries that really want to commit to the climate change agenda are turning to cities and engaging with local government to really figure out how those economy-wide national targets can really become a reality,” Lefevre said.

[See: We’re entering a ‘new era’ for cities and science]

Yet while the late-September discussions on the SDGs and climate action continued a trend of rising attention given to the key role of cities in this concerted action, Habitat III received scant mention. Even the representative from conference host Ecuador, Foreign Minister Guillaume Long, barely mentioned the event during his address to the U. N. General Assembly, noting it only in the final sentence of a fiery 20-minute speech.

Yet if the New Urban Agenda is not yet on the radar of national governments, advocates for an enhanced role for cities remain undeterred. “Habitat III is not only the New Urban Agenda,” Watts said. “The leadership of mayors in delivering sustainable urban development will largely be showcased in Quito by C40 and other urban stakeholders. This should make national governments more aware of what mayors are already delivering on the ground.”

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up here for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter. Citiscope is a member of the Habitat III Journalism Project; read more here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary