Trump budget proposal would result in ‘big impacts for cities’ around the world

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Reaction to U. S. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which calls for deep cuts in federal agencies responsible for the environment and diplomacy while ramping up defence spending, has been swift in cities from coast to coast. But the impact of the proposal could be felt by urban areas well beyond U. S. shores.

Last week, the White House released a blueprint for the 2018 fiscal year that would sharply reduce funding for domestic housing assistance and mass transit while eliminating a grant programme for community development. The potential impact has left advocates for cities flabbergasted.

“Here’s an incomplete list of the things the new U. S. budget would make worse in American cities,” said ICLEI USA Executive Director Angie Fyfe. “Air quality, morning commutes, water pollution in rivers and lakes, insurance against floods and other climate-adverse events, energy efficiency of our appliances, therefore energy independence, wildlife refuge, public and affordable housing.”

[See: What effect could President Trump have on U. S. cities’ climate action?]

It’s important to recognize that the Trump budget is nothing more than a proposal. The U. S. president makes budget recommendations that typically carry significant weight, particularly in their broad vision, but ultimately it is lawmakers in Congress who decide on the country’s spending at both the macro and micro levels. In its broad brushes, however, Trump’s proposal makes clear what it would like to see on the cutting block.

One key area that appears to be receiving particular attention for cuts is U. S. foreign aid, in all of its flavours. In his budget, Trump is making good on his “America First” pledge with plans to slash the State Department by 28 percent, cut down the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by 30 percent, and reduce funding to the United Nations by 20 percent.

Still, as legislators and advocates gear up for a major battle in the coming months, it is unclear the potential effect of a tightened U. S. budget on international urban development. Indeed, it may not have much direct impact, because of the convoluted way in which foreign aid money is channeled through departments such as USAID.

[See: In Mexico City for climate talks, U. S. mayors get advice on how to deal with Donald Trump]

Nevertheless, the United States is a major foreign-aid player and a key signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change, which will require action at the city level to deliver on ambitious plans to reduce emissions. And while Washington has traditionally played a bigger role in areas such as humanitarian assistance and fighting disease, a budgetary rollback the likes of which is seen in the Trump proposal is clear for many.

“If the budget were to be approved in its current form,” said ICLEI’s Yunus Arikan, “there would be indeed big impacts for cities.”

Climate conundrum

Given that cities are responsible for 70 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases, local climate plans are essential to the international effort to rein in global warming.

“If the U. S. dramatically cuts its contributions to international affairs and climate action, others will have to step in to fill the void. If confirmed, this budget is an open call for a new global leadership on sustainability and climate change.”

Yunus Arikan
ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability

Cities in the developing world, in turn, are counting on the Green Climate Fund, a globally agreed financial mechanism to fund climate adaptation and mitigation projects in poor countries. It was established in 2010 and received a boost in the wake of the Paris Agreement, with many developing countries signing onto the accord with the explicit expectation that they would receive financial assistance through the fund.

[See: Cities unveil time frame for ‘localizing’ climate finance]

As part of the climate deal, which was inked in December 2015, the U. S. pledged to provide USD 3 billion of the USD 10.1 billion that countries so far have committed. However, Barack Obama’s administration had delivered only USD 1 billion by the time it left office in January.

Trump’s budget now proposes eliminating its contribution to the fund altogether. And this month, the Group of 20 (G20) advanced industrialized nations appeared to walk back previous pledges to the fund, which media reports suggested was due to the Trump effect.

“In the short term, there is enough going on in the private sector — the momentum around renewables has gone past the point of no return — that this isn’t going to be so much of a problem,” said U. N. lobbyist Felix Dodds. “In the longer term, clearly the Green Climate Fund won’t hit its targets.”

In addition, even before the Paris Agreement was signed, the Obama administration offered foreign aid for climate change through an umbrella effort called the Global Climate Change Initiative. From monitoring the “carbon sink” potential of forests to supporting clean energy, the USD 350 million programme channeled through the State Department and USAID has had a worldwide impact. “With [Trump’s] proposal, all of this will be gone, which means that all sorts of important programmes on American soil and abroad will come to an abrupt halt,” Arikan said.

[See: Climate-friendly cities pledge solidarity with U. S. mayors ahead of Trump presidency]

Still, the urban scope of these programmes was never clearly outlined. According to the World Resources Institute’s Andrew Light, none of the projects funded by the Global Climate Change Initiative had a specific focus on cities, although many, such as those addressing air quality, most likely involved urban areas.

Indeed, the circuitous funding path from donor countries to projects in cities has been a point of frustration for organizations working to promote local-level climate action. “Most finance for sustainability only reaches the local level via indirect routes,” Arikan said.

His organization, a global network of cities committed to sustainability, has been pushing for alternatives, such as the Transformative Action Programme, which connects cities with financing, and coalitions like the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance. “If the U. S. reneges on its commitments, the need to rethink the climate finance architecture becomes even more pressing,” he said.

Lost leadership

There are also broader concerns around the role that the United States currently plays on the global stage.

The State Department cuts are so severe in part because many of the climate programmes targeted are housed there. Further, USAID is potentially at risk of being merged with the State Department. The agency, which is not known for having a robust urban programme but does sponsor an initiative called Making Cities Work, did not respond on the record to requests for comment on the implications of the proposed budget.

[See: How U. S. foreign policy came to embrace urban issues — and may change under Trump]

Meanwhile, the United States is the largest single donor to the United Nations. While reductions in U. S. contributions haven’t yet been parceled out by agency, Dodds sees some obvious targets based on the U. S. president’s agenda.

UN-Habitat is sitting there as one of those that will be hit heavily,” he said, referring to the U. N.’s lead agency on urban issues. “And clearly the U. N. Environmental Programme will be hit, for obvious reasons.”

The United States contributed approximately USD 5.4 million to UN-Habitat in 2015. The following year, it gave USD 6.1 million to UNEP.

[See: UN-Habitat facing ‘considerable decline’ in core funding, assessment warns]

Any major retrenchment in the diplomatic corps would affect the visibility of the United States in foreign-policy circles. Former deputy assistant secretary Salin Geevarghese, who ran the international office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the final years of the Obama administration, lamented the potential outcome.

“When the U. S. shows up at any multilateral forum, people count on our leadership,” he told Citiscope. “It matters when we speak, what we say and when we show up. Leaders from around the world have always desired a strong U. S. presence.”

He cited policy exchanges under his watch that traded ideas on rental housing assistance with Chile, post-industrial cities with Germany and aging policy with Japan as examples of the kind of U. S. international engagement on urban issues likely to wither during the Trump administration. HUD also collaborated closely with the State Department and played a key role in the heated negotiations that produced last year’s New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s 20-year urbanization strategy.

“My hopefulness is that this is the opening salvo of the Trump administration, and as budget sausage-making actually happens, people will register that these kinds of cuts will come at a huge cost to our ‘thought leadership’ role and, moreover, will do harm to our communities,” he said. “How they begin is not the way they are going to end. One can only hope.”

[See: Why are U. S. mayors missing Habitat III?]

It is unlikely that the Trump administration will entirely get its way on the budget — several senators from Trump’s own Republican Party declared the proposal “dead on arrival”. Nonetheless, many are preparing for the prospect of the U. S. government retreating to within its own borders, at least for a time.

“If the U. S. dramatically cuts its contributions to international affairs and climate action, others will have to step in to fill the void,” Arikan said. “If confirmed, this budget is an open call for a new global leadership on sustainability and climate change.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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