With nation states ‘helpless’ on climate change, dozens more cities join Compact of Mayors

At the ICLEI World Congress, held in Seoul in mid-April, 37 mayors pledged their cities' participation in the Compact of Mayors. The initiative hopes to strengthen the voice of local administrators at the Paris climate negotiations later this year. (ICLEI)

SEOUL — With an eye on global climate negotiations coming in December, 37 cities from around the world last week said they would comply with a “Compact of Mayors” focused on taking action to combat climate change.

The cities joined another 21 from Latin America who made a similar announcement in March.

The Compact of Mayors was launched last September, at the behest of U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also serves as a special U. N. envoy on cities and climate change.

The idea is to have a common global framework to help cities channel their ambitions around cutting greenhouse gases. It’s also meant to amplify the voices of mayors leading into the climate negotiations in Paris, known as COP 21. Those talks are expected to result in an international accord that will guide international efforts around climate issues for the next decade and a half.

The Compact of Mayors effort is being spearheaded by three associations of local governments: the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability.

Cities supporting the compact commit to doing three things. Within a year, they must inventory the sources of greenhouse gases within their jurisdictions and identify the risks they face from a changing climate. By the second year, they must set targets to reduce emissions and conduct a climate change “vulnerability assessment”. Within three years, they must publish action plans for they intend both to make those cuts and to adapt to the expected impacts of a changing climate.

“I’m happy for initiatives like the Compact of Mayors. But what [climate negotiators] need to hear from [cities] in a unified manner is: What do you need from us? What text do you need in the agreement?”

The compact is currently working to set up a secretariat that will be tasked with certifying that local governments follow through on their climate pledges. In turn, those city-level results are to be publicized in a way that can be matched up with whatever reporting mechanism emerges from the COP 21 process.

The latest cities to join the effort did so at the ICLEI World Congress, which took place in mid-April in Seoul. Park Won-soon, the mayor of the South Korean capital and the new president of ICLEI, said cities have been showing more leadership than nation states on climate change. “In front of these challenges, nations are helpless,” Park said. “Only cities and mayors will be able to take action.”

Park cited Seoul’s efforts around promoting energy efficiency through a “One less nuclear power plant” initiative as an example of successful local action.

Another mayor who spoke of local action was Mpho Parks Tau, of Johannesburg. The Compact of Mayors “gives local authorities a platform going into COP 21,” Tau said. “Not only do we say local government is where the rubber hits the road, but we can demonstrate through action that this is indeed the case, and we are measuring the targets we set for ourselves.”

COP 21 gaps

The mayors and other local officials gathered in Seoul had their eyes not only on the Paris climate negotiations but also on upcoming negotiations over the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We have not one negotiation but two,” said Ronan Dantec, a councillor from Nantes, France, and climate spokesperson for the UCLG. “The negotiation in September in New York about the SDGs is the same negotiation. It’s easy to imagine that if we do not have a strong, ambitious goal in New York in September, it will be very difficult to have a good deal in Paris in December.”

There was also talk of the upcoming Habitat III conference, in 2016. UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos told the local officials in attendance, “The goal of Habitat III is to convince the governments that they need cities. If we can’t convince them of that, then why give support to the cities?”

For now, however, the primary focus for those at the ICLEI Congress was on COP 21. Ahead of the Paris negotiations, ICLEI is asking cities to propose “transformative” climate action projects. The idea is to have mayors go to Paris with concrete ideas for which they can then seek funding.

Beyond that, however, the role of mayors at the Paris talks remains an open question. The current negotiating text for COP 21 leaves out almost any reference to local governments, a point ICLEI Secretary General Gino Van Begin acknowledged.

“It’s clear that cities have to come into it — yes, we will be at the negotiations,” Van Begin said. “We push to enter into those rooms, but it’s not clear today how it will be done.”

Two national-level officials who will be part of the Paris negotiations addressed the mayors gathered in Seoul. Ambassador Kim Chan-woo, from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the Compact of Mayors is a “complementary effort” to the climate change convention under development.

“It’s my sincere hope that cities will be recognized as important actors and secure their place in this historic agreement,” Kim said.

Yet Michel Rentenaar, climate envoy for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, challenged cities to be more clear about what role they want to play in Paris. “I’m happy for initiatives like the Compact of Mayors,” Rentenaar said. “But what we need to hear from you in a unified manner is: What do you need from us? What text do you need in the agreement?”

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