U.S. to push for formal participation of cities, non-state actors in climate negotiations

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaking at a climate event in 2009, while he was still senator. Kerry is now pushing for sub-national authorities and others to have a stronger role in ongoing climate negotiations, a stance he is pushing on behalf of the U.S. government. (The Climate Group)

U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry has forcefully called for a broadening of formal participation in the current global climate negotiations, according to comments to the media published Thursday.

The new backing could provide a significant boost to growing recognition that nation states may be unable to make substantial, binding pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions at final U. N. talks scheduled for the end of the year in Paris. While those sessions, known as COP 21, are expected to result in a new accord to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol, many analysts say political compunctions are likely to water down the obligations into which states are willing to enter.

For this reason, national governments, scientists and environmental groups have increasingly been turning to other potential sources of significant emissions reduction. Cities and industry are now being looked at as two of the most important potential sources of voluntary emissions-reduction pledges.

“A lot of mayors around the world are ahead of their national governments, and a lot of local citizens are well ahead of their elected leaders,” Kerry told the Washington Post. “I think we need to find a way to highlight that.”

Indeed, for all of the new interest in bolstering climate-related action from cities and non-state actors, there is yet to be any formal way of integrating these entities into the COP 21 process — both in terms of soliciting emissions pledges and in terms of getting their views into the eventual text of the Paris Accord. The current COP 21 negotiating text, for instance, includes almost no reference whatsoever to cities.

Kerry is now urging the creation of a forum in which consolidated action toward both of these goals could proceed. The Washington Post article reports that the secretary of state, who is known for decades’ worth of work around climate and environmental issues, has asked the French government to formalize the role of city administrations, schools and local communities in the climate negotiations. The French had reportedly been planning for a day of city-related discussions at the COP 21 talks.

The State Department was unable to offer additional details by deadline, but a spokesperson indicated that the announcement was still very new.

Kerry is also pushing the French government to actively request emissions-reductions commitments from sub-national groups and non-state actors.

“We should create a kind of virtual Paris and invite people to contribute locally what they can do, and make commitments,” he said, “so we can almost begin to get a tally board on a global basis that begins to measure what people are doing — make it an exciting cause.”

Some of this is already planned to coincide around the Paris talks. United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) will host its World Council from 5-7 December. Paris’s mayor and UCLG’s co-president, Anne Hidalgo, will also host a Summit of Mayors on 7 December.

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing, formalized process that will likely be able to take on momentum of its own. In late March, for instance, the United States submitted its Climate Action Plan, a national report that outlines each country’s proposed contribution to the COP 21 process. (Other such reports are available here.)

While that report did not mention potential contributions from cities or industry, a week earlier the government did unveil a series of significant pledges by some of the country’s largest companies. More than a dozen major federal suppliers — including IBM, Hewlett Packard, Honeywell, Northrop Grumman, United Technologies and others — put forth long-term commitments to reduce emissions. IBM, for instance, said it would cut its greenhouse gas output by 35 percent (under 2005 levels) within a decade.

Action at the city level has arguably been even more sustained. Cities across the United States and Europe have been moving to bolster efficiency, divest their investments from fossil fuels, and make specific emissions-reductions pledges before the COP 21 talks.

The Compact of Mayors, which launched in September, has pushed dozens of cities to take specific action around inventorying their greenhouse gas emissions and then to come up with plans for how to cut this output. The compact is being spearheaded by three associations of local governments, UCLG, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability.

The idea behind the initiative is also to formalize and strengthen cities’ voices during the COP 21 negotiations in Paris — an effort that could now receive a significant boost from the new U. S. focus on the issue.

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