U.N. strengthens opportunity for cities to offer climate pledges

New website will track actions by cities, regions and companies for the six months leading up to the Paris talks.
NAZCA-logged city pledges as of 7 June.

Just ahead of a major, 10-day round of negotiations on an intended climate accord, the United Nations made a major call for cities, corporations and other nonstate entities to step up and propose specific emission-reductions pledges.

A new website will now formally track all such actions committed to by cities, regions, the private sector and others. The online platform will also allow these entities to directly register their pledges, making it easier both for cities to take such a step and for the rest of the world to take note.

The aim is to continue to strengthen momentum ahead of the “COP 21” climate talks scheduled for Paris at the end of the year. Yet the goal is also to create a substantial, high-visibility corpus of nonstate climate pledges in order to build upon whatever member states are able to commit to in Paris. According to some counts, after all, the citizens represented by such pledges already make up the largest party to the COP 21 negotiations.

“These actions show that governments are not alone in their efforts to bend the emissions curve and make the world a safer place,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. “There is a huge groundswell of support building on the part of business, investors, cities and regions. What we see here is highly encouraging and symptomatic of how that tide has turned in favour of real action on the ground.”

During the first two weeks of June, government representatives are gathered in Bonn for one of the last major negotiating sessions ahead of the COP 21 summit. One of the key items on the agenda is finding ways to more effectively strengthen action around climate change before the end of this decade, when new agreements are to be implemented.

Nation states are currently in the process of submitting national reports on intended climate-related actions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and nearly 40 have done so. Yet given continued political complexities and yawning financial concerns, many observers are warning that the pledges being put forward ahead of the COP 21 talks are falling worryingly short.

Prominent focus is subsequently turning to other possible levers to secure substantive, long-term emissions reduction in the hopes of keeping global average temperatures within a range scientists say would divert catastrophe. Cities, metropolitan regions, corporations, universities and others outside of the political maelstrom of central politics have thus garnered keen interest from policymakers, including key officials within the U. S. and French governments.

In April, U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly urged the French government to solicit emissions-reductions commitments from cities and other nonstate actors. “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 said. “I think we need to find a way to highlight that.”

Thus far, it is unclear what official role cities will have in the COP 21 talks, and cities have received almost no mention in preliminary drafts of the negotiating text. Yet to a great extent, cities are where climate-related action needs to happen. According to prominent estimates, urban areas constitute some 70 percent of energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide — thus offering one of the single strongest opportunities for major cuts. And that potential will only grow, as nearly two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by the end of the next decade.

NAZCA

The French government does seem to be making a significant effort in this regard. Next month, the French will host a major meeting of nonstate entities, the World Summit on Climate and Territories, with a particular focus on cities and other subnational authorities. Negotiations are also reportedly taking place behind the scenes to decide on how subnational plans could be integrated into the formal processes at the COP 21 talks.

The new website, too, was unveiled in Paris. Known as the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA), the Peru-built portal was announced in late May at a French government-hosted summit on climate action by businesses. The site, a version of which was initially made public last year, will also be publishing investor data for the first time.

“Successful action on greenhouse gas emissions requires nations to agree a new climate treaty at COP 21 in Paris, but it is equally clear that major action by cities and other non-state actors will be required to put the world on a path to climate safety,” Mark Watts, the executive director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a key network of cities mobilizing around climate issues, said following the new site’s launch.

“I am delighted that the UNFCCC is recognizing the importance of cities in tackling climate change by launching the NAZCA platform, a reporting partner to the Compact of Mayors, through which cities can demonstrate their commitment to an ambitious global climate solution.”

The Compact of Mayors, which launched in September, has pushed several dozen cities to take specific action around inventorying their greenhouse gas emissions and then coming up with plans for how to cut this output. The compact is being spearheaded by three associations of local governments, C40, United Cities and Local Governments, and ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability. The idea behind the initiative is to formalize and strengthen cities’ voices during the COP 21 negotiations in Paris.

In December, C40 and others put out a report tracking cities’ emissions-reduction pledges to date. At that time, 228 cities had already made “significant commitments”, the study found, cumulatively resulting in reductions of some 13 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050.

According to the new NAZCA database, by early June more than 400 cities and nearly 80 regions had likewise made formal emissions pledges. So too had some 660 companies and 180 major investors. Much of this information initially came from another database, the Carbonn Climate Registry, run by ICLEI, which has collated all Compact of Mayors pledges. (The registry’s organizers say they’re continuing to support the NAZCA project.)

Those hundreds of cities are from every inhabited continent, with significant representation from both developed and developing countries. One of the most recent city pledges came from Kyoto City, where the world’s last major climate change agreement was adopted nearly 20 years ago. By 2020, Kyoto’s leadership says the city will cut community emissions by 25 percent (below 1990 levels) and boost that to 40 percent by the following decade. Kyoto’s government emissions will also be cut by a quarter by 2020 (below 2004 levels).

Such a decision-making process at the regional level can be more complex, and those broader pledges are currently clustered in the United States, Western Europe, Latin America and, especially, Japan. The only region in Africa to currently be registered in the NAZCA database, for instance, is Cross River State, which has entered into commitments included in a document signed in 2014 called the New York Declaration on Forests, aimed at ending forest loss by 2030. Standing forests are seen as a significant opportunity to suck up carbon dioxide, and hence an important opportunity to slow climate change.

On to Habitat III?

As Citiscope has reported, there are problems with lumping all of these pledges together. City authorities have been forced to use a variety of ways to measure and report emissions, as well as differing timeframes and methodologies by which any cuts would be made.

Yet in December a new global standard for this type of reporting was unveiled, the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories. Developed in conjunction with C40, ICLEI and the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, the new protocol replaces several pre-existing but smaller standards that had been created over the years by ICLEI, the World Bank, UN-Habitat and others.   

The Compact of Mayors, among many others, has already adopted the protocol as its main reporting template. Thus far, however, it does not appear that the NAZCA database is following this standard.

Meanwhile, even as the countdown to the Paris climate talks has already begun, many observers are starting to look beyond the summit. In part this is due to concerns that a strong agreement in Paris is likely not possible. Yet it is also because of the significant opportunity for follow-up on the other side of the COP 21 sessions.

The Habitat III cities conference is an event that takes place only once every two decades, and October 2016 will see the global community come together specifically to set a new urbanization strategy. Given the actions that cities are already collectively undertaking to try to find a solution to climate change, that summit will offer a major opportunity to consolidate, strengthen and extend that role.

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