Habitat III — the first post-Paris implementation opportunity?

2015 ushered in watershed new development and climate frameworks. Urban advocates are hoping that 2016, and the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, will provide a clear roadmap for action on these agreements.

During the last several days of the COP 21 talks, the Eiffel Tower pointed toward next year's Habitat III conference. (UN-Habitat)

PARIS — As 2015 comes to a close, two major milestones have come and gone within the United Nations, allowing the focus now to turn wholeheartedly to implementation.

In September, U. N. members approved a 15-year development strategy through a series of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This month, negotiators reached a landmark agreement on climate change at a widely watched summit in Paris.

[See: All of Citiscope’s coverage on the COP 21 process from an urban angle]

Now, implementation is the word on everyone’s lips. With hefty agreements in place, how will countries actually meet these ambitious goals on complex issues such as poverty, education, health care and carbon emissions?

For Joan Clos, the answer is simple: By coming together at Habitat III, next year’s U. N. conference on housing and urban development.

Clos is the secretary-general of the conference, which will take place in October in Quito, Ecuador. Throughout this year, he has been been making the case that Habitat III is the first implementation conference following the flurry of development and environmental diplomacy that rounded out 2015.

His argument? That local leaders are on the front lines of actually seeing these agreements bear fruit.

[See: Cities welcome Paris climate agreement, seek to maintain COP 21 momentum]

However, the Paris climate agreement does not mention Habitat III even a single time. “Cities” are mentioned only twice, both times alongside a list of “non-state parties” to the agreement.

In the overwhelming schedule of events in Paris during the final “COP 21” talks, Habitat III did make a few guest appearances at events by Cities Alliance, United Cities and Local Governments, ICLEI and the U. S. National League of Cities. But it was hardly a central focus.

Even Michael Bloomberg, the U. N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, did not appear to have the major gathering of urbanists, which takes place only once every two decades, on his agenda. When asked about Habitat III after in Paris, he said, “We have to worry about next year, next year.” But, he added, “Everything is important — all these things help.”

Consolidating local action

For a sense of the expanded calendar, Citiscope turned to Tracy Raczek, climate policy officer for the U. N. Secretary-General’s Office.

“There was a phenomenal commitment already by local leaders. Habitat III has the potential to galvanize that even further across the action areas, because how you’re going to fully reduce emissions in cities is through cross-sectoral planning.”

Tracy Raczek
Climate Policy Officer, U. N. Secretary-General’s Office

“There are multiple opportunities to ratchet up implementation in 2016,” she said. As examples, Raczek cited the January meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the April high-level debate on the SDGs at U. N. Headquarters, the newly announced May “climate solutions” summit in Washington, as well as the World Humanitarian Summit that will take place later that same month in Istanbul.

[See: Global Alliance for Urban Crises nearing launch]

For his part, Clos remains undeterred in his conviction. “Habitat III is going to be the big occasion of the encounter with local authorities,” he said. “In that sense, it’s the convening place in the U. N. system of the localization of the sustainable-development agenda and climate-change agenda.”

Indeed, COP 21 illustrated how local leaders — who were not a formal party to the climate-change negotiations — nevertheless could make some serious noise.

“There was a phenomenal commitment already by local leaders,” Raczek said. “Habitat III has the potential to galvanize that even further across the action areas, because how you’re going to fully reduce emissions in cities is through cross-sectoral planning.”

[See: Cities, regions to form five-year vision on climate action]

However, Raczek cautioned that progress should not be measured only by dates on the calendar. “More opportune than any one event is the substance underlying it,” she said.

Meanwhile, the ideas underlying the strategy that will come out of the Habitat III process — known as the New Urban Agenda — are continuing to solidify. As that progresses, urban advocates are hoping that 2016 will provide substance to match the achievements of 2015.

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