Cities to receive new, ongoing focus in official climate research

An intergovernmental panel voted not to do an immediate report on urban areas but rather to incorporate new emphasis on cities in all of its coming assessments.

The main body tasked with overseeing the global body of science around the processes and projected impacts of climate change has voted to include a major new focus on cities in all of its research in the coming decade.

This new emphasis will culminate in a special report on the subject of cities and climate change at the end of its next five-year assessment cycle, in 2028. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while meeting in Nairobi last week, also agreed to hold a global scientific conference on cities and climate change in the near term.

The IPCC decided “to pay special attention … to the impacts of climate change on cities and their unique adaptation and mitigation challenges and opportunities,” the panel said in a release.

The decision fell somewhat short of what backers had been pushing — a proposal, floated by South Africa, to begin a cities-focused special report in the coming year. A final breakdown on countries that supported the cities report is available here.

The move “means that IPCC recognizes the probability of important new science results for the topic of cities and climate change over the coming four to five years but decides to incorporate those results into its full assessment rather than into a special report,” said David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Program at the World Meteorological Organization, which hosts the IPCC Secretariat in Geneva.

[See: Key climate panel to decide on major cities focus]

Nonetheless, supporters are seeing the IPCC’s vote as a major step forward.

“These outcomes represent a significant achievement for cities,” Debra Roberts, deputy head and chief resilience officer of eThekwini municipality in Durban, South Africa, and co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, said in a statement. “They create great opportunities to dramatically increase the scientific evidence on cities and climate change, in order to enable better climate policy-making at local level.”

Roberts noted that the IPCC’s actions will build on two major global processes that have brought new high-level attention to cities. In September, all members of the United Nations agreed to a new anti-poverty and sustainability framework, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which includes a first-ever goal specifically on urban areas. Three months later, the landmark climate agreement struck in Paris in December formally acknowledged cities as important players in combating climate change.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s reporting on the Paris climate talks from a cities perspective]

The IPCC’s focus on cities will also take place just as the global community begins negotiations on the details of the U. N.’s new 20-year strategy on sustainable urbanization. That strategy, known as the New Urban Agenda, is set to be finalized at a pan-U. N. conference in Ecuador’s capital in October, an event known as Habitat III.

Close observers of the Habitat III process have expressed confidence that the Paris Agreement — and the slew of agreements and frameworks for city-specific climate pledges and actions that have come out of the Paris negotiations — will figure prominently in the drafting of the New Urban Agenda.

Legitimizing signal

The IPCC’s announcements take place just as countries are set to formally sign on to the Paris Agreement. On Friday, a record 150-plus national governments are reportedly set to gather in New York to take their first steps toward implementing the new climate accord, which includes a global goal of keeping average global warming below 1.5 degrees C.

A prominent surprise of the Paris climate talks was the strong mobilization by cities and regions, arguing that they hold a potentially critical opportunity to make major, immediate gains in cutting down on carbon emissions. But they also warned that they need additional fiscal and planning powers to do so.

Supporters now see the IPCC’s actions as doing much to extend the momentum from Paris. The panel’s votes offer prominent impetus for the scientific community to delve far more deeply into the technical details behind cities’ potential role in combating and preparing for climate change.

But the IPCC’s decisions are also being seen as a strong legitimizing signal — bolstering city officials’ views of their role in the climate discussion while also underscoring to national governments that urban areas and their governance structures constitute an important tool with which to fulfil countries’ new emissions-reduction pledges.

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

“As cities advance on the goals of the Paris Agreement, it is vital that their work is supported by rigorous scientific analysis,” Gino Van Begin, secretary general of the global cities network ICLEI, said following the IPCC vote. “Until now, cities have had to extrapolate the significance of general scientific findings and apply them locally. By addressing the particularities of cities in relation to climate change, the IPCC Special Report will assist local and subnational governments in developing effective mitigation and adaptation strategies.”

‘Many gaps’

Official comments from the IPCC’s working groups noted that the panel did place a new focus on cities by including a related chapter in its last five-year assessment, which came out in 2012. Yet they also warned that this relatively cursory treatment left “many gaps” in the scientific understanding of the role cities can play in combating and responding to climate change.

“[T]here is a broad spectrum of related issues that are very relevant and where the literature and action has been burgeoning, and single chapters … can barely scratch the surface of these issues,” one comment stated.

“[P]erhaps most importantly, integration between adaptation and mitigation at the urban scale is crucial in order to avoid counteracting actions and utilize synergistic opportunities, and addressing the urban scale in separate volumes will not be able to play this pivotal integrative role,” it said.

[See: Habitat III must make climate change a top priority]

The comments also noted a significant new uptick in scientific and policy interest in this issue.

“There is an increasing recognition in recent years that cities often offer opportunities for more flexible and faster action on climate change than national governments, and thus both action at this level as well as the literature analyzing these actions have been burgeoning,” it said.

“Given the burgeoning literature on and the so far limited attention given by IPCC to the urban scale, combined with the increasing attention to city-level climate action, the subject of this proposed [special report] is topical and an assessment is highly needed,” the comments stated. “The urban scale also offers perhaps the most important arena for integration of adaptation and mitigation.”

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up here for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter. Citiscope is a member of the Habitat III Journalism Project; read more here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary