Key climate panel to decide on major cities focus

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will vote this week on whether to publish a first-ever special report on cities and climate change.

The world’s key body on the science around climate change is set this week to decide on whether to take a step that could do much to formalize the role of cities in combating climate change and build upon surprise progress made at the Paris climate talks in December.

Through Wednesday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is meeting for three days in Nairobi. One of its tasks will be figuring out whether to publish what’s known as a special report focused on cities — something the global body has never done. The proposal is one of 27 such options on the table, but supporters say it has received strong preliminary support from each of the panel’s working groups.

[See: With Paris City Hall Declaration, world mayors throw down gauntlet on climate]

A special report is less labour-intensive than the five-year assessment reports regularly undertaken by the IPCC — touchstone projects that seek to sum up the current cumulative scientific understanding of processes, extent and impacts of climate change. Nonetheless, the special reports still constitute major, rigorous undertakings.

Supporters say that such a study would not only bolster the role of cities in combating climate change but also strengthen the opportunity for researchers to look in greater — and, likely, sustained — depth at the prospects for city-led climate action. And perhaps most importantly, it would send a high-level signal to national governments that, in order to fulfil their own new climate pledges, they need to facilitate the ability of city authorities to take steps to action on their own.

“What we’ve seen in the last decade is a fundamental shift around city governments on the question of international attempts to deal with climate change, to being very much at the top table in Paris,” said Mark Watts, executive director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which is supporting a push for the IPCC to sanction a special report on cities.

“Cities now know their role,” he said. “But this is still critical for national governments. Possibly the biggest barrier to action, to cities being more ambitious on climate change, is national governments enabling them to be more active and releasing some of the funding required.”

[See: COP 21 must encourage climate funding to reach the local level]

Watts and others are now looking to the prospect of an IPCC special report to start making that case at the highest levels. The push is being supported by a half-dozen global cities networks and others; as of last week several major cities — including Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, Sydney and Vancouver — had also called on their national governments to vote in favour of a special report on cities.

In addition, cities are looking to get directly involved in the effort. “[W]e produce abundant, high-quality data and research on all aspects of the increasing amount of city climate actions, that we would be happy to share with the IPCC, once it decides to make a Special Report on Cities and Climate Change,” offered a joint letter from the mayors of Rio, Seoul and Istanbul, each of whom heads networks of thousands of additional city leaders.

Research gap

When the global community came together in Paris in December to engage in a final, make-or-break round of negotiations on climate change, the extent of city involvement was a surprise for many.

“Cities now know their role, but this is still critical for national governments. Possibly the biggest barrier to action, to cities being more ambitious on climate change, is national governments enabling them to be more active and releasing some of the funding required.”

Mark Watts
Executive Director, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group

Although mayors and other local officials had played a part in previous international climate negotiations, they arrived in Paris in previously unseen numbers. They were also far better organized than in the past, bearing not only political weight and proof of public mobilization but also science on their potentially weighty contributions to cutting down on global carbon emissions. Indeed, city and regional authorities even came to Paris prepared with concrete pledges in place to do just that.

[See: City climate decisions could determine a third of global ‘carbon budget’]

Yet for all of the discussion around the potential for cities taking on a new, more robust role in the global process to combat climate change, the final negotiated outcome of the talks — text known as the Paris Agreement — offered only the barest of recognition: a few lines indicating that cities, along with several other non-state groups, constitute important actors in the broader fight against climate change.

Yet the role of cities was not the only surprise at the Paris negotiations, known as COP 21. After years of pessimism surrounding the ability of the intergovernmental process to react forcefully to the looming dangers of climate change, the negotiators surprised nearly everyone by not only arriving at an agreement but by agreeing to an even more stringent goal: a limit of 1.5 degrees C average global temperature rise, rather than the previous aspiration of 2 degrees.

[See all of Citiscope’s reporting on COP 21 from a cities perspective]

Given that the 2 degree goal had already been seen as overly optimistic from a political perspective, observers say that new goal caught the entire system off guard.

“We’re still making to some degree an assessment of the contribution that city governments can make,” Watts said. “The gap is that the aspiration to … 1.5 degrees genuinely was unexpected, so there’s not much strong peer-reviewed research — not just for cities but for the world globally.”

He continued: “It’s very easy to conclude that, given how hard it would have been to get to 2 degrees, this will need much more rapid reductions in emissions, so we need that analysis as soon as possible.”

Deep dive

A special report would not be the first time that the IPCC has turned its attention to cities. The panel comes out with periodic assessment reports every five years, and the last one, finalized in 2014, included not only a first-ever chapter on urban adaptation to climate change but also one on urban spatial planning in mitigating climate change.

If approved, a special report would now build upon those landmark chapters, but it would also be an opportunity to go much more in depth. The proposal for an IPCC special report on cities was formally made by South Africa, which noted that the 2014 chapters “only scratch the surface in assessing the scientific understanding of climate change mitigation and adaptation in urban areas.”

The South African government also notes that the 2014 assessment looked at the issue of cities and climate change from a sectoral perspective. Yet “cities offer opportunities for solutions at greater scale than the sum of individual sectors,” it said.

South Africa’s proposal dubs sustainable urbanization “one of the most important scientific and policy challenges of our time”. In this, it situates a potential IPCC special report at the heart of an emerging global focus on cities offered by the new Sustainable Development Goals, which includes a goal specifically on urban areas; the Paris Agreement on climate change; and this year’s Habitat III conference, where U.N member states will set urbanization strategy for the coming 20 years.

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

Given the Paris Agreement’s important but minimal references to cities, many are now looking forward to Habitat III as an opportunity to further sharpen the global understanding of the role cities can play in cutting emissions — and to put in place a framework on how to move financial responsibilities for both climate change mitigation and adaptation to city authorities.

“An IPCC Report on Cities and Climate Change would highlight the impact climate change is already having on cities, and help local governments to implement the environmental dimensions of the [SDGs] and Habitat III Agendas,” Josep Roig, secretary general of the global network United Cities and Local Governments, said in a statement.

Indeed, while the prospect of a special report could boost the cities discussion at the international level this year, its impact would not be felt for years, as the new Habitat III and SDGs frameworks are well into their implementation phases. An IPCC spokesperson said that special reports generally take about two years to complete.

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