With Paris Agreement signed, can cities become climate solution at Habitat III?

On Friday, a record 175 states signed a new global, 15-year accord to work to limit global warming. But it’s not clear if their action will come quickly enough to stave off climate change’s worst effects.

French President François Hollande signs the Paris Agreement at U.N. Headquarters in New York, 22 April. (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

UNITED NATIONS — When 175 states signed on to the Paris Agreement on climate change here on Friday, it shattered the U. N.’s one-day record for a signing ceremony. For some, the high threshold for implementation of the accord also underscored the prospect of quick results from potential climate actions taken at the city level.

The accord resulted from December’s COP 21 conference and includes a key goal of keeping average global warming below 1.5 degrees C. While agreement on that relatively stronger goal surprised many watching the Paris negotiations, the document will enter into force only once 55 countries, representing at least 55 percent of global carbon emissions, ratify its provisions. To cross this threshold, at least one of the “big four” emitters — China, the European Union, Russia or the United States — must ratify the Paris Agreement.

[See all of Citiscope’s coverage of the COP 21 process from a cities perspective]

That battle will be now waged in national legislatures worldwide. But on Friday, the U. N.’s climate change negotiators took a victory lap as nearly every U. N. member state wielded the pen to sign the Paris Agreement with a flourish. Around 15 countries have formally begun ratification procedures.

Yet the potentially slow pace of ratification — the E. U. process could take up to two years, for example, while unilateral U. S. efforts by President Barack Obama have been stymied by the Supreme Court — has advocates for cities arguing that local governments remain the linchpin to effective climate action. Indeed, even countries that start to ratify the agreement immediately will only need to start to implement its details by 2020.

[See: Cities can lead on climate action ahead of 2020 pledges]

“The Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees is the most important achievement of inter-governmental diplomacy in recent times,” Mark Watts, executive director of the C40 Climate Leadership Group, said in a statement. “But there is now no time to waste in making the aspirations of the Paris Agreement a reality.”

He continued: “As heads of state reaffirm their commitment to the Paris Agreement in New York, it is the mayors of the world’s great cities, led by the 83 members of C40, who are setting the pace and scale of action that is needed to put the world on a climate safe pathway.”

To the local

Some of the key advocacy groups pressuring national governments in the COP process echoed this sentiment. “One of the most exciting things in Paris was the clear demonstration of leadership from individual mayors across the globe,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U. S. advocacy group.

In the French capital in December, over 1,000 mayors and local leaders made the case that cities are on the front lines of climate change — and are best poised to act quickly in order to reverse the worst effects of this global phenomenon.

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

“Cities are on the cutting edge of really pioneering, innovating and making real-world decisions that are required to achieve the climate goals at a local level,” Suh said. “How does this ultimately get translated into the larger actions and larger contributions that we need in total to see the kinds of reductions?”

One answer might come from the Philippines, which is looking to the local level for ways to meet its COP 21 commitments. “We are mainstreaming low-carbon strategies in local development plans,” said Emmanuel de Guzman, from the Office of the Philippines President.

Guzman said his country is now revisiting its initial “intended nationally determined contribution”, the initial pledges that national governments made to the COP 21 process. “We are actually going down to the community and engaging them, knowing what are the existing practices and how they can really contribute to the goal that we have set of reducing emissions by 70 percent,” he said.

Canada recently experienced a political change of hands, with a conservative government hostile to climate change diplomacy making way for the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau. During that period of minimal federal interest in the issue, the prime minister said, “Our provinces and specifically our cities, particularly our largest cities, have stepped up on climate change in terms of investing in greener solutions in energy, in terms of investing in public transit.”

[See: Cities to receive new, ongoing focus in official climate research]

Speaking at a press conference, he told Citiscope that he had recently met with U. N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change Michael Bloomberg.

“We have an extremely important role for cities because, particularly in Canada, where almost 80 percent of Canadians now live in cities as opposed to rural areas, we know that cities are going to be an essential part of the fight against climate change in the future,” he said.

Habitat III opportunity

The high rates of urbanization being experienced in Canada are now a global trend, one that the world will take up later this year at the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III). Trudeau in fact attended the first Habitat conference, in Vancouver, four decades when he was a young boy, the son of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

The nexus between climate change and cities is expected to be at the forefront of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that the U. N. will adopt at Habitat III in October. As the preparations for Habitat III enter their political phase this week ahead of the release of the first draft of the New Urban Agenda, the topic has already begun to assume prominence.

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

“Climate change was not an issue during Habitat II,” noted Lana Winayanti of the Indonesian Ministry of Public Works and Housing during the first day of a weeklong set of consultations currently taking place at U. N. Headquarters. Habitat II took place in 1996 in Istanbul.

Now the issue is seen as an existential risk. As a Chadian delegate pointed out, “Climate change threatens countries of the Sahel and the very existence of small island developing countries.”

With climate change seen as a signature issue for the global community, 2016 may be the year that cities gain credence as a potential solution, for the public and private sectors alike. Speaking at a press conference Friday, Lise Klingo, director of the United Nations Global Compact, a partnership effort among major corporations to implement the U. N.’s development agenda, noted, “This cities theme is one that is going to become more and more important in the future.”

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