A key moment for world cities — but are nation states listening?

At last year's global climate talks in Lima, mayors and local governments felt distinctly excluded. They're hoping for a better outcome this year in Paris. (UNFCCC)

As the world looks toward a crucial round of climate negotiations this December in Paris, nation states are still debating what climate commitments they’re willing to make — starting in 2020.

By contrast, consider what the city of Strasbourg has been doing as long ago as 1989. Back then, this French city relied heavily on cars: 76 percent of private trips were by private autos. Since then, Strasbourg has taken steps such as barring cars from its center, installing special bike lanes and building an ambitious streetcar system. Today, auto trips are down to 35 percent. And the city is undertaking a major regional transit effort with its German sister city of Kehl across the Rhine River.

The picture’s surely not uniform. But across the world, many mayors and local governments are proving themselves key agents in the global fight against climate change. And some are showing exciting results. According to a new analysis by Robert Kehew and Faderr Johm of UN-Habitat, 19 cities — including Berlin, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Mexico City, New York and Toronto — can prove they’re beyond just setting goals. They’ve already reduced their annual CO2 emissions from earlier levels. (See the full analysis here.)

But are nation states listening? Are they taking account of cities’ central concerns when they debate climate? National governments control the seats at the negotiating table, but they have proven reluctant to give mayors a chair. For example, no mention of cities is made in the current texts that form the basis for the Paris climate negotiations. Cities will clamor to be present and pressing to be heard as key players of climate-change action in Paris, but there remains a clear chance they’ll mostly be on the periphery of the discussion.

This uncertainty about the role of local and subnational governments is a common theme before the United Nations these days. In the debate over a list of Sustainable Development Goals to guide global development work for the next 15 years, it took a concerted campaign by urban players to include a specific goal related to urban development. Even then, city advocates feared they’d been shut out when a recent U. N. report on the new goals omitted the “urban SDG” altogether. (Later, after protests, language covering cities was inserted.)

The role of cities also came up last month in Nairobi at a delegates’ session aimed at setting up the rules for next year’s Habitat III conference. That conference, slated for October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, is the U. N.’s once-every-20-years platform for nation-states to formulate a global framework for urban policy. Staggeringly — for an event focused on the future of cities — negotiators in Nairobi failed to reach agreement on allowing a formal voice for local authorities and stakeholders in these negotiations.

Yunus Arikan, head of global advocacy for the environmental group ICLEI and a veteran of international negotiations, notes that at the most recent climate talks, in Lima last December, local governments and civil society organizations felt distinctly excluded. Partnership is critical he says, worrying: “The more the world is urbanized, the more difficult it becomes for nations to accept this.”

Some nation-state leaders do recognize and proclaim the importance of cities to the battle for a safer environment and world. U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry, expressing concern about unambitious national climate goals for the Paris negotiations, recently told the Washington Post that it’s time to bring on the weight of global civil society — starting with the world’s cities and including “mayors, local communities, and universities and schools from across the world.”

France takes a lead role

As if fulfilling Kerry’s wish, the government of France, host to the upcoming climate negotiations known as COP 21 and holder of the conference presidency, has been welcoming a major city, business and grassroots voice to expand prospects for a significant treaty emerging from the talks. It has already announced a “cities and local government day” to promote local activism during the December talks. France is also requiring the nation-state delegations to make very specific emissions-reduction pledges — a new development in international climate negotiations. And it wants the pledges to be submitted as soon as possible and before the conference begins.

France is also promoting the issue globally. In early March, the French Embassy in Washington, D. C. sponsored a two-day climate conference focused, in the words of French Ambassador to the U. S. Gérard Araud, on the idea that “cities and local governments are among the most powerful and effective players in fighting climate change.”

Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries was on hand. So were officials from a number of French and U. S. cities and metropolitan regions, ranging from Bordeaux to Norfolk, Caen to San Francisco. They touted a wide array of climate-saving steps they are already taking, such as putting hybrid-electric buses on the roads, promoting bike and car sharing, pushing energy-saving building techniques and closing down coal-burning power plants.

But while outreach for the French Embassy event started with cities, it was significantly broader. It also attracted major corporations expressing a strong interest in climate issues. Among them were Air Liquide, Transdev, Veolia and the EDF Group. Sponsoring funders for the conference included Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Nature Conservancy and the Kresge Foundation. (Disclosure: The Kresge Foundation is a funder of Citiscope.)

Following up, the French government is also endorsing a World Summit on Climate and Territories July 1-2 in Lyon, organized by the Rhône-Alpes Region. The goal is to highlight models of climate advances already being made by local governments and non-state actors as a way to encourage a meaningful outcome in Paris — namely a legally binding climate regime that can limit overall global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

Compact of mayors

Another signal of support of the role of cities in global talks came alive in January 2014. That’s when U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as his Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change. In New York, Bloomberg had shown a way to reduce urban CO2 levels through his pathbreaking “PlaNYC” plan for a greener and less polluted city.

Then last September, Ban and Bloomberg jointly announced a landmark “Compact of Mayors” targeted at achieving significant progress on climate change. UN-Habitat Director Joan Clos was among officials pressing for the agreement.

The goal of the compact is to enable cities to publicly commit themselves to deep reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, make their targets and plans transparently known, and report on their progress annually using a newly standardized measurement system compatible with international practices.

Strasbourg, France reduced its the percentage of its trips by private auto from 76 percent in 1989 to 35 percent today. (Alexandre Prévot/flickr/cc)

Response to the compact was impressive. According to Robert Orr, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and special adviser to Ban on climate change, the city-focused summit marked the largest meeting of world leaders on climate change in history: “Private finance came off the sidelines and onto the floor for the game,” he says. “Over $200 billion of financial assets from the private sector were committed to move to greener investment outcomes in the next 15 months.”

The compact website features a countdown of the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the opening of the Paris climate summit. The challenge will be to increase the number of cities committed to the compact to make a forceful statement by the time of the Paris talks. Currently, 59 cities are signed on.

Looking to Paris: different lenses

The Paris negotiations will mark a watershed moment for the organizations laboring in the vineyard of climate change and promoting cities’ efforts over recent years. Prominent among them are ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, the C40 Climate Leadership Group, and United Cities and Local Governments.

ICLEI, founded in 1990, has the longest track record in the field and claims membership of over 1,000 cities, towns and metropolises worldwide. C40, by contrast, has just several dozen cities but all are among the world’s largest, including such metropolitan centers as Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Jakarta. Despite their divergent membership bases, the organizations form the predictable base of organized city effort to press for significant action in Paris.

Pointing to the widely acknowledged failure of previous climate talks, notably those in 2009 in Copenhagen, C40 Executive Director Mark Watts sees real hope in the Paris conference. He expects mayors to have their strongest presence ever for a U. N. climate conference.

“We were really shouting into the wind 10 years ago, that mayors had any serious role to play in tackling climate change,” Watts says. “It just wasn’t taken seriously by national governments.” Watts adds that “definitely isn’t the case today,” praising the French government in particular for bringing together cities and businesses in planning for the conference.

A major city role is central, Watts argues: “Just 500 cities in the world, including all of our C40 members, will be responsible for 60 percent of GDP growth and 50 percent of carbon-emission growth on a business-as-usual trajectory.” All that, he asserts, “tells you it would be crazy if the role of cities were not central to the climate negotiations.”

Other major organizations are lined up to push for a strong outcome to the Paris negotiations. One is R20 — best known through founder Arnold Schwarzenegger — a coalition led by regional governments that focuses on the economic and environmental payoffs of reduced energy use and curbed greenhouse gas emissions. Another is the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, consisting of 17 cities, several of the world’s largest included, with a goal of decreasing carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050.

But will such efforts be enough to spark a strong nation-city dialogue and relationship dealing with the momentous issue of the world’s climate? There’s no guarantee. There may be unstated reasons for nation-state resistance to the involvement of city and regional governments. Some national delegations simply fail to see local and regional governments as partners. Local politics plays a role — national leaders may be reluctant to give voice to political rivals at the local level or from disputed territories. Or delegates may simply be unaware of precedents such as the broad role accorded local governments at the Habitat II conference in 1996.

Yunus Arikan of ICLEI says there’s another precedent that could serve as a model in Paris. It’s the global Convention on Biological Diversity.

In 2008, signatories to the convention adopted specific language saying that local and subnational governments are important to reaching global biodiversity goals. Two years later, nations adopted an action plan that includes roles for local and sub-national governments in many of the specific targets. “We are suggesting a similar logic to climate change,” Arikan says. “Let’s do it together.”

Some nations are especially open to a city role on climate, Arikan says — among them France, the Netherlands, Mexico, Peru, the United States and the European Union. What’s needed, he argues, is a sense of mutual dependency and partnership — each side seeking to help the other to reduce climate risk.

“Having local governments contribute to the national efforts is not an option but a necessity to solve the global problems of the next couple decades,” Arikan continues. But equally, he insists, “We need the buy-in from national governments, and they should get us on board.”

Update: In late May, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) unveiled an expanded online portal to receive and track emissions-reduction pledges from non-state actors cities, regions, companies and investors. The initiative is intended to help build momentum in the run-up to the COP 21 negotiations.


19 cities report documented reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions 

The World’s Cities: the “sweet spot” of climate change 

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

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