Three questions for cities as the Paris Agreement on climate change turns one
One year ago this week, diplomats in Paris negotiated the planet’s first successful agreement to combat global climate change. The resulting accord set a path for the world community to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions with the goal of slowing the rise in mean global temperature to 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, and to aspire for a rise as low as 1.5ºC. Scientists agree that meeting these targets would avert the most catastrophic effects of global warming.
The year since has been eventful to say the least.
On one hand, the Paris Agreement made history with one of the fastest ratification processes in recent diplomatic history. Enough countries had ratified the agreement for it to enter into force in early November. This required at least 55 countries, representing at least 55 percent of global emissions to sign on, including at least one of the “big four” emitters — China, the European Union, Russia and the U. S. Of those four, only Russia has yet to ratify.
On the other hand, the election of Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States appears likely to slow the momentum. Trump has called climate change a hoax and campaigned on a pledge to undo the Paris Agreement. This week’s news that Trump wants ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state has only added to the uncertainty. While environmentalists are alarmed at the idea of an oil executive serving as America’s top diplomat, Tillerson’s company has called the Paris Agreement “an important step forward by world governments in addressing the serious risks of climate change.”
Whatever comes next, cities have a crucial role to play. They are simultaneously the source of 70 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, and also where the most innovative low-carbon solutions are being implemented. However, the Paris Agreement is an accord among nations, not cities, and the formal role of local governments remains ambiguous.
Below are three key questions facing cities on the road ahead.
Question 1: How will cities pay for low-carbon projects?
Climate finance is a big issue for cities. In a new report, Deadline 2020, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Arup argue that megacities must make key investments in low-carbon infrastructure over the next four years in order to play their part in helping the world meet the Paris Agreement targets. To do so, cities will have to invest some US$375 billion by the 2020 deadline.
Not all of this figure represents new funding — much of it consists of money already allocated by national governments, development banks and lenders for ongoing projects, whether it’s building out a new light-rail system in Addis Ababa or retrofitting parks for flood control in Copenhagen. This massive investment is part of an estimated US$1 trillion that cities will need to spend on climate-friendly projects by 2050. But in order to “bend the curve” to reduce emissions in the near future, a larger chunk of that investment has to come early.
The large numbers prompted a simple response from Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, C40’s new chair. “We need money,” she said at C40’s recent climate summit for mayors in Mexico City. “We need help.” Her predecessor at C40, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, concurred, calling the issue of how to “get money into the hands of mayors so that we can get things done” the biggest challenge for cities going forward.
One possible source of funding is the Paris Agreement itself. The agreement calls on the developed world to set aside US$100 billion for the developing world via a Green Climate Fund. However, that money has yet to be allocated, and key contributions expected from the U. S. may not materialize under Trump. What’s more, cities complain that they won’t be able to access these funds.
“Cities need direct access to this money via public budgets,” Hidalgo said. “Today that possibility doesn’t exist.” She cited the European Union as an example of a donor whose funding is set up to pass through national governments with no guarantee that it will trickle down to local authorities.
Hidalgo said that cities have to be treated as “adult actors” capable of receiving financing just like national governments. Paes, in turn, called on infrastructure projects compatible with the Paris Agreement to receive “fast track” status from multilateral institutions like the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.
For Mark Watts, C40’s executive director, the solution may mean creating a new institution. “If the multilateral agencies are not able to direct funds to cities, then we need a new development bank that will,” he said.
Question 2: Do cities really have a seat at the table?
City leaders carried a big presence at last year’s climate talks in Paris. Everywhere one turned, it seemed, a mayor was at the microphone in official sessions, roundtables and forums, boasting that cities can act more quickly than their national counterparts. Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and U. N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, thinks cities were among the most critical actors in Paris.
“The Paris summit succeeded because cities and businesses were at the table and had a voice,” Bloomberg recalled a couple of weeks ago. “Cities helped make the Paris Agreement possible because cities are where the solutions are.”
Despite what Bloomberg said, cities did not have a formal seat at the negotiating table — that was reserved for national-level diplomats. While they were recognized multiple times in the text of the Paris Agreement, local governments were lumped together with businesses, philanthropies, NGOs and other “non-state actors.” They were not given special treatment, even if mayors suggested cities are the lynchpin to the agreement’s success.
That disjuncture remains an issue. A key part of the Paris Agreement’s enforcement mechanism is what are called “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs. These refer to commitments individual countries have made to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. National governments prepared these commitments heading into Paris. But now, with adoption of the agreement, they must draft even more rigorous climate mitigation plans by 2020 — a process known as “ratcheting up”. At present, cities generally have no institutionalized role in the efforts of individual countries to meet these targets.
Evidence of this emerged after the first official follow-up meeting to the Paris Agreement happened last month in Marrakech, Morocco. The main announcement there was the launch of something called the NDC Partnership. This is a coalition of roughly 40 developing and developed countries working with international institutions to ensure that countries receive the technical and financial support they need to achieve the Paris Agreement targets. The partnership is also focused on making progress on another mainstay of U. N. policy, the Sustainable Development Goals.
The NDC Partnership maintains a database of funding and technical support options that governments can access as they work to meet their climate commitments. Of the roughly 450 initiatives in the database, only 36 of them are earmarked for urban adaptation. (These include initiatives from the likes of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, USAID and the Asian Development Bank.) It’s a start that suggests cities are viewed as a component to delivering on the Paris Agreement, but hardly the central one that Bloomberg speaks of.
Question 3: And what about Trump?
Since his election, Trump has walked back some of his most extreme statements about climate change, saying that he has “an open mind” on the Paris Agreement.
However, he also appointed a known climate-change denier to head the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U. S. agency responsible for maintaining an inventory of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions and regulating carbon emitters from vehicles to power plants. The choice of Tillerson for secretary of state has compounded fears among environmentalists.
“ExxonMobil has long opposed action to slow climate change,” said World Resources Institute CEO Andrew Steer in a statement. “One of the critical tests at his confirmation hearings must be his demonstration of a true commitment to America’s leadership on climate action, including fully supporting the Paris Agreement and honoring the country’s international climate commitments. Anything short of that would be unacceptable to the majority of Americans.”
Trump’s election would seem only to elevate the importance of cities in the fight against climate change. Many U. S. mayors have already pledged to continue their efforts to promote energy efficiency, renewables and clean transport. They’ve also received comforting advice from mayors in Australia and Canada, two countries that until recently had leaders that did not support collective action against climate change.
However, in the U. S. case, cities alone could only deliver one-third of the country’s emission reductions necessary to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement. If Trump were to renege on his predecessor’s commitments, the U. S. would likely to fail to live up to the accord, even if it can’t formally withdraw for four years.
U. S. retrenchment at the national level could have a number of other repercussions. If the U. S. were to fail to contribute to the Green Climate Fund, it could slow efforts to capitalize that pot of money. Other countries on the fence about whether to ratify the Paris Agreement could back off, complicating efforts among their own cities to decarbonize.
And China could prove to become the world’s new climate champion. Already, the Chinese have, in a way, gone around the U. S. government by forging an alliance with the state of California. The agreement, brokered by the World Bank just days after Trump’s election, would have California serve as a technical adviser to about 100 Chinese cities with ambitious climate targets. These kinds of partnerships may represent a new kind of model for U. S. engagement in the Trump era.