City governments are close to the people: they know about their residents’ daily battles, needs, and desires. According to the World Economic Forum, 56.2 percent of the global population now lives in cities; this number is expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050. With 70 percent of global CO2 emissions generated in urban areas, cities are where the battle against climate change will be defined. Cities are hubs of climate action, with effective policies and innovative initiatives—something that the 38,457 delegates (the largest turnout the summit has ever had) who attended COP26 in Glasgow this past November witnessed.
This is the third COP I attended, and I was surprised and pleased to see many more mayors and city officials presenting their ideas, strategies, and effective actions than in the past. Their growing role within UN convenings has been evolving over the past two decades. Under increasing media-attracting pressure brought by mayors and important civil society stakeholders, national governments are slowly but reluctantly allowing small changes in how they conduct business. For example, as the meetings began, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Fortune covered the comings and goings of mayors. On November 1, Fortune declared “Cities Not Countries are Driving the Conversation at COP26,” as it announced the mayors’ train leaving from London to go to Glasgow.
On November 2, the AP released a piece taken up around the world entitled “’Major Cities Really Matter’: Mayors Demand Climate Action,” accompanied by a huge photograph captioned: “Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, center, is flanked by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, right, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan as they prepare to board a train in London to attend the COP26 U.S. Climate Summit in Glasgow. They are part of a delegation of mayors that also includes the leaders of Athens, Stockholm, North Dhaka, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Freetown, Oslo, Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona.”
Two days later, November 4, Reuters reported “As Nations Talk Climate, Cities Say: We Deliver,” featuring several mayors discussing their climate action programs. The article noted that mayors realize, as expressed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, they are “under no illusion that action at local government level could ever be a substitute for the global emission-cutting pacts needed to avert a climate catastrophe,” but that they can “leverage their often chunky resources and mandates—from levying local taxes to the policing of building regulations and waste management—to help make sure that those pacts actually lead to results.”
My experience over several COPs makes me hopeful that international leaders are increasingly recognizing the powerful partners they have in cities. While city mayors do not have a formal role in the UN negotiations, they are clearly “walking the talk” on climate action. COP26 attendees might have expected mayors to showcase their work only during “Cities Day,” but I was thrilled to see more than a dozen mayors participating in the “World’s Leaders Summit,” which in previous COPs was an exclusive club, reserved only for heads of state. This reflects growing trends: cities are playing an increasingly important role in the climate change arena, and the world is acknowledging the fact that, without cities’ planning, innovating, and investing the necessary resources to tackle climate change, countries will not be able to meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and achieve the Paris Agreement targets.
Meanwhile, at the meeting, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, insisted that the world must enter “into emergency mode, ending fossil fuel subsidies, phasing out coal, putting a price on carbon, protecting vulnerable communities, and delivering the $100 billion climate finance commitment.” Although these goals were not achieved at the conference, the effort is not over; cities are continually innovating, strengthening their capacities, and securing the funding to invest in climate-resilient projects that will reduce the perverse effects of climate change.
Regardless of the negotiation outcomes among countries and the final, signed agreement, several interesting discussions and partnerships took place. For example, as one contribution to the NDCs, the mayors’ delegation mentioned above launched “Cities Race to Zero,” with 1,049 cities in the inaugural group. The UN High-Level Climate Champions, Gonzalo Muñoz from Chile and Nigel Topping from the UK, who are connecting the work of governments with the many voluntary and collaborative actions taken by cities, regions, civil society, businesses, and investors, and helping to close the gap between non-state actors and government agendas, added the cities stream of the larger UN-sponsored “Race to Zero” and “Race to Resilience” initiatives. In “Cities Race to Zero,” the initial group of cities committed to specific targets and timelines. They represent some 722 million people with the collective potential to reduce global emissions by some 1.4 gigatons annually by 2030. Several city networks and NGO groups (C40, the Carbon Disclosure Project, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and World Resources Institute (WRI)) among others, are backing this global campaign.
At COP26 extreme heat in cities emerged as having much greater importance than realized formerly due to recent research released by Lancet, university scholars, and the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht- Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), that demonstrates how climate-induced heat events are growing and, in some places, kill more people (particularly the most vulnerable) than all other climate-related hazards combined. In addition, using the U.S. as an example, a recently report released by Arsht-Rock estimates that the economic impact attributed to heat incidences reveals current losses of $100 billion annually, with the potential to be five times greater by 2050.
Informed by these reports, mayors of Miami-Dade County, Freetown, Athens, and Seville, shared the actions they are taking, such as appointing chief heat officers within their administrations to coordinate and accelerate efforts to address this deadly issue, declaring “heat seasons” with precautionary elements and instituting tree planting and implementing white roof programs. Juan Espadas, Mayor of Seville, announced that his city was working on the world’s first heatwave naming and categorization system, similar to hurricane ratings, to be piloted there for adoption in other places.
Hearing from these mayors was inspiring. I am convinced that cities have the power to contribute to the Paris Agreement goals. While there is much more to be done, especially around cities’ direct access to finance, without a doubt I can say that cities were the ones demonstrating concrete climate action at COP26.
Mauricio Rodas is Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Institute for Urban Research, Perry World House and Kleinman Center for Energy Policy; Senior Fellow at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center; and former Mayor of Quito, Ecuador.
This article was originally published on penniur.upenn.edu on December 15th, 2021.