Cities are key for successful global climate policy

By Dirk Messner and Benno Pilardeaux

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP23) starts next week. It is often stated that cities are key for implementing 2030 Agenda and the New Urban Agenda. But what exactly is needed for cities to fulfil this important role? Dirk Messner and Benno Pilardeaux call for better coordination, increased recognition on the global level, and more financial support.

In the months following the adoption of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) in 2016 at Habitat III, it seemed that this voluntary agreement could become one of those neglected, powerless and soon forgotten UN conference outcomes. Countries seemed not motivated enough to move forward with the NUA. Instead, they focused primarily on the flagship agreements of the U.N.’s sustainability agenda adopted in 2015: the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement.

However, the first U.N. General Assembly summit dedicated to the New Urban Agenda in September 2017 showed a changing attitude of member states. Most statements made clear that urban areas play a decisive role in the ‘century of the cities’ as key drivers of the transformation towards sustainability, and that the New Urban Agenda is essential to delivering on the UN’s plan to enhance human development and to tackle climate change.

Every city must be decarbonised
In order to achieve the target agreed at the UN climate conference in Paris in 2015, namely holding the increase of global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels–fossil CO2 emissions should be completely stopped by 2070. As the report of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) “Humanity on the move – Unlocking the transformative power of cities” from 2016 points out, the energy system in every city must consequently be decarbonised by that date.

For this to happen, the dominance of fossil fuel based energy use must soon be overcome. Furthermore, both the mobility sector and systems for heating and cooling buildings will also have to get by without fossil CO2 emissions in the future.

Doubling of global urban infrastructure in three decades
Sustainable urbanisation is also closely linked to infrastructure. In the past, infrastructure development has failed to keep pace with the breakneck urbanisation process. More than 850 million city residents live in inadequate housing. In cities around the world, approximately 750 million people have no access to adequate sanitation, and 150 million have no access to clean drinking water. In low-income countries, about a third of city residents have no access to electricity and around three quarters lack access to modern energy sources for cooking.

Providing these people with access to adequate basic infrastructure will, in itself, be a major challenge. In addition, new homes and urban infrastructure will have to be built at great speed for approximately 2.5 billion new city dwellers by the middle of the century. By 2050, the urban population alone will be larger than the current total world population. This will lead to considerable challenges for the construction sector, since roughly the same amount of infrastructure will be added in the next three decades alone as has been built worldwide since the beginning of industrialisation.

In addition, most of the existing infrastructure will have to be renewed in the same period. About 85 per cent of the demand for new housing is expected in emerging economies, of which China accounts for about 50 per cent. The biggest challenge will be to make the right decisions now to ensure that this massive surge of urbanisation follows the principles of sustainability. The construction of urban infrastructure will have a huge impact on resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and the pressure on ecosystems, and will exert a massive influence on people’s quality of life in the future.

Strong UN-Habitat, supportive governments and empowered cities are crucial
It is however quite obvious that neither a hopefully strengthened UN-Habitat with a strong voice for urbanisation issues nor UN member states will be able to achieve the SDGs and save the climate alone.

Cities themselves are acknowledged to have great potential when it comes to solving both local and global environmental problems. To unlock this potential, cities need support and enabling framework conditions. The WBGU is convinced that it is the task of the nation states to offer this support, for example by removing legal barriers or making financial resources available. In addition to allowing and encouraging the participation of cities, city networks themselves need to be strengthened and integrated into global governance structures (WBGU, 2016). We are therefore calling for the following measures:

The first measure is one that should be carried out by the city networks themselves. Activities should be coordinated better, and greater visibility should be attained by combining existing initiatives. In order to maintain the significant advantages of networks for the cities and, simultaneously, to take up relevant ideas on their role in global governance, a bundling of network activities should be advocated, e. g. through an umbrella association.

The association could function as a voice for existing sustainability networks run by cities, and take on tasks such as harmonising internal interests and activities, and conducting external public relations and lobbying for the networks. A positive example from the field of climate change mitigation is the Compact of Mayors, a climate initiative in which three city networks – ICLEI, United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) and C40 – have joined forces.

Secondly, city networks should be given more recognition as actors in the current sphere of international politics. The pioneering role of city networks should be rewarded, for example, by a political voice in the context of UN processes. The negotiations under the auspices of the Framework Convention on Climate Change are an area that illustrates the inclusion of city networks and their initiatives. WBGU has proposed recognising city networks and equipping them, like NGOs, with rights, but not with obligations. Their interests should be taken into account, and they should be granted participation and monitoring rights.

Thirdly, it is conceivable that cities also receive financial support as a further incentive to strengthen their voice in international policy making. International funds and financing mechanisms could provide collective urban pioneers (and other associations of actors) with additional resources, so that they can play an active role in global governance.

Dirk Messner

Dirk Messner

Co-Chair at WBGU
Dirk Messner is Co-Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) and director of the German Development Institute (DIE). He is one of the lead authors of the report Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities.
Dirk Messner

Latest posts by Dirk Messner (see all)

    Benno Pilardeaux

    Benno Pilardeaux

    Head of media and public relations at WBGU
    Benno Pilardeaux is head of media and public relations of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). He is one of the co-authors of the report "Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities".
    Benno Pilardeaux

    Latest posts by Benno Pilardeaux (see all)

      By | 2017-11-01T16:24:45+00:00 November 1st 2017|Categories: GLOBAL URBAN DEBATES|Tags: , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Cities are key for successful global climate policy