Climate Dance in San Francisco

This month, representatives of subnational governments are getting together at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. They are hoping to push national governments to adopt more ambitious climate targets.

The basic rule of partner dancing is that one person leads and the other follows. When it comes to global climate change, local governments are hoping to lead their national counterparts with a dance that kicks off this week in San Francisco.

The Global Climate Action Summit convenes September 12-14 in California’s city by the bay at the behest of the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, who has positioned himself as an international champion for so-called “subnational” governments – states, provinces, regions, and cities. While national governments are the formal parties to the Paris Agreement on climate change, these subnationals, also called non-state actors, believe they have the potential to push national governments to adopt more ambitious climate targets.

That higher ambition is the goal during the three-day summit, which takes place halfway between the momentous COP21 conference in December 2015 and the looming target of 2020, the bookend of the first five-year tranche during which climate experts believe emissions must be curbed in order to have a chance at halting the worst impacts of global climate change.

“The Summit is timed to provide the confidence to governments to ‘step up’ and trigger this next level of ambition sooner rather than later,” explains the event’s communications director, Nick Nuttall, former spokesperson for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Sooner, meaning at the COP24 climate talks in Poland, which UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa has called “Paris 2.0” in terms of its possible impact on country pledges, known as “nationally determined contributions.”

To push this ambition, the array of non-state actors will try out several new dance steps in the form of “challenges,” whereby an industry leader issues a call to arms to her peers and encourages them to make a pledge. Several challenges center squarely on cities:

  • A “zero emissions vehicles challenge” to accelerate the shift toward electric cars, buses, and trucks
  • A “net zero carbon building challenge” to encourage cities to meet that standard in all publicly-owned, managed, and leased buildings
  • A “fossil fuel free streets declaration” to procure only zero-emissions buses from 2025 onward and dedicate a zero emission district by 2030
  • A commitment to meet “Deadline 2020” and begin implementing a climate action plan by the end of that year
  • A “towards zero waste challenge” committing to the reduction of waste generated per capita by 15% and landfill disposal by 50%, as well as diversion away from landfills by 70%, all by 2030

Thus far, more than 20 cities and regions have signed on to the zero waste and net zero carbon buildings pledges.

For the world’s leading climate-friendly cities, none of these challenges are especially groundbreaking. But a joint show of force may help inspire those cities who have yet to take the plunge, as well as cause national governments to realize the collective action taken by local leaders.

“They will be sharing what they have achieved to date and committing to doing more to usher in the era of decarbonization, greater levels of sustainability and prosperity for the many rather than the few,” Nuttall said.

Indeed, new research from C40 and the New Climate Institute on the eve of the summit makes a powerful case for the positive impact of adopting urban climate policy. Findings from “Climate Opportunity” indicate that widespread implementation of city-level climate action could generate 14 million jobs and prevent 1.3 million premature deaths.

The jobs would mostly be created in the U.S., EU, and China through new work in energy retrofitting buildings and installing district-scale renewable energy to heat and cool them. The premature deaths prevented would mostly be in China and South Asia, where improving transit networks would reduce road accidents and renewable energy would improve air quality.

For example, the central business district in Mauritius’ capital Port Louis will soon be cooled by seawater from the Indian Ocean. The shift away from air conditioning is Africa’s first district cooling system and will create 40 green jobs in the process. Elsewhere, Rio de Janeiro’s build-out of 120 kilometers of bus rapid transit is expected to reduce the city’s emissions by 107 kilotons of carbon dioxide annually for the next 20 years and also correlates with a 20 percent decrease in road fatalities.

“‘Climate Opportunity’ shows what the mayors of the world’s great cities have known for a long time: climate, public health, and a strong economy are deeply connected,” said C40 Executive Director Mark Watts. “By demonstrating that these measures will also create green jobs, save lives and cut consumer energy bills, we are making it even easier for mayors, policymakers, and citizens to embrace the pace and scale of action needed.”

Ahead of the summit, Nuttall is confident that this year will mark a turning point. “2018 therefore must be the beginning of a new phase of action and ambition on climate change,” he said. “The confidence, enthusiasm and support generated by this wave of action now and through 2019, will embolden national governments leaders to trigger the necessary domestic processes ahead of 2020 while also triggering more states and regions, cities, businesses and investors to ‘step up’ further action themselves.”

Local governments will take the first step up, now those on the sidelines of the dancefloor must watch to see if national governments follow their lead.

Gregory Scruggs

Gregory Scruggs

Gregory Scruggs writes about cities and culture. He was formerly a senior correspondent with Citiscope, where he covered the global debate leading up to the United Nations Habitat III Summit, for which a won a United Nations Correspondents Association Award in 2017. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
Gregory Scruggs

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