COP 25 – What Impact on Cities and Regions?

Delegates at COP25 in Madrid reached an agreement, without the robust language and ambitions that were wished to be seen in the approved texts. This leaves subnational and urban leaders responsible for implementing the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), making local climate activities the messengers of hope.

There Is No Climate Justice Without Participation

The importance of a proper plan to address necessary changes is an issue that emerged from this year’s COP. While the current economic model needs to be modified in order to have a sustainable use of the world’s resources, authorities also need to make sure that no one is left behind.

“One of the main issues so far is the question of sustainable alternatives in areas that economically depend on the extraction of fossil fuels. The classic example is the small towns in a coal mining region and what will happen to all the workers when the mines shut down. This question usually gets summarised under the term Just Transition,” says Martin Baumann from Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND). “And while it is an important question, we should not forget that throughout history there were many major disruptions in the way we live and work, and usually we had a safer, cleaner, and healthier environment and workplace afterwards.”

The outcomes of decisions coming from national politics, instead, usually result in more exclusion. “How NDC revision works in most countries is that a few sector ministries with the help of a few technical experts twist some numbers,” Baumann adds. “Doing that, you perhaps get some minor steps towards more ambition. For the transformational change that is needed to respond to the urgency of the climate crisis, you need a whole-of-society approach that works bottom-up and includes all stakeholders.”

Protests Revealed Disconnection within Climate Summits

Yet, this year was marked by the breaking of the barrier between civil society and the official negotiations. After a peaceful protest took place outside the plenary rooms during the second week of COP, security barred civil society members from the premises of the talks and de-badged some observers. According to activists, it is a metaphor of our time that hundreds of NGO and indigenous peoples’ representatives were kept outside during discussion.

“What we see is an increased disconnection between the governments and the wealthiest ones, including the biggest emitters, and what the people are claiming across the streets around the world,” José María (Chema) Vera, interim executive director of Oxfam International, said at one of the last Climate Action Network (CAN) International press conferences. And Vanessa Pérez-Cirera, chief of the WWF delegation, agreed: “We are calling that an ‘action gap’. But let’s not forget we have the Paris Agreement, so it is very important that we all as civil society keep governments accountable to what they agreed on and what they have to deliver in 2020.”

Exchanging Information and Lessons Learned is Key to Becoming Climate Friendly

Some cities are already part of stakeholder networks in sustainability, sharing this new climate-proof urban development approach. That is the case of those involved in the project ‘Cities Fit for Climate Change’ implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, which ended this year.

“We developed a strategy identifying who was previously engaged in the territory, listing actions already ongoing and reaching people in the institutions, looking at a more comprehensive way for approaching climate change. From real experience, we learned how to connect multisectoral actors and make existing initiatives address climate change,” says Andrea Palma, who worked on the strategy and its contents.

“We gained a very strong cooperation and we improved the capacity to be more effective. It built a real community between driver institutions. Also, working with already assigned projects, we overcame the issue of budget.” Eventually they created a tool box, called ‘Climate-Proof Integrated Urban Planning’, that includes a conceptual approach derived from the project results and the lessons learned.

Better Data Collection is Vital

One of the contributions to injustice is, with no doubt, the absence of information on a local level. On the other hand, knowledge can become a powerful tool to address inequalities. That’s why scientists are working to find new data, for instance by installing more instruments for observations.

“I use radar data to study a very important level of the atmosphere called the rain/snow transition elevation, where snow melts and becomes rain. If this level changes suddenly, if it increases for instance, we might expect more rain than snow which leads to different impacts. Right now, a lot of the models that we have are not able to really accurately capture these sudden changes,” says Tashiana C. Osborne, PhD candidate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California San Diego. “As a result of a Center for Western Weather & Water Extremes pilot study, it was shown that there was a 15 to 30 percent increase in water supply per year just by knowing in advance when rain was coming.”

As different areas experience climate change differently, it’s important to collect high-quality data for all regions and cities. Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography argue that data should also be broken down at a socio-economic level, so to provide better help and better interventions to vulnerable communities.

“We need more observations in more places to better understand and implement solutions for climate change threats uniquely affecting communities, including those historically left out of the conversation,” Osborne adds. “To do this, we need nations to proactively invest in data collection programmes and networks that include focus on marginalised and/or vulnerable communities both within and outside their nation. This means including commitments to data collection efforts in NDCs and having developed nations provide support for efforts in developing nations.”

Building on Past Achievements

As Pérez-Cirera reminded her listeners, it is useful to count on what has been done in the past. Indeed, the NDC Partnership was initiated in 2016, right after the Paris Agreement was signed, as time for negotiations was thought mainly over. One of its missions now is to become more effective locally.

“Subnational governments are really important because you can talk about NDCs as much as you want, but implementation only happens on a subnational level as well as in cities,” says Jahan Chowdhury, country engagement director at the NDC Partnership Support Unit. “If they do not have the necessary capacity, financing, policies, frameworks, regulations, then it could be very difficult to make implementation work.”

What can be challenging is finding the right decision makers and movers and shakers to bring them on the table, but also localising NDCs that are designed as national documents. “What needs to be done is creating provincial or city-level NDCs and that’s what we really want to focus going forward,” says Chowdhury. “But that also requires more capacity development, including capacity to absorb additional resources at a local level and we need to make sure that money is spent effectively.”

During the climate summit in Madrid, the NDC Partnership promoted a whole-of-society approach with the aim of involving local actors. According to Chowdhury, “it’s still an area where we need a lot of work, but I think that subnational stakeholders can make much more of an impact in the preparation of next COP”, but “it’s not about gathering here to discuss want we want to do, it’s about focussing on what we have already done and scaling it up.” And he adds: “We can extract lessons from the cities and see to what extent we can apply those lessons at a national level, across the regions, and internationally.”

COP25 has come to an end with inadequate responses from negotiators. It seems then that the role of local communities will become increasingly fundamental, as they keep going along the successful paths they have identified. By next year in Glasgow, cities and regions are likely to be the most promising and ambitious players.

Emanuela Barbiroglio

Emanuela Barbiroglio is a freelance journalist. She holds a bachelor's degree in History and Anthropology and a master's degree in Information and Publishing. Emanuela also spent three years training in Germany, after which she studied Science Journalism at City University London. She then worked as a data journalist for Property Week, the UK’s leading weekly real estate magazine, doing investigations and turning complex datasets into stories. She recently moved to Brussels to write about social issues and science.
Emanuela Barbiroglio