COP23 kicks off in Bonn: cities in the limelight
By Lou del Bello
On November 6, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP23) started in Bonn, Germany. Under the presidency of Fiji, for two weeks delegates from around the world are negotiating the implementation of the Paris Agreement with a focus on developing guidelines for transparency, emission reductions, provision of finance, and technology. What role do cities and regions play at COP23, and what is new compared to previous climate conferences? Lou del Bello reports from Bonn.
Cities and regions will take centre stage at this year’s UN climate talks, currently ongoing in Bonn until the end of next week.
Since last year, a combination of scientific discoveries and global political shifts has highlighted the importance of acting local to advance international progress on clean energy, the decarbonisation of our industries and climate adaptation.
Cities are poised to suffer the greatest damages from climate change: over 90 per cent of all urban areas, including mega cities such as New York, Cape Town and Mumbai, are coastal. Here, sea level rise and typhoons already threaten people, buildings and energy infrastructure. According to the C40 network, nearly half of the world’s cities, whether coastal or inland, are already battling with the tangible impacts of an erratic, hotter climate.
Outlining his vision for COP23, the president Frank Bainimarana, Prime Minister of Fiji, highlighted how the same vulnerabilities are found everywhere in the world, from “the Pacific or other Small Island Developing States,” to “threatened cities in the developed world like Miami, New York, Venice or Rotterdam.”
The universal nature of threats such as sea level rise or typhoons makes North-South cooperation more necessary than ever. According to a draft seen by Reuters, cities such as New York and Malmö in Sweden are teaming up with small islands in the Pacific in order to assist tropical cities that are facing similar challenges but have fewer resources at their disposal to prepare and adapt. Details of the plan will be unveiled during the conference.
At a political level, the experience of the United States switching from being a climate champion to withdrawing from the Paris Agreement in less than one year has spurred a wave of action from local actors.
“The issue of the US will be key this year,” says Andrew Cooper, member of the European Committee of the Regions for the United Kingdom. “At the national level, the US president doesn’t want to engage with the Paris climate agreement, but below him states and cities are undermining such an illogical position.” According to Cooper, this illustrates the importance of local climate contributions, which in the US have the key role of making up for the failings of the federal government and elsewhere can complement national actions.
Far from destroying the Paris Agreement, as he pledged to do during his presidential campaign, US president Trump seems to have emboldened new actors to take part in the climate battle in the US and beyond.
Beyond the NDCs
At COP22 in Marrakesh, the European Committee of the Regions introduced the concept of Locally Determined Contributions, which adds to the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) tabled by the UN member countries in Paris. Non-party actors are determined to put it at the top of this year’s agenda.
The idea is to “involve those bodies like councils, municipalities, regional structures around the world. Each will have their own program to fight climate change and direct input on how to do that in practice”, says Cooper.
The local goals, Cooper explains, should not be considered an alternative to the national pledges. They set out additional efforts to complement the NDCs which are currently not ambitious enough to meet the target of limiting global warming to 2C.
“For example,” he says, “in the council I represent, [Kirklees, in the UK] if we decided to build all our new homes to passive house standards, that would save more carbon than under the nationally agreed regulations”. This would be a first step to increase the UK’s ambitions from the ground.
Reducing emissions, promoting development
Not only can cities bridge the emissions gap left open by the NDCs, but they are also the battlefield where the struggle between economic growth and climate action takes place. Although in many countries, particularly in the developing world, this tension often resolves in the choice to burn more fossil fuels in an effort to reduce poverty and provide energy for all, alternative solutions are mushrooming all over the world.
COP23 will explore ideas on how reducing emissions can help deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. Examples will include the experience of water scarcity in Mozambique, which in recent years has suffered from particularly severe drought. The country, which ranks third in Africa for being most exposed to risks from multiple weather-related hazards, has started a series of local projects aimed at building capacity and boost climate resilience in rural and urban centres.
This year’s push to make cities and regions heard may also have the effect of producing a new form of disseminated global leadership, which could have far reaching impacts on the architecture of the climate talks. Observers of the UNFCCC believe that shining a spotlight on cities and regions will challenge the conventional canons of the UN climate proceeding, where only national leaders have a voice.
At COP23, “the relation between national and non-state actors will become more fluid for sure” says Nicola Di Pietrantonio, COP policy officer with the European Union. “Currently, the contribution of subnational institutions is always mediated by the national governments”, he explains. “They have this sort of unifying function that while useful to present a coherent position, it could also be seen as a monolithic stance”, essentially ignoring the diversity of issues and potential within each country.
American cities rising
The European Covenant of Mayors, born in 2008 after the adoption of the 2020 EU Climate and Energy Package, now represents over 7,000 municipalities in 57 countries around the world. Its successes have inspired others, including the We Are Still In coalition in the US, launched in the wake of the 2016 presidential elections that put a climate sceptic at the helm.
In Bonn, the coalition will reiterate the climate commitment of more than 2,500 leaders, representing $6.2 trillion of the US economy. While the central government will send a delegation to promote the potential of ‘clean’ fossil fuels, We Are Still In has set up a pavilion that will showcase the pledges and efforts of American local governments and businesses throughout the two weeks of the conference.
Notably, on the 11th of November, the pavilion will host the launch of the America’s Pledge report, which assesses the role of states, businesses and cities across the US in reducing emissions. “Paris is everyone’s deal”, said Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the UNFCCC who spearheaded the Paris talks in 2015. “It belongs to cities, businesses, nongovernmental organisations, and all of global civil society as much as it belongs to nation states”.
Previously unsung heroes of climate action, cities will be in the limelight at COP23. But while this will be an opportunity to showcase successes and share experiences, the best possible outcome is for mayors and local governors to find a place at the official negotiating table. “Back in May we were happy to see that the UNFCCC Subsidiary Body for Implementation established an internal workshop on how to engage with non-party stakeholders”, says Di Pientrantonio.
Whether this conference will deliver a pivotal shift in the way the UN structures its decision making process, reflecting the importance of local entities, is the question that will keep observers engaged for the coming two weeks.
- COP27: Equipping Today’s Cities for Tomorrow’s Climate Crises - 21. November 2022
- At COP26, Cities were Climate Action Watchdogs - 23. November 2021
- COP24: What Does it Mean for Cities and Regions? - 17. December 2018