COP25 – A Chance To Discover Cities’ Potential

The climate summit in Madrid represents a unique opportunity for urban communities to take inspiration from each other, to build cities that are better prepared to tackle climate change, and to obtain investments. National delegates will need to increasingly confide in local authorities and provide them with more resources if they want to develop prompt and effective responses to the climate crisis.

The climate summit in Madrid represents a unique opportunity for urban communities to take inspiration from each other, to build cities that are better prepared to tackle climate change, and to obtain investments. National delegates will need to increasingly confide in local authorities and provide them with more resources if they want to develop prompt and effective responses to the climate crisis.

Negotiations Will Be Putting the Spotlight On Cities

Cities collaborate and share information with each other in a way that national governments do not. However, in many cases cities do not control their destiny: they do not have the budget requirements to turn policies into projects or the ability to borrow money on their own. They are understaffed and they do not generate their own electricity so they can’t decarbonise their energy demands that easily. If left on their own, they can only go so far.

“I think the most important point is how inclusive the process is for non-state actors and any other community outside the national governments. But there is an increasingly strong and fundamental understanding that – in order to accomplish the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement – multiple communities and actors need to work in coordination,” says Seth Schultz, the founder and CEO of Urban Breakthroughs and a lead author of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 °C Global Warming.

The report also pointed to urban development as one of the main drivers of transformation, underlining the engagement of local and regional governments, as well as non-state public and private actors at the sub-national level. “It’s no longer the sole responsibility of national governments to achieve that. They must set the table, provide goals as well as in some cases also provide the resources in terms of finance and policies. But increasingly the private sector, companies, cities and regions are required to help implement those ambitions.”

Yunus Arikan, the director of Global Advocacy at the ICLEI, a global network of over 1,750 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development, agrees: “All the signals from Madrid will be key for the success of the next COP in Glasgow, where the next ten years of climate action will be outlined through the next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The message from Madrid should be that all the parties are invited to implement their NDCs at home by engaging with local and regional governments, in particular the 1,000+ that have already declared a climate emergency and are working towards climate neutrality.”

Science At The Centre Of Discussion

Climate change is already happening and cities have already been feeling the impact. Therefore, flexible and resilient infrastructure is needed just as much as mitigation.

According to Schultz, a lot of science and human activity data is available, but often not on the resolution that cities need. “For example, we have some very sophisticated global climate models now, but those are regional models that cannot be downscaled into information that is useful for cities,” he says. “As a consequence, cities can’t turn that information into projects and initiatives because it’s too broad.”

That’s why he co-chaired the CitiesIPCC Cities and Climate Change Science Conference in 2018. The event gathered together the academic world, city practitioners, and city networks in order to create a brand-new global action agenda with the aim of assessing the scientific gaps that could help cities solve similar problems.

“Even though national governments specifically want to know from the scientific community what to do and how, the IPCC is not allowed to be prescriptive,” Schultz says. “So this is where cities come in: they are at the tip of the spiral, the ones on the ground, the closest form of government to citizens. They are on the frontline of dealing with the impacts of climate change, the first ones that have to and can do something. I think that what is going to be fascinating at this COP is to see what formal deliberations and discussions do or do not start mentioning cities as key non-state players.”

And COP25 may also be the chance to see an increasing use of science by authorities. As science is indicating a new complex, holistic and multidisciplinary way to look at cities, cities are now being viewed as one of the few vehicles within which a transformation can occur in the timeframe required.

More Funds Are Necessary

Currently, all the mega trends (faster rate of urbanisation, climate change and the fourth industrial revolution) are happening in cities at the same time. New market mechanisms can be helpful and must be part of the solution.

“In some cases, cities have outlined a plan, but it also depends on what part of the world they are in and what size they are,” Schultz says. “Where they have some control, we have seen them taking a proactive approach. However, the issue still isn’t really being addressed in the Global South. Cities need much more help than they are currently being given.”

When it comes to market and non-market mechanisms, Arikan explains, local governments have been advocating for greater investment from climate funds in sustainable urban development in order to reduce emissions from transport, waste, energy management, and buildings. “Pioneering cities and regions like Tokyo and Quebec are already taking a leading role and implementing innovative models of emissions trading,” he says.

Moreover, new cities will be built in the next 30 years, so the urban population and its needs will double. Developing countries could use sustainable urban development as a non-market mechanism to offer social and economic benefits.

“Public investment is shrinking and we can’t solve the problems linked to climate change with only a philanthropic budget or market mechanisms,” Arikan adds. “If they are well designed, cities can drive the transformation to a low carbon and climate resilient future through climate-friendly land-use policies and new taxation systems. The important thing is that national governments actively take cities on board.”

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