Urban climate action is essential for global carbon neutrality. A study by the German Development Institute has assessed the importance of stakeholder involvement, financing, and impact assessment for urban zero-carbon transformation.
The City of Cape Town nearly ran out of water in 2018. Pictures of the lowest ever dam levels and people cueing at public water distribution points alarmed a global audience. Eventually, “Day Zero” – the day when water supply would have been cut off in the neighbourhoods – could narrowly be avoided but the message hit home: the impact of the climate crisis on the everyday lives of urban citizens are drastic, immediate, and accelerating.
While cities will be affected by the climate crisis, they also have strong mitigation potential. But what drives urban zero-carbon transformation? A research team at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) conducted the study “Decarbonising Cities: Assessing Governance Approaches for Transformative Change” to assess the importance of three governance factors: stakeholder involvement, financial resources, and impact assessment.
This seven-month project produced a comprehensive databank of cities that have won prizes and awards for their sustainability transformation achievements, conducted a global web-based survey on the impact of the respective governance factors on decarbonisation in cities (Governance for Urban Decarbonisation Survey, GUDS), and carried out a pilot study (Bonn, Germany) and two in-depth case studies (Quito, Ecuador; Cape Town, South Africa) of urban zero-carbon action with a focus on greenhouse gas mitigation. The results show that cities are increasingly active in urban zero-carbon action, that stakeholder involvement can facilitate the process, that financial resources for urban decarbonisation are often inadequate, and that impact assessment is still in the early stages.
Urban Mitigation Action is Increasing
Most of the cities that participated in the survey have developed or are working on climate action plans and emission reduction targets. They also conduct greenhouse gas inventories to monitor emissions and several have already seen their per capita emissions decrease between 2013 and 2018. Another positive result was that cities actively promote the adoption of their approaches in other cities in their country. Cities also indicated that carbon emission mitigation activities generally enjoyed support from local stakeholders. Some protests even demanded more ambitious goals and accelerated action.
However, these findings have to be interpreted carefully because the response rate was low and there might be a ‘best performer’ response bias. One third of the responses came from cities in the Global South. Despite these limitations and compared to the results of global surveys of cities from several years ago, these trends are promising.
Stakeholder Involvement can Facilitate Urban Mitigation Action
In our survey, we find that the inclusion of broader coalitions of local stakeholders correlates with an acceleration of emission mitigation planning and implementation as well as with higher support for these activities. While correlation does not equal causation, we found some direct links between specific forms of stakeholder involvement and urban mitigation action in our case studies.
In the City of Cape Town, the proactive approach to mitigation planning has been driven by a process of knowledge co-creation and collaboration between researchers and city officials since the very beginning of urban climate action in the early 2000s. With international funding, researchers have worked with city officials in an urban lab-like initiative, the Climate Change Think Tank, for many years. Some of these researchers later even joined the city administration. Strong researcher-city official collaboration continued and led to progressive climate action strategies and plans and the increasing integration of mitigation action throughout Cape Town’s policies. However, other stakeholders such as private businesses or township communities have not yet been systematically included.
Lack of Finances Reflect Insufficient Mainstreaming
Especially in cities in the Global South, funding for urban climate action competes with other funding priorities like infrastructure, jobs, and public services. We found that capital-intensive carbon mitigation projects were often externally funded. And while the survey indicates that the mobilisation of additional funds for emission mitigation and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions go hand in hand, the most important challenge remains insufficient mainstreaming of climate action in urban policy and budgeting. Even in rather progressive cities like Cape Town, the integration of climate considerations into planning and budgeting procedures remains a challenge, both horizontally and vertically.
Impact Assessment for Urban Decarbonisation is still in the Early Stages
Our findings indicate that systematic impact assessment for urban decarbonisation overall still is in the early stages, both in cities in the Global North and in the Global South. Data collection on emissions and mitigation, however, have improved in recent years. Especially for bigger cities, global commitments and networks such as ICLEI and C40 have played an important role in this process.
While the focus of our research was on stakeholder inclusion, financing, and impact assessment, other governance factors are also important for urban zero-carbon action. They include proactive city officials, political support, the international climate debate, the hosting of international climate policy events, national priority setting, support for local climate action, and crises such as the drought in Cape Town.
Our findings will inform a new project “Transformative urban coalitions: Catalysing urban partnerships to drive systemic transformation towards sustainability” that started in 2021. A consortium consisting of the United Nations University–Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU–EHS), the DIE, the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) will work with five cities in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina to support and study new coalitions of local actors that drive urban sustainability transformations.
This project will provide a better understanding of the most effective governance approaches for zero-carbon urban transformation. In a second phase, the lessons learned from these pilot cases will be used to develop tools and training materials for cities and communities across the world to accelerate urban decarbonisation and contribute to reaching global carbon neutrality.