Where the Rubber Hits the Road: Localising Climate Action in Cities

By |2024-03-01T15:36:23+01:00March 1st 2024|Resilient Cities and Climate|

Since COP28 in Dubai in December 2023, the role of cities and local governments in implementing climate and sustainability goals has come to the forefront. At the recently concluded United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 6) in Nairobi, the Cities Summit on February 23rd focused on localising climate action, Laura Puttkamer reports.

“Cities hold this immense gravity”, Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, said in her opening speech, addressing local government representatives all over the world. “The triple environmental crisis of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss plays out in cities. Cities are also the biggest drivers of this crisis. They are ferocious and hungry, but they are where the solutions are and where innovation happens.” At the same time, as David Dodman, General Director, Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies, pointed out, the total floor area of cities is expected to double by 2060. “The sheer scale of growth will lead to increasing emissions despite good efforts”, which raises the question of how to magnify efforts.

A Call for Local Leadership

More and more, cities have started to see themselves in the mirror of multilateral agreements, from climate and desertification agreements to biodiversity and chemical treaties. This is because cities are “where the rubber hits the road”, as several speakers confirmed during the Cities Summit. Michael Mlynár, Acting Executive Director of UN Habitat, said: “Mayors, governors, and local leaders are our first responders to crises in cities.” In his call for multi-level climate action in Baku later this year, for example through High-Level Political Dialogue on Multilevel Climate Action and on reaffirming the importance of urban planning in climate action. This work will draw on the Joint Outcome Statement on Urbanization and Climate Change from the last COP.

The new Local2030 Coalition Secretariat in Bilbao will advance the localisation of the SDGs both within the UN level and at the territorial and local levels. In addition, the Special Report on Climate Change and Cities from the 7th IPCC cycle will be an important tool to make sure that climate change is taken seriously in all aspects of urban planning, building design and regulations, transportation policy, and climate programmes. Participants discussed the importance of these reports and city networks while emphasising the need for active involvement of the private sector, civil society organisations and academia. Additionally, translating content into other languages and rigorously enforcing good data governance emerged as key elements for developing and implementing local climate action plans.

The Coalition for High Ambition Multilevel Partnership (CHAMP), also launched at COP28 with currently 72 endorsing countriesurban climate priorities as countries revise their climate commitments over the next two years through consultation and the support of voluntary reviews. Covering over 1/3 of the global population 60 per cent of the global GDP and 40 per cent of global commission, CHAMP has a lot of potential for inspiring change at the local level. However, the urban content in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of CHAMP members is still lacking, with over 50 members needing to take big steps, according to a study by UN Habitat and the University of Southern Denmark. Here, CHAMP will provide support to countries looking to update their NDCs by 2025 for COP30 in Brazil.

In March 2024, the Paris Building Forum will exemplify how to showcase urban content and collaboration among cities: Over 30 building and land ministers from all over the world will gather in Paris to discuss climate action in their sector. This gathering follows the successful launch of the Buildings Breakthrough at COP28, which aims to make near-zero emission buildings the new normal by 2030.
The goal of the forum in Paris is to adopt a political declaration on inclusive decarbonisation and resilience pathways at all levels. This involves efforts to decrease the emissions of existing buildings and to construct new buildings in a cleaner way.

Cities Leading the Way in Local Climate Action

In Brazil, the Ministry of Finance works together with the Ministry of Environment and all other Ministers towards a green resilience programme. This initiative unifies all programmes on climate and social resilience and allocates budgets to cities. According to Adalberto Felício Maluf Filho, National Secretary for Urban Environment and Environmental Quality of Brazil, the key for the many Brazilian cities that are very vulnerable to climate events is adaptation.

In Kenya, the impact of rising levels of Lake Victoria is especially high in Kisumu County. Local data watch teams provide a database for the climate change action plan, Governor Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o explained. “Before changing the habitation challenge in informal settlements, we will invest in infrastructure like freshwater provision, roads, drainages, and electricity.”

A different approach is taken by Quezon City in the Philippines, where up to 30 per cent of the budget goes towards climate action to support the city’s aggressive decarbonisation path, which includes doubling the number of parks and expanding green spaces by up to 40 per cent by 2030. Mayor Josefina Belmonte proudly shared that her city, which is a UNEP Champion of the Earth, is the only one in the world with an office dedicated to the SDGs.
Currently, over 1,000 urban farms, green pathways for active mobility, multiple community-based circular economy programmes to tackle waste, upcycling projects, and food waste initiatives are being implemented with support from the UNEP and BMZ-funded Generation Restoration project. The city also has a trash-to-cash system where participants get environmental points after recycling which they can use for groceries and paying their electricity bills.

Meanwhile, Denmark proves it is possible to over-achieve. The national climate target is a 70 per cent of CO2 reduction by 2030 and every municipality is mandated to have a Paris-aligned climate action plan. But, if all actions are implemented, Denmark has estimated that the combined impact of this action might be a 76 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions.

Money Matters: The Challenge of Funding Sustainable Urban Development

“When we talk about implementation, you know what we are talking about – money”, Eugénie L. Birch, Co-Director, Penn Institute for Urban Research, University of Pennsylvania, summed up the biggest challenge for sustainable urban development. Currently, there is a large funding gap for helping cities meet the Paris Agreement objectives of as much as 5 trillion USD, according to a study by the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance, CCFLA, in particular for adaptation and mitigation projects in cities. The reforms of multilateral development banks are not targeted towards more finances for local project implementation, and there is also only very little money coming from the private sector. “We need to make the case for investing in cities”, Birch emphasised. “There aren’t that many good business cases to encourage risk-averse investors, so we need to record all the successful projects to convince them.”

Innovative approaches to funding are also key. For example, in Freetown, city residents are paid to plant and water trees and mangroves, which are financed with tokens sold in private and carbon markets to meet the goal of planting a million trees by 2024. Green bonds, social impact bonds, and resilience bonds are other innovative funding instruments. Quebec and California work together on a fund linked with California’s carbon market that holds 5 billion USD – money which has to be reinvested in climate or in nature, creating a market rather than a tax and distributing funds locally. Public-Private Partnerships, programmes like Urban SHIFT and SURGe, and making it easier to collaborate across local, municipal, and international boundaries are other necessary approaches.

Hasten and Scale Up Implementation

To conclude the Cities Summit at UNEA, participants agreed with the statement by Magash Naidoo, Head of Circular Development, ICLEI, and Co-Chair of the UNEP Local Authorities Major Group: “We want a seat at the table, but we also want a mic.” And Asif Nawaz Shah, Multilevel Action, Urbanisation and Built Environment Lead from COP28, said that “international cooperation is a north star or a guiding light”, calling to mind paragraphs 161-163 of last year’s COP agreement to implement stronger multi-level coordination and partnerships, to support horizontal coordination, to include non-state actors, and to engage with communities in designing subnational implementation plans. “My hope is that local governments with sound climate action plans will be given more support in terms of finances to hasten and scale up implementation”, Josefina Belmonte said.

Laura Puttkamer