The world’s urban population has multiplied ten-fold during the past century, and within the next decade, there will be nearly 500 cities of more than a million people, including several ‘megacities’ with populations exceeding 20 million. Meanwhile, cities have strengthened their role as drivers of innovation and entrepreneurship that account for a disproportionately strong share of a country’s GDP per capita.
However, thanks to the creation of networks of cities such as C40 or the Compact of Mayors, which seek to address their greenhouse gas emissions and help them prepare for the impacts of climate change, the role that cities can play in climate policy is increasing by the day.
As economic powerhouses, cities are gaining ever more influence on the international stage on the road to the United Nations international climate change negotiations (COP 21) in Paris this December and beyond.
But why are cities so important in combating climate change?
Cities account for at least 70 percent of total worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. They also face the worst risks from the ultimate consequences of those emissions, as 90 percent of cities were built on coastal lands. Indeed, today, more than half of the world’s population resides in urban areas, and by the time a child now entering primary school turns 40, nearly 70 percent will. That means that in the next few decades, about 2.5 billion more people will become metropolitan residents!
A report jointly released by the consultancy ARUP and C40 this June confirmed that as they are positioned more closely to daily urban life and are more nimble than higher-level governments, cities often benefit from a greater understanding of local challenges and greater agility to adapt to changing conditions. In light of this, city governments are often better placed to deliver action on the ground than their counterparts at the national and international levels. The report notes that cities should recognize that limited power does not necessarily mean limited action as two-fifths of all action that C40 cities are taking on renewable energy occurs in cities with “limited” power to affect energy generation. It highlights that 45% of cities are in fact able to set and enforce their own policy, while many other cities are, at least, able to influence policy. This ability to set policy that promotes a transition to a carbon free environment is crucial in a world where 2/3 of global energy is consumed by cities!
For this reason, former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg recently explained in an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs that mayors are taking stock of this situation and the power this mass of urban population has on the environment to turn their city halls into policy labs, conducting experiments on a grand scale and implementing large-scale ideas to address climate change in a way governments have previously failed to do.
The global push by cities for sustainable development has indeed been huge. Two months ago we saw 100 mayors from all over the world convene in Seoul to adopt a Declaration for Sustainable Cities. The document, which stresses the need to transition to low carbon solutions, expresses a long term aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the hope to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. Following up on his recent encyclical on climate change, the Pope invited this July the Mayors of numerous cities across the globe, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and 10 US mayors such as Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee to pledge action on climate change and human trafficking. Mr. De Blasio, who had already pledged to reduce NYC’s carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, used the Vatican conference to issue an interim goal: a reduction of 40% by 2030. Finally, earlier this week, a coalition of local US Mayors (including Atlanta, Boulder and Salt Lake City) confirmed they would join the UN climate meeting meeting in Paris in December to showcase their cities’ climate leadership and call for an ambitious international agreement that addresses the climate crisis and supports further action at the local level.
A recent ClimateCentral article pointed to the fact that developing countries and their cities are the regions that hold the greatest opportunities to curb future energy use. The article stresses that many of these cities have not yet locked in car dependency, the long commutes and the sprawling suburbs of less efficient urban centers. For those cities, good urban and transportation planning strategies were found to be key. Of the overall opportunity to reduce projected urban energy use by 2050, 57 percent is in Asia and 29 percent is in Africa and the Middle East. With assistance from developed countries, the author notes it should be possible for developing cities to “leapfrog” the urban planning mistakes made elsewhere in the past — in much the same way that many developing countries skipped landlines and went straight to mobile cell phones and towers. The benefit for all would be the slowdown of climate change.
This December, city mayors and other local actors will show the world how they can contribute to achieve global goals on climate change at the Paris-based Climate Summit for Local Leaders, in parallel to the international conference on climate change. As 50% of the world’s largest cities have already committed to cut their emissions by 70% by 2050, strong commitments will be expected from participating leaders at that summit. Given the opportunity for curbing future energy use in developing countries, it therefore seems that the groundbreaking development will be to find a way to support the other 50% of cities in making similar pledges to protect our planet.
If these developments can teach us anything it’s that cities today hold the key to slow climate change. If they are to remain centers of education, innovation, and sustainable economic growth then we need to ensure they are well-designed urban areas.
The future of our planet depends on it…