Cities take up climate change fight

In order to limit the global temperature rise and reduce carbon emissions, urban leaders have emerged as key players on the international diplomatic stage – strengthened by decades of supra- and nonnational networking and activism.

Cities are at the forefront of the climate change challenge. They are the primary energy users and emitters of greenhouse gases. At the same time, their ever-increasing populations are also exceptionally vulnerable to rising river and sea levels, floods, droughts, scorching heat, severe cold, and other extreme weather phenomena.


For decades, the mayors of major world cities have taken the lead to create a sustainable future by exchanging best practices, harnessing their creative potential and amplifying their voices through initiatives and networks such as ICLEI (founded in 1990) or C40 Cities (founded in 2006). They are well connected and know that change implemented in cities is effective change.


So when the USA announced its intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement on a national level in June 2017, an impressive coalition of 380 US mayors – along with state, tribal, business, and academic leaders – immediately stepped up to declare: “We are still in!” (Strictly speaking, the earliest date that the USA can officially withdraw from the Paris Agreement will be November 4, 2019, with the notice coming into effect one year later.)

Nonnational climate activism

Multiple potent nonnational initiatives have since been launched to ensure that climate-friendly strategies and technologies continue to be implemented in the USA in order to mitigate the effects of climate change.


One of them is America’s Pledge, led by Michael Bloomberg, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for Cities and Climate Change and former Mayor of New York City, and Edmund Brown, Governor of California. It is a platform designed to aggregate and quantify the actions of nonnational actors in the USA, keeping it on track to fulfilling the Paris Protocol by 2025. 


Another is the Mayors National Climate Agenda, or Climate Mayors for short, a network of more than 400 US mayors who are working together to strengthen local efforts for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Strong presence at climate conferences

When the time came to represent a US voice on the international stage, these urban diplomats were ready: At the COP 23 climate conference in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017, America’s Pledge was a visible and vocal advocate of climate diplomacy. “The group of American cities, states, and businesses who remain committed to the Paris Agreement represents a bigger economy than any nation outside the USA and China,” stressed Michael Bloomberg at the event. “Together they are ensuring the USA remains a global leader in the fight against climate change.”

Rather than burying our heads in the sand, Chicago is working with cities across the country and around the world to address the threat of climate change.
Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago

Another effective step was taken in December 2017 when more than 50 mayors convened in Chicago for the inaugural North American Climate Summit – hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. At the event, he stated: “Rather than burying our heads in the sand, Chicago is working with cities across the country and around the world to address the threat of climate change.” The host city proved it was well on target, having already achieved 40 percent of its Paris Climate Agreement goals by reducing its carbon emissions by 11 percent from 2005 to 2015.

Effective and enforceable measures: new charters, new standards

The North American Climate Summit was held in cooperation with the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, which had previously announced a new greenhouse gas emissions inventory standard for cities and local governments at the COP 23. This reporting framework will make the tracking of contributions and measures quantifiable, transparent, and comparable, thus paving the way to assessing the collective progress toward the goal of the Paris Agreement.


Following the North American Climate Summit, 67 mayors signed the Chicago Climate Charter, a legally enforceable agreement, pledging for instance to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Protocol; to quantify and publicly report city emissions on a quarterly basis; to transition to a new climate economy; and to develop holistic climate mitigation and resilience solutions. The Charter also includes specific action points, such as investing in public transit systems, accelerating affordable renewable energy access, and reducing the carbon footprint in new and existing public and private buildings and infrastructure. One of the first signatories was Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the current chair of the C40 Cities group. 


As urban players in the USA and all over the world are stepping up with a thirst for action, city diplomacy might just play the decisive role in honoring the Paris Agreement.


Author: Barbara Simpson, journalist based in Zurich

Picture credits: Shutterstock

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