Five years after the ratification of the Paris Agreement, the policies put in place by the countries participating in order to reduce carbon emissions have basically had little or no effect. The majority of the efforts made are actually not even in line with the goals defined back then, as a report by the United Nations testifies. What the report shows is how commitments and declarations mean nothing without concrete actions. Following the current trend, global greenhouse gas emissions will reach 56 gigatons by 2030 unless there is a clearcut change of pace. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than double what’s needed to stop global warming at «only» +1.5 degrees Celsius (which is what scientists say is the point of no return). And while global leaders spend their time talking about the necessity of a “Green deal” in their respective countries, emissions have continued to rise throughout 2020 regardless of what they say.
If you look at the numbers, the Covid-19 pandemic has done more to reduce emissions than all the world leaders combined in the last decade. And that’s just a 5% decrease.
The role of cities
Even though many haven’t realized this, cities are going to become a fundamental player in the fight to avoid a climate crisis: they are responsible for 55% of the entire world population, more than 80% of the global GDP and cause the release of 75% of total CO2 emissions in the atmosphere (not all greenhouse gases, just carbon dioxide). This combination makes them very important, both demographically and economically: they certainly are a huge source of emissions, but they might also be the solution.
Some have already noticed it and have acted in that direction. As far as renewable energy, more than 40 cities around the world rely exclusively on renewable energy and more than 100 use at least 70% green energy. As far as mobility and transportation, some cities such as Milan (Italy) have already taken very important steps to eliminate cars from the city center forever, reducing both traffic congestions and CO2 emissions (in this case social distancing played a big role, but the move was already planned for the years ahead).
Various local institutions have also recognized their role in this battle to save the planet, and they certainly do not lack in ambition: following a series of meetings, in September 2019 more than 10 regions and 100 cities around the world have committed to zero carbon emissions by 2050. We don’t know if the goal will be met, and 2050 is surely not a close deadline, but it’s at least better than the total denial many others have expressed about climate change.
Many other cities all around the globe have also allied in different “coalitions” to share possible solutions and to have an bigger impact by combining forces. One concrete example is the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate, a movement that brings together more than 10.000 mayors in 6 continents and the roughly 300 million inhabitants they represent to adopt common strategies to reduce gas emissions. And they actually make detailed 10-20 years detailed plans to act, they don’t just discuss general goals.
Cities are also the key because they have much deeper relationships with all the stakeholders involved (citizens, institutions, companies) and are bureaucratically lighter than central governments, which makes them a lot more effective in the implementation of their policies. Plus, city mayors are more accountable to their constituents for their decisions and are more nimble than state and national elected officials to take decisive action — often with immediate and more impactful results.
The reason why cities should be determined to reduce emission in their area is simple, it’s to improve their citizen’s quality of life. This recent protagonism is not there just because of their deeper relations with the economic framework (that would make their actions more effective), it’s also because they’re much more exposed to the catastrophic effects this phenomenon has.
More than 90% of urban areas in the world are situated near the coast, where flooding and storms are most frequent and rising sea levels could have catastrophic consequences in the long run. All of these events have costly impacts on a city’s basic services such as infrastructure, housing and health, but they also cause as much financial damage. Speaking of health, almost every big city also has another problem, air pollution, which explains the tendency of encouraging the use of bikes, public transportation and electric scooters inside the city center. In 2016, 90% of the urban population has been exposed to polluted air (measured as presence of PM2.5 in the air), and more than 50% has come into contact with PM2.5 levels twice the safety standard, meaning there were 10 micrograms of particles in the air per square meter of urban ground. That’s a lot.
The effect of air contamination is a problem not only for big cities known for their pollution, such as Beijing and New Delhi, but it also touches Europe very deeply (even though it’s not as prominent): Italy had roughly 76.000 premature deaths caused by bad air quality in 2017 alone! Big cities have also adopted environmental policies to fight that trend, such as a broader use of solar and incentivizing housing efficiency, but that is far from enough.
And if the pandemic taught us something, that would be that preventing is better than curing. We need to act now, before it’s too late.
Social and economic opportunities also offer cities a strong motivation to adopt local environmental policies, as those usually attract many emerging companies or allow to create entirely new industrial sectors such as those of ride sharing. These policies not only create new jobs, but they also make the claim of being a “green town” come true and bring more people to the city in general. Cities such as Geneve, Vancouver and Copenhagen already use their climatic actions as a marketing instrument to attract workers, companies and tourists, and it seems to work pretty well.
Cities on an international level
As previously shown, it’s no doubt that cities have a key role in pursuing climate-minded goals. This study from the OECD regarding Sustainable Development Goals says that 65% of them will never be reached without involving cities, towns and local administrations, stating again how fundamental they are given their key advantages in sectors such as energy, infrastructure and land use. This is why last year at COP25 (an annual, global climate-centered conference in Madrid) we saw delegations of towns and small regions press countries to act quicker and harder.
The importance of cities also explains why — even though Sustainable Development Goals are negotiated between nations , not towns — many of those nations and international organizations have also focused on the local dimension. The opposite process has also happened in some places, where a particular policy introduced by a town was so successful it was then adopted on a national or regional level.
The biggest problem with cities is their political and legal irrelevance, as many local towns don’t have the power to fight against their governments and force them to act, something especially important if their goals and political views are misaligned. In most of the EU countries, building and transportation regulations are determined on the national level with little to no discretion left for majors. Federal countries such as the US have (in theory) a slight advantage, as local leaders tend to be more independent, but that’s still not enough to bring a radical change. Taxation and regulation in the energetic sector is also established by the central government, leaving towns with great ambitions but no legal instruments to reach their goals. And this is even more visible in poorer and authoritarian countries such as those in Africa, in the Middle East and Latin America, where sub-national power is basically nonexistent and corruption is more present.
And that’s why it’s important that national governments and other climate-related actors, including international organizations and the civil society, all recognize the crucial role of cities in fighting climate change, empowering them to act and actually make a difference. Only with a coordinated approach at the global, national, regional and local levels success can be achieved. It is therefore essential to make cities an integral part of the solution in fighting climate change.
A part of this article was inspired and based on the “Renewables in Cities 2019 Global Status” report that you can find here.
Previously published on medium
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