Cities leading the way in climate protection and resource regeneration

CoP19 in Warsaw

UN climate change negotiation (COP 19) in Warsaw

This is the nineteenth year of UN climate change negotiations. But even 19 years has proved not long enough for national governments to agree on, and implement, measures that reduce global greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to keep the world beneath the dangerous 2°C threshold.

Meanwhile, cities and local authorities across the globe are taking the lead in climate mitigation in the face of inaction at the national and international level.

Success stories can already be witnessed everywhere. Cities in the global network C40, which collectively account for 8 per cent of the world’s population, are reducing emissions through policies addressing sectors including transport, buildings and waste management. By 2020, these strategies are projected to reduce emissions by 248 million tonnes per year, compared to a business-as-usual scenario.

Local and regional areas are also blazing the trail in abandoning dirty fossil fuels and transitioning fully to renewable energy. From Greensburg and San Francisco in the Unites States, to Skellefteå in Sweden, and 74 municipalities and regions in Germany, targets of 100 per cent renewable energy have been set and, in many cases, already reached.

Decentralised but coordinated

In the last two decades, the steering capacities of local governments have changed. On the whole, there is a renewed focus on local responses to the challenges emerging from the inability of nation states and multinational agencies to agree on a long-term commitment to tackling climate change and managing its consequences.

Nevertheless, the ability of cities to take sufficient action is hindered as long as cities are isolated, disparate and uncoordinated. Tapping the full potential of urban areas to tackle climate change requires national governments to work with city authorities and other urban decision-makers. Coordinated policy action between governance levels creates the framework for the kind of urban development that mitigates rather than exacerbates climate change.

The key? Good governance

Although cities like Copenhagen, Rio de Janeiro and Adelaide show that technological and policy solutions already exist, progress is still too slow. The main barriers are a lack of vertical and horizontal coordination, lack of access to funding and expertise, and a perceived conflict in policy aims. We need enabling governance structures in order to scale up best practices and connect scattered initiatives into an integrated policy approach.

This means coordinated action. It means straddling the public and private spheres. It means engaging multiple stakeholders in a participatory process. It means working across sectors. And, last but not least, it means policy dialogue between local and national levels of government through a national urban policy that empowers local authorities to take bold and necessary action to fight climate change and ecosystems damage.

It is high time cities give back

Cities are active agents. They can positively impact their environment when designed and managed with care and have a long-term, holistic vision. With high concentrations of human and financial capital, they have tremendous potential to be an asset in tackling the pressing challenges of our time.

The urgency of these challenges calls for a new urban agenda. Cities must go beyond the ambiguous and unambitious notion of sustainability towards regenerative urban development, whereby they actively work to regenerate the resources they use and improve their surrounding areas.

COP 19, World Urban Forum 7 in 2014, the UN process for drafting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2015, and the UN city summit Habitat III in 2016 are all opportunities to develop and execute this new urban agenda at a scale large enough to tackle climate change. Stakeholders at all governance levels – local, regional and national – must all be seated at the table to engage in these processes. Otherwise, we face the prospect of 19 more years of political inaction.


The World Future Council attended the COP 19 in Warsaw as an observer NGO and spread the idea of cities as a positive force for change.

This article was first published by Stakeholder Forum in Outreach magazine. The original article can be found here.

Thursday, November 21st, 2013