Unleashing urban power: How cities can reshape climate governance

Urban sustainability expert, Karim Elgendy, emphasizes cities' untapped potential in reshaping climate governance, calling for inclusive governance involving civil society, the private sector, and sub-national governments to empower them. By Karim Elgendy, Associate Director with Buro Happold, an Associate Fellow with Chatham House, and the founder of Carboun | June 9, 2023

The recently concluded Ecocity World Summit in London once again emphasized the crucial role of cities in climate action. Despite the immense potential of cities to contribute to climate action, their significance is not yet fully acknowledged within the current climate governance framework.

Thirty years ago, the United Nations laid the foundations for the global response to climate change, creating a framework that revolved predominantly around nation-states. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) saw nation-states – along with the supranational European Union – engaging in multilateral negotiation at the annual Conference of Parties (COP). Despite their influence on the ground, civil society organizations had limited direct involvement in these negotiations.

Significant strides forward have been made through this architecture. The completion of the Paris Agreement and its rulebook, the anticipated agreement on a global goal for adaptation, and the gradual resolution of pivotal climate justice issues are heartening indicators of progress. These milestones also herald a transition from negotiation to a phase of implementation.

As the landscape transforms from negotiation to climate action, the onus is now on the UNFCCC parties to prioritize the implementation and acceleration of pledged action, thereby increasing their ambition levels. According to climate science consensus, achieving our carbon neutrality goal by mid-century and limiting warming to 1.5 degrees demands greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2025, and a 43% reduction by the end of the decade. This necessitates an unprecedented yearly global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 10-14% until 2030, which presents a significant challenge to implementation.

Such Herculean efforts, and the associated changes required to infrastructure, technologies, financial instruments, consumption, and lifestyles demand an all-hands-on-deck approach. The responsibility for implementing one of the greatest economic transformations should not be borne by national governments alone. A new climate governance architecture more fit for purpose is required.

Such a governance architecture must be more inclusive, not just of civil society, but also of the private sector. This is, in part, a recognition of businesses’ leadership on the much-needed innovation, but more importantly, for its ability to deliver scalable, commercially-viable climate solutions.

More critically, the new climate governance must be inclusive of sub-national governments such as cities and regions. A multi-level climate governance system − one that considers the horizontal and vertical interactions between local, regional and national levels of government within the same state − holds the key to unlocking both mitigation and adaptation climate action at local level.

A Role for Cities

As the loci of human civilization, cities are home to 56% of the world’s population, and two out of three people by 2050. They generate 80% of the global GDP, consume two-thirds of energy, and are responsible for 67-72% of global emissions.

Cities are where climate battles will be won or lost. They have the potential to cut their emissions by 90% by 2050 using technically feasible measures. As hubs of infrastructure at risk of disruption from climate change impacts, they also have a significant role to play in climate adaptation. Municipal governments have the potential to advance local climate policies with less of the political baggage that complicates work at national level.

Efforts to involve cities in climate governance have made progress, as evidenced by the fact that 84% of current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) incorporate urban content to varying degrees. However, there is still untapped potential for cities to take stronger action in addressing the climate emergency.

The decision to adopt the Paris Agreement encouraged national governments to work more closely with non-Party stakeholders. A year later, the Marrakech Partnership emerged to help mobilize climate action through non-party engagement, including through the Race to Zero campaign, which has now amassed a network of over 12,000 non-state actor members committed to halving emissions by 2030.

There are also positive moves to mobilize cities on adaptation. The COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact urged parties to further integrate adaptation into local planning. A few months earlier, the Marrakech Partnership created an adaptation-focused pledge drive, known as the Race to Resilience.

To demonstrate eagerness and capability, many cities joined these initiatives. By the end of last year, 1,136 cities had signed up to the Race to Zero pledge, 559 to the Race to Resilience pledge, and 11,361  to the UNFCCC’s Global Climate Action database. Cities have also organized themselves as transnational networks. Networks including C40, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), ICLEI, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, and the EU’s Mission for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities all work to promote knowledge sharing and advance local climate action, amongst other goals. Representatives of these networks participate in annual COPs as civil society observers, including cities such as Copenhagen and Medellín, which have taken steps ahead of their national governments.

Cities are where climate battles will be won or lost. They have the potential to cut their emissions by 90% by 2050 using technically feasible measures.

Despite these strides, cities would benefit from further empowerment in terms of governance powers, financial resources, local capacity building (particularly in the Global South), and enhanced access to technology, information, and innovation. These additional resources and support would enable cities to take more effective and ambitious climate action. The proportion of 2050 urban carbon reduction potential over which cities have primary authority or influence is estimated at just 33%.

Overlapping national, regional, and municipal power structures and their competing authorities over local and urban issues needs to be addressed, and transnational city networks will need to mobilize more resources towards climate action if they are to have the representation and influence they seek.

There is an opportunity for multi-level climate governance to emerge. Last year at COP27, the Sustainable Urban Resilience for the next Generation (SURGe) Initiative was launched to accelerate local and urban climate action by identifying and addressing the challenges in governance, finance, capacity, and access to technology. The initiative, which is supported by UN Habitat and ICLEI, aims to do so while focusing on urban systems such as buildings, mobility, water, energy, and waste.

The upcoming COP28 presents an exciting opportunity to involve cities and other non-Party stakeholders in the climate governance process. Its emphasis on inclusivity could prompt a critical examination of the current climate governance system, assessing its effectiveness and relevance for addressing the global climate challenges we face.

COP28 is expected to host twice as many attendees as any preceding meeting. For instance, in March, the COP28 Presidency announced a Partnership with UN Special Envoy Michael Bloomberg to incorporate a global delegation of mayors within the World Leaders summit at the COP, to include local climate priorities in its program, and to help cities mobilize finance and showcase scalable climate solutions.

The pivot to climate action, the focus on inclusivity, and the current efforts to address challenges holding cities back, could all prepare the ground for a review of climate governance and potentially the formulation of a new multi-level governance system. Cities, regions, the private sector, and civil society should all prepare for that moment.

Karim Elgendy is an urban sustainability and climate expert based in London. He is an Associate Director with Buro Happold, an Associate Fellow with Chatham House, and the founder of Carboun, an advocacy initiative promoting sustainability in cities of the MENA region.  

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