The mayor of London oversees decisions regarding energy provision, transport, housing stock and waste management for the city’s nearly 9 million inhabitants, more than the total population of Denmark or Austria. This is true for many global cities, which make decisions about infrastructure provision that determine energy use and carbon emissions for populations larger than entire countries.
In the global effort to slow down and eventually halt anthropogenic climate change, local governments have been important drivers of ambition. While – for instance – the national administrations of Australia and Brazil have inhibited progress at the international climate negotiations in recent years and implemented domestic policies that go against the commitments of the Paris Agreement, Melbourne and Rio de Janeiro have set ambitious targets of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. In response to President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States (US) from the Paris Agreement, 247 US cities have joined “We Are Still In”, a coalition of US non-state actors committed to implementing the global climate pact.
Local governments around the world do not only set ambitious targets, but many have already translated them into comprehensive, local, long-term climate strategies, even though, in contrast to national administrations, there is no obligation for them to do so.
For the cities that enact them, climate strategies have several important functions. First of all, such documents directly steer the process of decarbonisation by outlining how the greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced across different sectors, over the course of several decades. The strategies set interim targets and milestones towards achieving those goals, assign roles and responsibilities between municipal departments and external stakeholders.
For most local governments, climate strategies up to the year 2050 are the first plans with such a long-term perspective. They provide opportunities to create a comprehensive vision that makes it possible to identify synergies between decarbonisation goals in different sectors (for instance reducing per capita domestic energy use and transport emissions by promoting a compact and connected city). Such visioning exercises can become especially powerful in cities. They make climate action a more tangible concept for local citizens by showing what life in a carbon-neutral city would look like in practical terms. In this respect, it is important that many of the policies that lead to decarbonisation in urban areas are designed to improve overall livability, e.g. by improving public transport provision, creating safer cycling infrastructure, regenerating housing stock, reducing energy poverty or combatting urban air pollution. This provides opportunities to frame climate action as a desirable development and create support and buy-in.
The process of preparing a local, long-term strategy also provides opportunities to directly engage citizens in climate governance. A review of the process of preparing long-term climate strategies in Austin, Berlin and Melbourne has shown that all three cities have actively involved citizens and community groups in creating the strategies, by means of in-person and online consultations, advisory panels and direct engagements. In the cases of Austin and Melbourne, the local strategies also elaborate on the roles that specific stakeholders, businesses, community groups but also individuals and families will play in the implementation of certain activities. Within the municipal structures, preparing a long-term climate strategy creates opportunities to foster unprecedented long-term collaboration between different departments, sectors and service providers.
At the same time, although urban populations account for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, cities’ contribution to overall global mitigation efforts is inevitably limited. Local climate strategies normally account for carbon emissions that are attributed to municipal operations and utilities, and others that are generated within the city’s limits, such as emissions from urban transport or local housing stock. They do not, however, capture the carbon footprint of products consumed within the city but produced elsewhere, emissions associated with freight or its citizen’s domestic and international travel. Even within their borders, cities with ambitious climate goals may be stuck with existing infrastructure, such as a coal power plant, operated bynational or private actors. Usually, cities have limited powers to shut down or shorten the life of such a plant, where this is governed by national regulations.
Achieving carbon neutrality in particular can present an even bigger challenge, since reaching net-zero emissions assumes removing some of the already-emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, e.g. by means of biological sequestration or carbon capture and storage. Opportunities for creating such negative emissions are highly limited in urban areas.
Despite the global cities’ increasing presence in the international climate governance arenas, such as the UNFCCC COP or increased recognition of the role cities play in achieving the energy transition by supranational bodies such as the EU (see e.g. Urban Agenda for the EU), local governments have little influence on the decisions on short- and long-term climate policies taken at national and supranational levels. Yet, these decisions determine the actual pace of national and global climate mitigation and the de facto emissions generated by urban populations.
Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions to slow down anthropogenic climate change is among the most complex and urgent problems faced by humanity today. Achieving the global goals set in the Paris Agreement requires actions in every country and at every level of government. Despite their limited ability to influence the national and international climate policy decisions, global cities play a crucial role in mitigating climate change. Actions taken by local governments are essential elements of the distributed effort to reduce emissions globally and many cities around the world have proven to be ambitious, fast-paced actors that engage with their citizens and peers around the world to take meaningful steps towards mitigating climate change.
Local governments are the level of governance closest to citizens and cities serve as a key site to engage vast amounts of population with climate change action, show its co-benefits, and test and implement innovative, participatory and cross-sectoral governance arrangements.
Given the cities’ important role in this multilevel governance arrangement, it is essential that local governments be more closely involved, engaged and consulted in the emerging national and supranational processes, such as the European Green Deal, that aim to stimulate far-reaching transformative processes to achieve carbon neutrality at a planetary scale – and not just in cities.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Doris Knoblauch, Linda Mederake and Ewa Zelazna for their ideas, suggestions and comments that helped to shape and refine this article.
1 Iwaszuk, Ewa; Mederake, Linda; Knoblauch, Doris (2019): The Transformative Potential of Local Climate Change Strategies. In: Zevi, Andrea Tobia (Ed.) The Century of Global Cities. How Urbanisation is Changing the World and Shaping our Future. Milan: Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
2 Mederake, Linda; Iwaszuk, Ewa; Knoblauch, Doris (2019): The evolving role of cities as non-state actors in the international climate regime. In: Abdullah, Hannah (Ed.) Cities in World Politics. Local responses to global challenges. Monografías CIDOB 75. Barcelona: CIDOB.
3 Urban Agenda for the EU (2019), Energy Transition Partnership Action Plan.