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From Paris to New York: how cities show the potential for ambitious climate action

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Office blocks lit up at night in Hong Kong, China

By Jennifer Lenhart, Jeet Mistry and Carina Borgström-Hansson

After years of disappointment and debate, in December 2015, countries did something remarkable: they came together to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement. This week nations will again gather in New York to sign the Agreement, pledging to take the next, urgent steps to address the climate crisis. This international milestone is commendable. However, for over a decade, one group of actors has already actively engaged in addressing the climate challenge head on by taking on-the-ground action: they are the world’s cities.

Like the rest of us, cities will be anxiously waiting for national governments to follow through on the pledges made in Paris with urgent action. City leaders also hope that their national counterparts will make good on their recognition of the need to support urban climate actions, as set out in the Paris text, and empower cities with the suitable policy frameworks, resources and jurisdictions to take even more ambitious actions.

There are good reasons to look at cities to tackle climate change. Cities house 54% of the world’s population. Their residents account for around 70% of global GHG emissions, as well as 80% of economic output. Cities are part of the problem; but equally, they are part of the solution to address climate change.

Cities taking action

This is why WWF, to realise its mission to halt the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, has begun to champion urban climate actions. Since 2011, WWF has run its sustainable cities flagship initiative City Challenge, in partnership with ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. The City Challenge has attracted more than 300 cities in 21 countries to publically report their greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction commitments and climate mitigation and adaptation actions on the carbonn© Climate Registry (cCR) which serves as the central repository for the Compact of Mayors.

As a response to past global inaction, cities have set ambitious reduction targets – often above their national targets. Many cities have found creative and synergistic ways to achieve these targets, while improving urban quality of life. With the impacts of climate change increasingly felt in cities, they have also been on the frontlines in learning to adapt and improve their resilience, for example by investing in green and blue infrastructure.

Through global and regional networks, cities have partnered across national borders, calling on their governments and the international community to strive for more ambitious climate actions. City leaders realize that while climate change is a global problem, its consequences are and will increasingly be felt locally. Cities’ efforts were also reflected in city-related activities during the Paris Climate Change Conference. For example:

  • Representatives of leading cities, including many cities from WWF’s City Challenge, came together in the “1000 Mayors’ Summit” to endorse the Paris City Hall Declaration, committing them to achieve 100% renewable energy, and/or 80% GHG reductions between 2030- 2050. Together these cities pledge to deliver up to 3.7 gigatons of urban GHG emissions reductions annually by 2030 — roughly 30% of the difference between current national commitments and the 2 degree emissions reduction pathway identified by climate scientists.
  • Cities, sub-national governments and endorsing organizations released a statement, via the Lima Paris Action Agenda, to scale-up local/ regional climate actions in order to bridge the gap from now to when the Paris Agreement comes into force in 2020, and to raise their ambitions to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees.
  • The Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance (CCFLA), an initiative launched by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the UN Climate Summit in September 2015, released a report identifying policies and measures to mobilize investment in climate-smart infrastructure for cities. CCFLA is a coalition of over 40 organizations, including WWF, with active programs to catalyze and accelerate capital flows to cities.

These efforts culminated with recognition in the Paris Climate Agreement text for the need to support cities and subnational authorities as a significant means to mobilize stronger and more ambitious climate action – realizing the crucial role cities play to address climate change.

This is no small feat, and city networks have lobbied for this for many years. The growing recognition of their role is also reflected in the recent agreement to include a cities dimension in IPCC special reports, as well as in the high proportion of city leaders invited as panelists in the coming Climate Action Days in Washington DC in May. Urban climate action potential will of course also be at the centre in the upcoming UN Habitat III Conference on cities to take place in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016.

If Paris was about celebration and New York is about commitment, then cities the world over are about climate action. They will need to work together to push for even greater climate action and ambition: through new and improved financial support; by enabling the right regulatory frameworks to facilitate achievement of local climate goals; via capacity building to support climate actions on the ground; and through engaging their citizens as important stakeholders to achieve the climate resilient and sustainable future we all want.

Cities make efforts to address climate change tangible: in the form of green roofs, solar panels, storm water management, bike lanes or bus rapid transit. Thus while Paris was indeed historic, it could be argued that its success was partly based on cities’ efforts to show that ambitious climate actions are possible, desirable – and already underway.

As nations gather in New York to hopefully again make climate history, the actions in cities are relevant to remember. Cities demonstrate real possibilities to address climate change, and WWF is committed to helping them be part of the climate solution.

Jennifer Lenhart is programme manager, Earth Hour City Challenge, Jennifer.Lenhart@wwf.se. Jeet Mistry is programme manager, Sustainable Cities, Jeet.Mistry@wwf.se. Carina Borgström-Hansson is the global focal point for WWF’s international city work, carina.borgstrom-hansson@wwf.se.

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