Cities are unlikely to get the formal recognition many crave at the UN climate talks, but they can make an impact
By Megan Darby in Seoul
“A president talks about principles, but a mayor collects the garbage” – Park Won-soon, mayor of Seoul, South Korea.
The importance of cities in tackling climate change is undeniable. They are responsible for most of the world’s people, money and greenhouse gas emissions.
Emerging cities of Asia and Africa, in particular, have an opportunity to choose energy efficient hi-rise blocks and public transport over suburban sprawl and motorways.
So what role can mayors play in the UN climate talks, which are due to reach a global deal in Paris this December?
It was a critical question for ICLEI, a network of local governments for sustainability, at its summit in Seoul last week.
“It is difficult for cities to play a strong role [in Paris], given that it is an intergovernmental negotiating process,” says Yvo de Boer, director general of the Global Green Growth Institute and former UN climate chief.
“At the same time I think there is a growing realisation that cities are not only a significant part of the problem of climate change, but also a significant part of the solution.
“As a consequence, I think there is a greater willingness to listen to cities.”
The clearest statement of intent to date is the Compact of Mayors, announced at UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit in New York last September.
Launched with 228 member cities, it signed up another 35 in Seoul. Signatories have three years to complete a climate action plan for their city and report their progress.
Ban’s summit was extra to the official UN climate negotiations and aimed to broaden participation in the climate agenda.
At the negotiations themselves, cities have historically been limited to holding side events. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has promised to amplify their voice at December’s talks.
Michel Rentenaar, climate envoy for the Netherlands, says cities’ involvement has been “too limited”. He wants to see cities submit text for the international agreement and publish their own emissions targets to complement national commitments.
Yet getting official acknowledgment of the role of sub-national governments has proved contentious.
Venezuela, for one, tends to veto any such text. The country recently charged Caracas mayor and opposition leader Antonio Ledezma with “conspiracy” over an alleged coup attempt. The last thing its government wants is to give cities more power.
And it is hard enough to set up robust and accountable reporting on emissions at a national level, let alone for smaller, less clearly defined regions.
A glance at the carbonn Climate Registry, set up for members of the Compact of Mayors to report their progress, reveals some of the challenges.
You can rank 539 cities according to commitments, performance and actions. Each is scored with a number, but it is unclear what they mean.
Vancouver, which recently committed to run on 100% renewable energy, leads the “actions” column with 116, but when you click through to its report page, it does not say what those specific actions are.
Commitments are all measured against different baselines, making direct comparisons difficult.
And after all, city boundaries are arbitrarily defined. Does a power station that supplies the urban population from just outside city limits count towards emissions?
These difficulties may help explain why Ahmed Djoghlaf, who will co-chair the Paris talks, is somewhat vague in answer to Rentenaar’s point.
He talks about bringing cities “from the side events to the core” but reiterates that national climate plans “will form the backbone of the agreement”.
The French hosts say city actions will be one of the “pillars” of any deal reached this December, with regional and non-state actions part of what they call an “Agenda of Solutions“.
But Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief, in a video address, manages expectations. She urges mayors to share ambitious climate policies and advocate for strong national action, but avoids promising greater influence.
This ambivalence leaves the onus on cities to assert their relevance to the climate process.
ICLEI members are not waiting for a call from the UN to act. Some have truly impressive low carbon development plans.
Seoul aims to cut emissions 25% by 2020 and 40% by 2030 from 2005 levels, with a range of clean energy and transport policies.
Nearby Suwon banned cars from one central district for a whole month and invested €9 million in green infrastructure for the Ecomobility Festival in 2013.
That is an example cited by ICLEI chief Gino Van Begin of the kind of “transformative” action his organisation hopes to showcase in Paris.
If they are to truly make a dent in emissions, these bodies need to go beyond preaching to the converted and raise all cities to higher green standards.
Finance is another stumbling block. Cities remain highly dependent on funds from national government and ad hoc grants to fund climate-friendly infrastructure.
The World Bank estimates only 4% of the 500 biggest cities it works with in developing countries can attract credit on the international markets. One in five can raise money locally.
In Asia, the most rapidly urbanising part of the world, Amy Leung of the Asian Development Bank warns there is a big cash shortfall. Cities are spending US$40 billion a year, where US$100 billion is needed, she says.
There are new sources of finance coming into play, according to de Boer, and cities need to innovate.
For example, some lighting companies will install LED streetlights at no upfront cost, recouping the investment through the city’s energy bill savings.
Are cities going to get formal recognition in a Paris deal? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean they can’t influence the outcome.
If you think of greenhouse gas emissions as another form of garbage, mayors are the natural choice to mount a clean-up.
Megan Darby’s travel to Seoul and accommodation was paid for by ICLEI