Time to adapt to climate change, say world’s biggest cities

By John Parnell 

The world’s largest cities are feeling the effects of climate change and are leading efforts to adapt to them.

That is according to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group that includes London, New York, Cairo and Sao Paulo.

Terri Wills, director of global initiatives at C40, told RTCC that the group has had to shift from its initial focus on cutting greenhouse gases, to addressing the impacts that member cities were facing.

“We need to strike the appropriate balance to constrain emissions as much as possible but to deal with adaptation at the same time,” said Wills.

Superstorm Sandy brought the realities of climate change home for many in the US (Source: Flickr/that hartford guy)

“We have increased our focus on adaptation because we realised climate change was a real threat now. For a while our focus was on mitigation. There was a feeling that adaptation could be a distraction.

“In an ideal world we’d focus on mitigation and make the emission reductions instantly. Over the course of a few years many of the C40 cities were coming to us and saying ‘it’s here already, we have to start dealing with adaptation’.”


With cities representing two thirds of global emissions, there does still remain a compelling mitigation argument.

The C40’s current chair, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, has said that cities are well-placed to lead on climate change.

While many governments struggle to get efforts to reduce emissions off the ground and the negotiations at the UN have remained finely balanced, mayors have been able to press ahead with action. Wills said many cities are lobbying for even greater autonomy but can already put practical measures in place faster than most governments.

“They can act quickly and often do more than their national governments are,” she said.

Climate policies are hugely divisive in a number of countries right now including Australia, the UK and Canada. Many mayors seem to have found a way to side-step ideology driven opposition to climate action.

“Our mayors tend to demonstrate the benefits beyond emission reductions. For example the wider benefits of transportation changes, like the switch to a Bus Rapid Transit system also cuts air pollution, which has health benefits. It could be about reducing energy bills, protecting buildings against risk in the future or tackling energy security challenges.

“Sometimes you have to be bold and implement aggressive programmes but you have to bring the populous along too. You have to say ‘yes, climate change is important but look at these other tangible benefits that these policies will also deliver to you’,” explained Wills.

Tackling smog has become a high profile objective for the Chinese government (Source: Flickr/WorldBank/CurtCarnemark)


Air pollution has become an increasingly high profile problem in many of China’s cities and the government has shifted from being cagey about criticism, to acknowledging public protests on the issue.

It is also pushing policies that will cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal power stations, industry and transport as a fringe benefit.

“We were excited by that development,” said Wills. “It’s not just happening in developing countries, it’s happening in developed countries and European cities where the air quality argument is important.”

Wills said governments could learn from the cooperative nature of the C40 members and the positive way it has managed to frame climate policies.

“Our focus is on climate change but we’re excited to work with cities like Beijing that will improve air quality but reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We just have to make sure that we support actions that do both.

“If a city is mainly driven by air quality, that’s fine. Some are driven by job creation. If they are still taking action on issues that relate to climate, that’s fine,” said Wills.

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