As politicians in world capitals debate the energy future for their countries, the gravity of their decisions should not be underestimated.
If there is one thing to learn from recent flooding in the Caribbean, US, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, it is that the impacts of a warmer world are already with us, and that inaction will only deepen the crisis.
In Paris in 2015, the world’s leaders – carrying the commitments and hopes of thousands of cities, businesses, investors, and billions of concerned citizens – set a collective marker of intent: to reach net zero carbon emissions by mid-century for the benefit of everyone.
To get there, we need to navigate through two critical checkpoints. The first is to ensure the trajectory of global emissions starts to bend downwards by 2020, putting humanity on the least difficult path to full decarbonisation. This turning point will keep us on track to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals a decade later in 2030, ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all.
If we reach net zero by 2050, our children and grandchildren will have inherited cleaner water and air, equitable energy and food security, liveable cities and an abundance of sustainable jobs.
That said, the serious challenge we face from climate change is becoming clearer and more visceral by the day. In amongst the floods, destruction and scores of lost homes, it is the human cost which is the hardest to bear. With global warming already measured at 1C, and further warming already baked into our atmosphere, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Our journey is not an easy one, but it is necessary, it is desirable and, importantly, it is achievable. Just as each journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, there are actions and signs of progress in every corner of the world bringing us closer to our destination.
So while some national governments delay climate action, cities around the world are forging ahead. Working together through coalitions like the C40 Cities and the Global Covenant of Mayors on Climate and Energy, urban populations are getting on with the task at hand.
The city of Vancouver is leading 179 municipalities across British Columbia to reduce GHG emissions by 33% below 2007 levels by 2020, and is already halfway there. Over half of the city’s residents walk, bike or use public transport, and driving distance per person has fallen 32% over the last decade.
Vancouver is leading North America by constructing new, zero-emission buildings that are cool and comfortable for little cost. And looking ahead to warmer weather, the city is planting resilient tree species and piloting social housing cooling stations to provide more shade and cool refuge on hot days.
Realising its special vulnerability to sea-level rise and temperature rises that might get to 5C by the end of the century, the city of Sydney was the first local government in Australia to be certified carbon neutral through emissions savings in buildings, street lighting, and vehicles, the latter reducing emissions by 26% over the past four years without any reduction in services to the community.
Sydney’s $8 billion Green Square project is transforming the southern precinct into a vibrant and sustainable urban environment, and is the fastest growing area in the city’s local area.
Sydney and Vancouver are not the only cities on this mission. Mayors all over the world are committing their cities on the journey to net zero emissions and acting with intent. Between 2011 and 2015, the group of C40 cities collectively invested US$1.5bn in low carbon projects, and this has now expanded to a huge portfolio of C40 sustainable infrastructure projects, with an estimated value of US$15.5bn.
Knowing the scale of the challenge we face, and the urgent action required to reach the 2020 checkpoint, we encourage all cities to commit to fully decarbonise their buildings and infrastructure, and we will strive to do the same.
In September 2018, California will host a summit to gather bold new climate commitments from cities, regional governments, business and investors to demonstrate to national leaders that it is possible to raise our ambition, and stay true to the promise of Paris. We look forward to seeing fellow cities step up at that moment because when it comes to meeting this challenge, we must leave no-one behind.
Christiana Figueres is the chief of the Global Covenant of Cities and former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Clover Moore is lord mayor of Sydney, Gregor Robertson is the mayor of Vancouver.