Making the local global: how cities can have a positive impact on the climate

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Jennifer Lenhart, Global lead, WWF Cities

  • The IPCC’s latest findings highlight the role of cities in climate change action.There is a missing link between global climate goals and local action in cities.Cities need greater support to find sustainable solutions for urban ecosystems.

When we look at climate action, global negotiations and commitments receive the most attention – the Paris Agreement for instance, an international treaty on climate change negotiated by 196 parties, is mentioned in almost every article on climate change. As with all complex, urgent challenges, there’s an obvious need for these high-level negotiations and agreements. This is how global goals are set and they profoundly influence how conversations are shaped and where money is funneled. They are, however, utterly useless if not backed up by concrete action. If theory is set at a global level, implementation happens locally

On 20 March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced its synthesis report. Examining the latest science about the severe consequences of a warmer world, the IPCC report is the culmination of almost seven years work by hundreds of leading scientists.

For the first time in an IPCC report, a robust assessment of the concept of “losses and damages” was included, signifying many adaptation limits have already been exceeded, threatening the survival of vulnerable communities and ecosystems. In urban areas, there is a projected increase in risks to people, assets, economies, and urban ecosystems, specifically where there is a significant lack of essential infrastructure and services.

Why are cities important?

The IPCC report highlights the interdependences underlying urban systems: cities function regionally, nationally and globally. City solutions to climate change problems must also function at an ecological, economic, technical, institutional, and legal governance level to succeed. On a global level, we need a network of multidimensional urban responses to tackle the climate emergency. We can’t achieve social, economic, and human wellbeing without it. Cities are central to implementing our global goals to make progress.Cities contribute a whopping 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions and their population – and potential impact – is expected to double by 2050. However, as the IPCC points out, their situation and growth presents an opportunity – they are the perfect testing ground to refine and scale up climate solutions.

As the IPCC points out, [cities] present an opportunity, they are the perfect testing ground to refine and scale up climate solutions.

— Jennifer Lenhart.

Once we drill down to the city level though, we face a different problem. Many cities work in a vacuum; they are not tying their climate action to the global movement. There is a wide variation in capacity and interest in climate change. Within WWF’s One Planet City Challenge (OPCC) – a global challenge for cities to report their climate action plans and targets that has run for over 10 years – of the 280 OPCC cities that reported in 2021, 75 cities reported targets partially or completely in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C goal (based on the OPCC 1.5 °C Alignment Method). Of those, only 18 cities reported both an interim halving target that reflects their fair share of the Paris Agreement, and a net-zero goal by 2050. The remaining 57 reported just one of these two targets.


What is the Forum doing to help cities to reach a net-zero carbon future?

In a major step, nine cities and more than 70 organizations in 10 different sectors have come together to build further momentum for a new multi-year initiative: Net Zero Carbon Cities.Together with the Forum, they have created a vision for the future and launched a new framework to help cities rethink urban ecosystems, ensuring that they are greener, efficient, resilient, circular and more equitable.

Image: Integrated energy systems in cities (Source: Net Zero Carbon Cities: An Integrated Approach, 2021, World Economic Forum)

From policy-makers to businesses, city administrators, civil society and the financial sector, the World Economic Forum is convening a range of stakeholders with a role to play if global cities have a chance of reaching the net-zero carbon goal by 2030.Companies can join the integrated approach to help shape city ecosystems to become net zero carbon by joining a Forum platform. Find out more in our impact story.

What are the challenges for cities?

Despite the global agreements, there is a wide variation regionally and nationally as to the level of commitment to climate action, or even capacity or comprehension. When you drill down to a city level, the following things matter:

  • How many people are assigned to tackle climate change and plan ambitious climate action?How well coordinated and connected are those people with other city departments, as well as key private sector and civil society actors?How much buy-in is there at a political level within the city? Is the mayor on board and do local councilors see the benefit of climate action?

Further, it seems to be a universal rule that most civil servants working on climate action are overworked and juggling several competing priorities – and this is for cities that already launched their climate action plan journeys. For those just starting out, they may feel isolated or unsure. Climate change is overwhelming – it can make us falter in our resolution to act. Because of these challenges, cities often act locally with little reference to the global movement. In short, they reinvent the wheel, finding solutions and achieving what they can in the tricky terrain of political cycles, varying public opinion and limited resources. Local climate action is hard, motivating local action is hard, and contextualizing local action even harder.

What are the solutions for cities?

Successful city action happens when high-level expert recommendations and analysis, like the latest IPCC summary, are broken down into digestible, concrete and locally-relevant advice. The IPCC has identified four overarching urban mitigation strategies for cities to reduce the amount and speed of future climate change, these are: improving spatial planning, and infrastructure; electrifying and using net-zero emissions resources; implementing urban green and blue infrastructure; and shifts in socio-behavioural aspects. WWF is one of many organizations working on providing action-oriented recommendations to cities based on those strategies.

Successful cities build on existing solutions and tap into existing expertise. The Swedish city of Lund – an OPCC global winner in 2022 – collaborates with local academic institutions, who review their transition and provide recommendations. In Bogota, Colombia – another global OPCC winner – they collaborate with peer cities regionally, proving the worthiness of horizontal partnerships.

Successful cities also see climate action as part of a collective effort – their sustainability officers are not lone voices appealing to their counterparts. Instead, they work with a common narrative, towards a wider city goal, that is part of a national goal, that is part of a global goal. Climate action is not tied just to environmental ambitions, it is a natural part of aiming for positive social or economic co-benefits – such as improving urban air quality.

Local action is key to global impact

Distilling and contextualizing reports like the IPCC to a city context, makes global recommendations local. For climate change action to be a success, we must transform the global to the local, and tie local action back into to the global. The good news is there are a number of organizations working on this. C40 has a Climate Action Planning Programme which supports cities to create and implement climate action plans in line with the 1.5°C goal. The Global Covenant of Mayors, (GCoM) has its Innovate4Cities initiative. Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) has its Climate Neutrality Framework. WWF’s One Planet City Challenge incentivizes cities towards group learning, strengthening their climate action plans and tying them to IPCC learnings.The resources are there, now it’s time to bring more cities on board.One Planet City Challenge (OPCC) is a biennial friendly competition organized by WWF and relaunching in 2023. It guides cities in 1.5 °C alignment, disseminating OPCC cities’ best climate mitigation and adaptation practices, while

publicly recognizing the most ambitious leaders in the field.

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