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Cities and Climate: Local Governments with Global Impact

On Thursday, June 1st, 2017, President Trump announced to the world that he would be pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Responses from mayors across the world have been strong and swift, with cities charting their own path on climate change and building on the active work they have been doing on the world stage.

Image Courtesy of Jeremy Jeziorski (c) 2016

President Trump infamously said that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto responded by committing Pittsburgh to the Paris Climate Agreement and pledging that Pittsburgh would be 100% powered by renewables by 2035. At the time of this writing, he is joined by 298 other mayors in pledging to uphold the agreement at the municipal level.

While the Paris Agreement is an accord between countries, cities played their part in its creation. The Paris climate negotiations saw over 1,000 city leaders attend, providing a strong voice for the communities they represent. Having taken part in the development of the world’s climate regime, mayors are now prepared to spend their political capital defending it.

Climate is an area in which local city governments can have global impact. Cities are home to 54.5 percent of the human race and produce over 70 percent of the world’s economic activity. However, the tremendous dynamism and potential of cities comes with a downside: this intense urban activity is responsible for 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions.

In an era where cities drive an interconnected world economy, cities can pursue international policies of their own, using their political and economic influence to drive progress on climate. Cities have been actively engaging each other through direct exchanges and networks and coalitions. Groups like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Global Covenant of Mayors foster collaboration and help share techniques and technology while similar groups operate at the regional level.

For example, Miami brought in Henk Ovink, a Dutch expert on water and flood management, to review its infrastructure plans for adapting to sea level rise. Through cross-city collaboration, Mr. Ovink’s is able to apply the knowledge he gained helping his home country hold back the sea to help cities manage their own struggles with encroaching waters.

Such knowledge sharing is not limited to infrastructure. Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Angel Mancera, and his staff are sharing their experience in developing the first municipal green bonds (financial instruments designed to support climate action) in a Latin American City so others may follow their lead.

Cities can also contribute to climate action through their influence on clean energy markets. The Sierra Club tracks the commitments and progress of cities to power themselves through 100% renewable energy through their “Ready for 100” initiative. In addition to their efforts to reduce direct emissions, they are also expanding the demand for solar and wind power infrastructure. This spurs innovation and helps manufacturers achieve economies of scale, further driving down prices and promoting additional adoption.

While these international efforts are important, the lion’s share of climate work by cities will be within their borders. Cities are raising roads and infrastructure, improving transit, upgrading buildings, and eliminating waste. Through the sharing of best practices and technology as well driving down the cost of clean tech, the international influence of cities is ultimately facilitating these local efforts.

National leaders who are pursuing their Paris climate commitments would be wise to enable the green potential of cities through funding regional and international city networks and providing grants for clean energy. Even without national leaders like President Trump, however, cities can still capitalize on their influence to make a difference. Climate is a challenge that will require many solutions implemented in parallel, and cities can pursue their own decarbonization efforts with or without their national governments.

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization he is affiliated with.


Benjamin Dills

Benjamin is a Program Assistant with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. He focuses his work on international climate, energy, and sustainable development policy, and he has been a member of YPFP’s Energy and Environment Discussion Group for three years. Benjamin holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. You can connect with him on Twitter @Ben_Dills.
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