Why city action is critical in the fight against climate change

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C40 Knowledge

Many city governments, including but not limited to members of C40 Cities, are leading global actors in their ambition and implementation of climate action. Their efforts are paying off; these cities are driving down their emissions, building their resilience, proving what’s possible and catalysing change across countries and sectors. Achieving a climate-safe future, however, requires comparable action by all cities, of every size and in every country, and the active support of national and multi-lateral policy frameworks and financing mechanisms. Here’s why action by every city matters and why actors in the climate space should do everything they can to unleash their potential.

Every city faces local climate change impacts

Most cities have already experienced extreme weather events that would have been almost impossible in their frequency or strength without human-induced climate breakdown. The impacts of heat extremes, drought, storms, floods, wildfires and their smoke are guaranteed to get worse, even if we limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C – the science-based goal of the Paris Agreement. Global heating in excess of this would mean even higher risk and the potential for catastrophic outcomes. As well as more extreme weather events, cities are likely to see increases in food insecurity, water shortages, health impacts, property insurance costs and more, with knock-on impacts on livelihoods, businesses and economies. Many low-lying coastal cities face an existential threat from rising seas, while countless others face the challenge of accepting immigrants from areas that people flee.

By assessing their climate-related risk and implementing adaptation measures, cities can better withstand and respond to these challenges. Adapting to climate change and climate hazards delivers vastly better social and economic outcomes than dealing with the costs of disasters. Read Why all cities need to adapt to climate change to learn more.

Every city has a critical role to play in avoiding the worst outcomes by delivering their fair share of emissions cuts

Together, cities account for most of the world’s economic activity and the majority – an estimated 75% – of global CO2 emissions, primarily from transport and buildings.1, 2 As cities are home to more than half of the world’s population, the food consumption choices of urban residents and food waste produced in cities are major drivers of methane emissions – a short-lived but extremely potent greenhouse gas. Tackling these emissions requires every city to deliver their fair share of the emissions cuts needed to halve global emissions by 2030, en route to net zero, to limit global heating to 1.5°C. For some wealthy, high-polluting cities, this can mean reductions of over 70% by 2030; some are targeting net zero before 2035. Explore examples of Paris Agreement-compatible climate targets and action plans from cities around the world in our map.

By implementing measures that cut emissions, cities can also improve air quality and public health, create more pleasant and productive urban environments, grow sustainable industries and sectors, create good green jobs, attract investment and maintain competitiveness in a rapidly changing global economy.

Every city is inherently well positioned to drive and deliver emissions cuts in critical sectors

Municipal governments are the scale at which implementation happens for many impactful climate actions in important sectors. While city administrations’ formal powers vary significantly, cities often have direct decision-making authority or can strongly influence decisions about their road networks and transport systems, land use and urban planning, waste collection and disposal systems, water supply, parks and green space, and more. Some can set their own building codes. Their overall long-term vision and strategy, infrastructure development plans, decisions about how their budgets are spent and their staffing, as well as the incentives and other supportive programmes they offer, can be important drivers of change. The city scale also offers an ideal environment in which to pilot and scale up solutions.

Municipal governments are major asset owners and procurers of goods and services. They own land, buildings and vehicle fleets, construct new buildings and infrastructure, and are often among the biggest purchasers of food and energy in a city, for instance. Decisions about municipal assets and procurement can catalyse change in key sectors across the city and beyond, as well as bring down the city’s own emissions and exposure to climate risk.

Even where municipal governments don’t have formal power and direct decision-making authority, they can have a big impact through convening, collaborating, enabling, persuading and coalition building. As population and economic hubs, and centres of research, innovation, entrepreneurship and culture, cities and their governments have strong soft powers that can be used to drive progress in key sectors.3 City leaders can ‘govern by network’ to deliver in partnership with a range of public, private and civic actors.4 Key partners to engage include Business Improvement Districts and other business leaders and representatives, academic institutions, labour unions and workers’ groups, and civil society organisations and community groups.

Cities can often act more swiftly than countries and regions. Municipal governments tend to be less burdened by bureaucracy and partisan politics than national or regional governments.5, 6 Coupled with the tangible local benefits that climate actions bring for residents and businesses, these characteristics help to enable city leaders with political will to set and deliver against ambitious, science-based climate targets that are often far ahead of national efforts.7

By working together internationally, cities and their leaders drive progress at a global scale. Cities connecting through national and global networks support each other to raise ambition and build their collective voice in global policy debates. They establish universal targets, share ideas, and compete in a race to cut emissions. Indeed, research has found that networks of cities are replacing nation states as the primary advancers and defenders of climate policy internationally, whether in parallel to, or in defiance of, their national government.8

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