Why cities are forming a global alliance to curb climate change

Cities created the largest network yet dedicated to fighting climate change, highlighting the growing importance of cities in spearheading sustainability initiatives. 

Virginia Mayo/AP
United Nations Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change Michael Bloomberg speaks during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday.

Most attention on climate change policy has focused on national governments, but can cities, too, help curb global warming?

That's the goal of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a coalition of more than 7,000 cities spanning six continents.

The group, created by merging the United Nation’s Compact of Mayors and the EU’s Covenant of Mayors, is a first-of-its-kind global initiative of local governments aimed at supporting each other in “setting ambitious climate reduction goals, taking ambitious action to meet those objectives, and measuring their progress publicly and transparently,” according to a statement released by the European Commission on Thursday.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who will co-chair the new Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy along with European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, called the move “a giant step forward in the work of achieving the goals that nations agreed to in Paris.”

“Cities have increasingly been gathering the confidence of nation-states in demonstrating that not only are they spaces of solutions but spaces of such grand solutions that nation-states can be more ambitious in their commitments,” Shagun Mehrotra, who teaches sustainable development at The New School University and directs the Sustainable Development Solutions Center, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Cities played a key role in developing the UN’s sustainable development goals, Dr. Mehrotra said, and more than 400 mayors converged on Paris for the climate talks in December where the United States committed to a 26-28 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 compared to 2005.

A national version of the international network was also announced earlier this week. The US Conference of Mayors and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions will partner to encourage public-private cooperation on climate action, forming a group called the Alliance for a Sustainable Future.

“Making cities more livable, walkable, and attractive is something that mayors are very keen on,” Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview Thursday. “You see more and more cities moving forward to build the kind of green infrastructure and environment that’s attractive to people and also reducing the global impact.”

Businesses are similarly prioritizing environmentalism, Mr. Perciasepe says, with most large businesses now appointing a chief sustainability officer. “You’ve got a movement going down in these two realms and we’re trying to find a way to bring them together.”

Between 70 percent and 80 percent of the world's wealth resides in cities, so they do have resources to make an impact, according to Mehrota. “For example, New York spends over $50 billion in its annual operating budget. You can do a lot with that,” he says.

But together, cities are much stronger.

“They’re able to bargain for technology and lower costs.... They are able to access technology, political and institutional platforms at the global level, even though they are subnational governments,” says Mehrota.

Sam Adams, former mayor of Portland, Ore., and director of World Resources Institute’s US Climate Initiative, will be in attendance at the US Conference of Mayors in Indianapolis this weekend, the first meeting of the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, and says collaboration provides a great way for mayors to speed up innovation.

“My push to have Portland become the first big city in the United States to be rated the highest platinum category for biking, that was inspired from my participation in these networks. I wanted to be the first, we ended up being the second after Davis, California, which points out the other great part of these networks, which is the friendly competition to the top,” says Mr. Adams.

Adams adds, “In terms of climate action, there’s a heck of a lot riding on the success of individual cities around the world. It adds up to either greater emissions, or it adds up to reducing carbon pollution.”

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