3 takeaways from the opening day of Daring Cities 2021. Here’s what you missed.

Daring Cities got off to a flying start on Monday with four live sessions that brought together inspirational local leaders to share their experiences in taking on the climate emergency. ICLEI’s Secretary General, Mr. Gino Van Begin kicked off the opening session with a reminder of the central role cities will play in climate action. “We know the ask is great, but it’s not impossible,” he said.

Here are three key takeaways from the day:

1. We still face many challenges

The keynote was delivered by Johan Rockström, Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor in Earth System Science, University of Potsdam, Germany. “We know the basic physics,” said Rockström, “for every 1°C rise in temperature, there is seven percent more water in the atmosphere.”

This is resulting in visible changes worldwide, from low-lying coastal cities facing land loss to an increased frequency of extreme flooding events, as witnessed across central and western Europe this summer. “There is 100% unequivocal evidence we are causing global warming,” impressed Rockström.

The challenges aren’t just ecological. Many existing political, administrative and legal frameworks are putting the brakes on local urban climate action. “There are things out of our control,” explained Ravi Bhalla, Mayor of Hoboken, USA, “the last president pulled out of the Paris Agreement. […] Those fluctuations are real challenges, they’re real problems.” Municipalities face barriers from such political disconnects across governance levels.

When asked about approaches for local governments, seeing that smaller cities were the first to declare climate emergencies Dr. Philipp Rode, Executive Director of LSE Cities, responded, “Medium and smaller cities lead on declaring climate emergencies, but the noise of those communities can be tuned out by really powerful interests.”

This mirrored the lived experience of Emilio Jatón, Mayor of City of Santa Fe, Argentina, who highlighted the importance of networks like ICLEI to elevate the voice of cities. Another hurdle at the local-level was hesitancy to be the first to commit to actions above and beyond statutory obligations.

2. Let’s own our tools – Collaboration, finance and education are key

These challenges set the scene as the dialogue turned to visions, actions and ways forward. The high-level speakers underlined the importance of knowing their capacities, strengths and weaknesses when moving forward with climate goals. In Bonn, for example, the city’s capacity for solar energy generation has barely been tapped into.

Broadcasting from the Philippines, Abigail Binay, Mayor of Makati, explained how understanding Makati’s climate vulnerabilities had helped the city fortify its risk reduction approach. She said, “We are in a constant state of preparedness in Makati. We allocate at least 5% of our revenue to disaster resilience.” Local climate assessments granted both cities access to data, helping to inform their unique, targeted responses.

This thread was picked up by Cathy Yitong Li, representing YOUNGO – the constituency of the children and youth to the UNFCCC – who pointed out that the ability of stakeholders – including youth and other underrepresented groups – to act effectively is dependent not only on having the relevant data, but also on possessing the tools and know-how to make their voices heard.

Finance remained a barrier for many cities, with Frank Cownie, Mayor of Des Moines, US, maintaining that multi-sectorial, mutually beneficial partnerships between private corporations, state and civil society actors is fundamental to moving forward – “It has to be an all-in approach.”

Innovative funding schemes, like the Transformative Action Program (TAP) are, however, helping cities.

Improvements in collaboration and finance were closely tied to education and awareness-raising. Reaching citizens through educational projects remained high on the agenda, with Vera Revina Sari, Acting Governor for Spatial Planning and Environment, Jakarta, Indonesia, indicating how Jakarta had taken a three-fold approach to citizen outreach through the Ambitious City Promises (ACP) project.

“Through the ACP project with ICLEI, we’ve developed an online platform to showcase our emission reductions to date, as well as a guidebook to help Jakarta’s residents lead more sustainable lifestyles. We also initiated a pilot project, ‘Energy Ambassadors’ for school students, aiming to build the capacity of youth to become future leaders in energy efficiency.”

3. We need to act now

There is a constant tension between social, ecological and economic sustainability goals, with urban leaders often having to prioritize one to the detriment of another. Roshanie Dissanayake, Commissioner of the Colombo Municipal Council, Sri Lanka, however, demonstrated that there is another way.

She elaborated how Sri Lanka’s cultural history and Buddhist norms had always entwined strong environmental sustainability values with societal ones, which the municipality was now coupling with economic measures. “Colombo is introducing a green tax concession for citizens who are planting ecologically important tree species in their gardens.”

The message is clear: there shouldn’t be an either-or choice between livelihoods, human well-being and climate action.

On the topic of social sustainability, discussions turned to COVID-19, with daring urban leaders flipping the pandemic on its head and drawing positive lessons from the global health crisis.

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat pointed out that recovery from the health crisis “offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for low-carbon, inclusive and resilient transformations”.

The city of Seberang Perai, Malaysia, noted how the three month lockdown caused a significant jump in their emissions reduction, “we reduced our emissions by 8.2% per capita. If we don’t learn from that, then there’s something wrong with us,” commented Ahmad Zabri Bin Mohamed Sarajudin, Acting Director of the city’s Urban Services Department.

From the other side of the world, Mayor Isabella de Roldão, also spoke of the city of Recife’s renewable energy plans. “Together with ICLEI, we defined four pillars: Energy, Sanitation, Mobility and Resilience for climate action […] for example, we transformed the energy supply at the women’s hospital in Recife by installing solar panels”.

Acting now also means planning for the future scenarios. Geraldo Júlio de Mello Filho, State Secretary of Economic Development, State of Pernambuco, Brazil elaborated on Pernambuco’s plans to meet climate goals.

Cities are becoming more ambitious but we’ve a long road ahead!

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