After COP25, frustration over decisions but even more hope on local climate action

The longest-ever climate conference, COP25, concluded on Sunday. The talks punted a number of meaningful decisions to 2020, including a decision on a global market for carbon emissions trading, known as Article 6. Beyond the delayed decision-making, some results were also cause for disappointment, setting us back from progress contained within the ambition of the Paris Agreement, including a weakened call for the next round of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that doesn’t require any new enhancement of the “ambition” of these goals. Additionally, none of the decisions contained any reference to the role of local and regional governments or to multi-level collaboration (you can read the final decisions here, as well as excellent analysis of the talks here and here).

Those of us working for local and regional governments are used to taking the lead on ambition, however, and this COP was no exception. While we are frustrated at the lack of progress on the decisions coming out of the negotiations, especially in the face of mounting public pressure and undeniable science, we still found four reasons to remain hopeful after this COP25:

1. Ambition found a way onto the agenda beyond the negotiations

On Wednesday, 11 December, COP25 President, Minister Carolina Schmidt, along with High-Level COP25 Champion Gonzalo Muñoz, presented the Climate Ambition Alliance, a renewed alliance of countries, non-state, sub-national and local actors who are determined to follow the Paris Agreement and the recommendations of science as regards climate change.

As of 11 December, 398 cities and 14 regional governments were part of the Alliance, working to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. The LGMA applauds the further inclusion of ambitious cities and regions into the Climate Ambition Alliance. Additionally, 73 Parties to the UNFCCC, 786 businesses and 16 investors are also a part of the Alliance. Chile led the Climate Ambition Alliance at the request of the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, in the context of the 2019 Climate Summit.

The leadership of cities in this Alliance was represented by Bonn (Germany) and Turku (Finland). Ashok Sridharan, Mayor of Bonn (Germany) and President of ICLEI, said at a side event during COP25, “Close to 300 ICLEI network cities have set their path towards climate neutrality, planning to get there by 2050. Others have committed to go for 100 percent renewables, to divest from fossil fuels. ICLEI stands ready to [support] them [as part of] the Climate Ambition Alliance of the COP25 Presidency.”

Mayor Minna Arve, Turku (Finland), represented the Local Governments and Municipal Authorities (LGMA) Constituency (of which ICLEI serves as the focal point) onstage alongside UN Secretary General António Guterres during a High Level Plenary address to the Parties. She said, “One of the most important things cities can offer is accountability. As we are close to our citizens, companies and stakeholders, they can see and take hold of the ones responsible for decision-making and implementation. They can feel the air is cleaner and everyday life is easier thanks to good public transport. Therefore, throughout 2020, we invite all Parties to reach out to their local and regional governments. Together we can collectively raise climate ambition and bring hope to Glasgow at COP26 for a new era.”

Named as a strategic partner for the Climate Ambition Alliance, ICLEI will collaborate with COP25 Presidency and its partners towards COP26 in 2020 to enhance the effectiveness of the Climate Ambition Alliance by developing additional guidance to maximize emissions reduction impacts of climate neutrality targets of local and regional governments worldwide, provided that such collaboration efforts are supported by additional financial resources to mobilize the necessary human and technical services.

The Alliance gives ambitious actors another venue to express their commitment and ambition without being blocked in the formal negotiations. While we must still hold Parties accountable for their commitments within the negotiations, we applaud the support of additional pathways to demonstrate ambition and capture momentum.

Additionally, the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action was extended until 2025. The Marrakech Partnership is another important platform convened by the UNFCCC that enables collaboration between governments and the cities, regions, businesses and investors that must act on climate change.

2. Local and regional governments aren’t waiting for their national governments for climate ambition

As of 10 December 2019, close to 400 local and regional governments within ICLEI´s network can be considered as pioneers of climate ambition due to their already existing public announcements in committing to one or more form of committing 100% renewable energy, declaring climate emergency, adopting climate neutrality targets and divesting from fossil fuels. This includes 160 cities and regions who adopted climate neutrality targets by 2050 with a variety of option of sources and scopes of greenhouses gases emissions and removals, and emissions offsetting.

“Local and regional governments in the ICLEI network are showing again their commitment to climate ambition and are already backing this up with action,” said Emani Kumar, Deputy Secretary General of ICLEI, and Director of ICLEI South Asia. “But if they were enabled with more financial and technical resources, imagine the speed we could move at. In a time of climate emergency, we need our national governments to help us to scale up action.”

Local and regional governments in Japan also stepped forward to make ambitious commitments to zero carbon. As of the start of COP25, 28 local governments had announced their plans to align with the Paris Agreement goal. The cities and regions with carbon neutrality goals include some of the largest, like Tokyo, Kanagawa, Osaka and Nagano, as well as iconic cities such as Kyoto and Yokohama. 

Carbon neutral policies now apply to a population of 45 million people, or about 35% of the country’s total population. Togo Uchida, Executive Director of ICLEI Japan, said of the developments, “Local governments in Japan have made their statement, and we hope our government can follow our lead.”

3. The climate agenda is expanding, and that’s good for everyone

As we approach a “super year” for biodiversity, integrating nature-based solutions and biodiversity concerns within the climate space has never been more imperative nor more elevated than it was at COP25. With the Convention on Biodiversity COP looming in October 2020, as well as recent dire reports from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the IPCC special report on climate change and land, further isolating these agendas does not make sense.

Kobie Brand, Director of ICLEI’s Global Cities Biodiversity Center, said, “I’ve been present in many climate COPs and biodiversity COPs before, and we’ve been looking forward to the moment when these two conventions would find each other in a deeper dialogue with one another. And this was achieved here in Madrid.”

2020 is a critical year for both conventions. She continued, “Next year presents an unprecedented opportunity to the Parties and all other actors to agree on an ambitious and truly transformative ‘new deal for nature,’ one which simultaneously enables raised ambitions of the NDCs made possible by already well-known and readily available nature-based solutions in our towns, cities, nations and indeed at massive and collective global scale as well. We already have the solutions. Our work needs to be informed by clear science on both the climate and nature crises, to collectively do what is required in 2020 to bend the curve and set the world on a new climate and nature trajectory – one respecting, and in harmony with our shared planetary boundaries.”

Circular economy and circular development also took center stage at this year’s COP, including a high level event featuring the Minister of Environment of Japan, Shinjirō Koizumi, at the Japan Pavilion, moderated by ICLEI’s Deputy Secretary General, Emani Kumar. The approach of circular economy – creating closed-loop urban systems and maximize the value of resources – is a useful framework for approaching climate action at the local level. Various events at COP25 tried to answer the “how” of emissions reductions, at the local and regional scale, and beyond, and circular development can provide one pathway.

4. We know for sure that some enhanced NDCs will include local governments

Very few national governments have managed to effectively integrate such multi-level action into goal setting, account for city contributions, or involve sub-nationals in implementation processes, resulting in a missed opportunity for stronger climate action.

NDC Partnership is offering a Climate Action Enhancement Package (abbreviated CAEP, pronounced “cap”) designed to deliver targeted, fast-track support to countries to enhance NDC quality, increase their ambition and ensure implementation. The updating of NDCs presents countries with significant opportunities to align their climate and development agendas to promote sustainable growth, but also presents challenges in reinventing policies and operations and mobilizing enough investment.

ICLEI has been selected as a city network partner – one of 31 implementing partners, but the only local/regional government network –  to help ensure that four countries are able to integrate local and regional government contributions into their enhanced NDCs. The Dominican Republic, Peru, Uganda and Zimbabwe will be supported by ICLEI’s regional offices in Mexico, Central American and the Caribbean; South America; and Africa to assist in vital activities such as strengthening regional capacities for preparing regional GHG inventories.

“We will work with national governments to promote multilevel policies that favor the implementation of actions at the local level. For countries to comply with their NDCs will require a concerted effort between all levels of government to achieve systemic change and ensure a transition to a low-emission world,” said Rodrigo de Oliveira Perpetuo, Regional Director of ICLEI South America. That project will kick off early in the new year.

All eyes are now trained on 2020 and COP26

The Local Governments and Municipal Authorities (LGMA) Constituency and partner organizations have highlighted a clear path of subnational leadership and the increasing need for multi-level integration. Through the LGMA constituency, NAZCA platform, Talanoa Dialogues, the Human Settlements segment of the Marrakech Partnership, among others, sub-nationals have become an integral part of the UNFCCC process.

At the same time, through the efforts of city and subnational government networks, such as GCoM, ICLEI, C40, UCLG, Under2 Coalition, US Climate Alliance, and Alliances for Climate Action, among others, sub-nationals have strengthened their commitments and capacities, and consolidated a key role for themselves in both raising ambition and implementing climate action.

At an event featuring three COP Presidents on one stage – former COP20 President Manuel Pulgar Vidal from WWF, current COP25 President Minister Schmidt, and incoming COP26 President Designate, Claire Perry O´Neil –  the LGMA announced the roadmap towards Glasgow, “Towards ‘the Multilevel Action COP’.”

The roadmap includes six key priorities for the Constituency, which should be enabled and supported by national governments and all other actors: Raise ambitions; Ensure NDC vertical integration and transparency; Localizing climate finance; Bridge mitigation and adaptation; Connect climate to circular economy and nature; and Expand climate action to ministries of urbanization, art and culture, education and youth. Read the full press release here (PDF).

This roadmap was collectively developed and endorsed by national, regional and global networks of local and regional governments who are members of the constituency, and provides a framework for a regional roadmap. With all eyes trained on COP26, the work that needs to be accomplished in one short year is clear. Let’s get to it.