Cities’ climate commitments outperform nations on ambition.

Cities are ready with robust climate action plans and ambitious targets that often outpace their national counterparts. What they need now is support from their national governments and financiers to turn their prioritized actions into resilience-building projects.

Cities are hubs of innovation, and, especially in the smaller and medium-sized municipalities, local governments are agile and adaptable, as a large concentration of people and infrastructure inevitably lead to unexpected events. Climate change is only one such example, but one that most cities around the world have already experienced first-hand in some shape or form, whether it be heatwaves, droughts, wildfires or floods.

In a session hosted by the Global Covenant of Mayors (GCoM) at the Multilevel Action Pavilion at COP26, a single message rang clear: Cities not only feel climate change is taking place, but they can act faster and go further than national and global plans, pledges and agreements.

Heidelberg in Germany decided 12 years ago that all new buildings had to be zero emissions. The city upheld this standard as they built schools, shopping malls, a new fire station and other large developments over the last decade.

“Cities have the ability to make political commitments fast,” says Heidelberg Mayor and GCoM Board Member Prof. Dr. Eckart Würzner. “If we had the power to access more funding, we can achieve national and global targets much easier and faster.”

The data agree. Becoming a GCoM signatory means cities and regions commit to developing climate action plans, which are similar to the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – or national action plans – often referenced during the summit to show countries’ progress in achieving the Paris Agreement.

Yet GCoM’s 2021 Impact Report shows that 83% of cities’ local-level action plans have more ambitious targets than their national counterparts. 56% of signatories also aim to achieve these in a shorter timeframe than what NDCs commit to.

“Cities can act with greater ambition and at a faster pace,” says Andy Deacon, GCoM Acting Managing Director.

“By 2050, GCoM cities and local governments could reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 3.8 GtCO2e annually. This is more than half of all GHG emissions in the United States of America in 2019,” expands Paula Kirk, Cities, Energy and Climate Change team lead at Arup and collaborator on the report.

A local-level climate action plan consists of baseline reports, which show what the city’s emissions and, in some cases, climate hazards currently are. Cities are increasingly including adaptation in their action plans. They typically go on to set specific targets followed by realistic actions to achieve these targets. These steps are well within the city’s ability to undertake and this is what GCoM supports cities across all regions to do.

The challenge comes after the target-setting and action-planning. It’s the same challenges heard throughout these two weeks at COP26. In order to implement projects on the ground that will achieve the targets and build truly resilient cities and regions, local governments need more regulatory power and better access to finance.

As Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds of Hobart explains, Australian local governments have no regulatory power in the transport or energy sector, they receive only 3.7% of tax revenue, yet they are “responsible for maintaining and managing 35% of public infrastructure. Cities have ambition, but it’s essential to empower them with regulatory and financial influence.”

The GCoM network aims to support cities in moving from action plans to implementation. A poll asked participants to name one word that is key to further local climate action and achieve the ambitions possible at the local level, and overwhelmingly they named collaboration as the key ingredient. Here is the word cloud generated from that poll.

Collaboration certainly gets results. Mérida, Mexico has been able to build 70km of bicycle lanes made out of recycled material, installed solar panels on 99 public buildings and converted 50% of public lighting to geothermal energy. Baguio in the Philippines, which experiences the worst flooding events in the country, implemented a rapid early warning system, and is rolling out electric buses and has converted an informal dump site into a public park. Both cities agree that partnerships were key in making these tangible changes.

Piero Remitti from the GCoM Global Secretariat mentioned that the initiative is planning future matchmaking events to further drive multilevel implementation and support cities in achieving their ambitions.

The same is true for other regional offices. The Covenant of Mayors in Sub-Saharan Africa (CoM SSA) will soon launch its Signatories Portal which will provide government officials with tailored resources and opportunities for funding, connecting with partners and engaging with other signatories on a forum managed in three most-spoken languages in Africa.

The Covenant of Mayors initiatives around the world are succeeding in bringing cities to a point of commitment and readiness for action. Gregor Robertson, GCoM Global Ambassador, summarized the space that cities and regions find themselves in perfectly.

“Cities are ready. They have the plans. Our message is simple and clear: we need more support and investment from the national government to take climate action. It’s crucial to our success. Cities are responsible for infrastructure and we cannot repair and build resilience without funding.”

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