Daring Cities closing balances bold initiatives with challenges that lie ahead

Inspiring city initiatives in the fight against climate change have sprung up around the world, from the conversion of former landfill sites into wetlands in Buenos Aires, to Delhi closing its most polluting power plant, to Guangzhou electrifying its entire bus network.

At the same time, questions linger over why cities like Lagos or Dakar in Africa  must still import their food, when the potential exists for them to grow their own.

It was that contrast of success stories and challenges confronting cities around the world that came to the fore yesterday in the closing session of Daring Cities, the culmination of three weeks, 400+ speakers and 200 hours of dialogue and knowledge exchange.

Looking back on everything that had been accomplished at Daring Cities, Mayor Ashok Sridharan of host city Bonn said the conference proved to the world that new thinking tied to transformative change in cities is possible. And that hopefully the momentum achieved at this event carries over into the coming decade, as all levels of government work toward achieving the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Previously, many observers were sceptical, suggesting that the 2030 goals for tackling climate change were “just too costly to achieve,” observed Marina Ponti, Director of the SDG Action Campaign. “But now as we are seeing, leaders across the world are seeking to realign their societies and change their economies,” tied to achieving sustainable development goals. 

Building on the observations made by Sridharan and Ponti, the session – entitled Moving Forward: Local and Regional Governments on the Roadmap Toward Our Climate-Friendly, Resilient Future – began by focusing on the urgent need to restore nature before it’s too late. 

“With the most rapid rates of urban expansion, Asia and Africa, are projected to experience 80 percent of global cropland loss due to unplanned urban expansion,” warned Ibrahim Thiaw, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). 

Looking ahead in response to such daunting challenges, Thiaw described 2021 as “critically important for the world” with the Conferences of the Parties of the three Rio Conventions, the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the UN Food Systems Summit all taking place.  

Reinforcing Thiaw’s observations on the critical role nature will have in mitigating climate change, Alok Sharma, the UK’s COP26 President-Designate stressed “we must restore nature in order to turn the tide and build our resilience toward global temperatures.” 

In restoring nature as a habitat for an inestimable number of flora and fauna species, Sharma said cities also derive such climate resilience benefits as coping better with flooding and extreme heat. 

“Biodiversity and climate are intrinsically linked” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). “Biodiversity brings solutions to climate and climate is a central issue for biodiversity.”

Recognizing this critical linkage between climate change and biodiversity, Valerie Plante, Mayor of Montreal shared news of her city’s goal of creating Canada’s largest park, tying this initiative in with the conviction that cities need to change how they approach climate change with “meaningful action”, including dramatically “rethinking urban planning” in order to remove potential obstacles to such goals as the park they have planned.  

While cities around the world are already acting through the implementation of inspiring initiatives, Gino Van Begin, Secretary General of ICLEI said that now, in this time of crisis, those efforts need to be accelerated. “Cities are already acting to make structural changes and responding to resident needs, the daring approach must be to do more, to act better and to lead together,” he observed. And in recognition of the fact that in many emerging economies cities lack the monetary resources tied to achieving sustainable development goals, financing programs supported by such institutions as the World Bank remain critical. 

Speaking from Milan, host city of Pre-COP 26 next year, Sergio Costa, Italy’s Minister of the Environment, touched on his country’s renewed financial commitment to sustainability initiatives, including an ecobonus program to fund the energy retrofitting of buildings, a 210 million Euro subsidy towards the purchase of bikes, e-bikes and scooters as a means of alternative transportation and a 250 million Euro initiative to finance the creation of dedicated lanes for public transportation as well as bike lanes. 

City of Kigali Mayor Pudence Rubingisa observed that his municipality is the first in the developing world to commit to climate change actions and meeting NDC goals. However they cannot accomplish these goals without partner support. “We have ambitious plans to implement. But [they] require funding from the public and private sectors,” to come to fruition, he said, going on to stress the need for project funding at the city level, where most greenhouse gas emissions occur. 

Also stressing the need to act now, Mami Mizutori, Head, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), observed that during the past three years, over 90 percent of the world’s disasters were associated with climate change. And due to the combined challenges of global warming and COVID-19, for many, “the very fabric of our lives has been stretched to the breaking point.” As such, we can no longer cling to a passive view, as the world did leading up to the pandemic. “With COVID-19 the tragedy is we knew it was going to come,” she observed. And just as the world now is frantically responding to this outbreak, we must come to grips with the fact that “there is no vaccine for climate change.”

As COVID-19 has shown to the world, we must embrace knowledge and science now more than ever and one city that exemplifies this mindset is Malmö. The mayor of that city Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh described where she lives, with 14 universities and colleges nearby, as Northern Europe’s most knowledge intensive region. And they are actively leveraging their educational institutions and the knowledge sector “to accelerate our work to become a greener, healthier, more livable city.” Those measures include improving the quality of the city’s biodiversity and nature and ensuring “the policies and plans we implement are based on equity and inclusivity.”

And to achieve her city’s goal of becoming climate neutral by 2030, she emphasized the need for cities and all levels of government to continue to exchange knowledge and best practices, using Daring Cities as a springboard towards next year’s COP-26 in Glasgow. 

Glasgow Mayor Susan Aitken also spoke on the power of collaborative city action in the fight against climate change. “Daring Cities has provided us with a platform of real purpose and focus on which to make common cause, to share and collaborate on those solutions that we as cities can deliver to meet the challenges of the climate emergency.”

Tied to the overarching commitment of leaving no one behind, the sessions wrapped up with two presenters focused on taking the discussion surrounding global, down to the local level. 

London-based lawyer and activist  Farhana Yamin with the group Camden Think&Do said that as part of “democratizing the dialogue” surrounding climate change, it’s essential that all levels of government collaborate and engage with citizens “and not just treat them as consumers and taxpayers.”

Yamin said that apart from major events like the COP convenings, having more virtual events like Daring Cities where citizens of the world can attend regardless of income or geography is a good starting point. But she also advocated for “more hyper-local imagining initiatives,” in neighbourhood spaces and meeting areas. And coupled with discussion surrounding climate change “we need to be having a discussion about social and racial inequality,” she said.

Meanwhile, Craig Segall, formerly with the Sierra Club and now Assistant Chief Counsel of the California Air Resources Board stressed the need for government to invest in initiatives such as affordable housing, recognizing that individuals most affected by climate change are often those most vulnerable. And that in the process, we need to create “denser, greener, more equitable cities.”

With Daring Cities now behind us, ICLEI Secretary General Gino Van Begin emphasized the need to have a dialogue at the local level, as observed by Yamin. But also as conveyed by Segall, to “make concrete” plans in support of impactful initiatives in such critical areas as biodiversity, waste management, circularity, ecologistics and active mobility. 

We simply don’t have the luxury of postponing such actions he observed. We must “keep the momentum going.” 

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