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Daring Cities 2020 opening highlights challenges, opportunities and courage needed to clear the air when it comes to climate change

“Urban areas are at ground zero. They bear the brunt of climate disaster and are responsible for more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And as urban leaders, you are on the front lines of these solutions,” António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations observed yesterday while thanking ICLEI for its longstanding work in this field during the opening session of Daring Cities 2020.

ICLEI president Ashok Sridharan, and Mayor of Bonn, Germany, positioned Daring Cities as a potential catalyst for some of the front-line solutions urban leaders need to implement. “My wish for these three weeks (during the conference) is to empower and encourage as many cities, regions, leaders and individuals to adopt the attitude of making climate action happen further, faster, together.”

During the opening, a multinational line-up of speakers from Europe, North America, South America, South Asia and Africa, shared their experience in tackling climate change. 

Minister Svenja Schulze, from Germany’s Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) pointed to direct steps her government has made to ensure that cities have funding to support climate action within their COVID-19 recovery plans. “We have aligned our COVID-19 economic recovery package with climate action. We are focusing on the municipalities in particular, with the German government making an additional 100 million euros available to enable municipalities to implement climate action measures despite the financial pressures of the coronavirus pandemic,” Schulze said.

“The climate crisis is happening right now” said Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  “In 2019 alone, [climate change] cost the world 150 billion and imposed untold misery on so many of our fellow citizens. And it will only get much worse if we fail to act decisively and urgently. Perhaps nowhere is the work more important than in our urban centers. We all know, this is where the climate battle will be won or lost.”

Many speakers focused on the problem of air pollution – a glaring challenge which has made headline news of late and is affecting communities around the world in diverse and often unequal ways.

“As you can imagine, because of the wildfires, we’ve suffered some of the worst air quality in the history of California. There’s an enormous amount of carbon dioxide going into our atmosphere that our children are breathing every day,” said Kevin de Leόn, Member elect, Los Angeles City Council. “We’re witnessing and experiencing climate change in real time,” he said. Among climate mitigation efforts underway, California has set a target of transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. “But I believe we can get there by 2035 with the acceleration of innovation and technology,” de Leόn predicted. 

Another initiative he spoke about, which promises to directly impact the entire U.S. automotive industry, is the state’s mandate that only zero emission vehicles can be sold after 2035. “That sends a very clear message to the supply chain… not just for domestic manufacturers, but global manufacturers.” 

Speaking about their own pollution challenges, Shri Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister with the City of Delhi said there were times when the entire city was engulfed in smoke.

One of the biggest contributors to such toxic air quality, has been the annual practice of stubble burning after a harvest, which farmers do to reduce the turnaround time for producing a second crop. In response, Kejriwal said a new solution that has successfully been introduced, is to spray the farmers’ fields with a chemical – a fermented liquid – which converts the stubble into manure… thus eliminating the need for stubble burns altogether. And the city is covering the cost of this initiative, to fast-track buy in from the farmers. 

Vincent Kayanja, Mayor of the City of Entebbe, also spoke about their efforts to work with local industry and residents to reduce the use of firewood and charcoal to address air quality issues. And at the same time, he stressed the importance of nature-based solutions and the preservation of their natural resources to help improve air quality.

While the preservation of natural resources is a worldwide challenge, Norbert Barthle, Secretary of State for Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation said that African and Asia are particularly vulnerable due to the rapid acceleration of urbanization taking place. “By 2050, Africa’s urban population will have grown by 1 billion people and in Asia by 1.2 billion,” he observed. And this trend poses daunting climate challenges. “Up to 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from cities… and road transportation and the construction industry are the biggest sources,” he said.

Just as de Leόn spoke of the need to reinvent the auto industry, Barthle said that with such rapid urban growth taking place, cities need to completely rethink the construction industry as well and work toward a carbon neutral model. Based on this conviction, his own ministry is currently building a carbon neutral high-rise building made from wood in the city of Berlin. 

The state of São Paulo is prioritizing adaptation to climate change impacts, such as droughts, wildfires and heat waves, and developing a multi-level policy between the state and local governments. All 645 municipalities – with 42 million inhabitants – are being “risk-mapped,” according to Mr. Eduardo Trani, Deputy Secretary of Environment at the Secretary of Infrastructure and Environment of the State of São Paulo. Capacity building at the local level has also played a major role in addressing adaptation and resilience to build success across the state.

Yet another challenge highlighted during the opening session was the reality that in addition to having the political will to address climate change, there remains economic challenges – particularly for cities in emerging economies. Carolina Urrutia, Environmental Secretary of the City of Bogota pointed out that huge disparities exist not only internationally, but at the local level as well. “We have a city where some sectors still live in the 19th century, others live in the 20th century and others live in the 21st century,” she said. And some of the most vulnerable – those most at risk of being left behind, are driving older, more polluting vehicles which are contributing to higher levels of particulate matter in the air. This in turn is contributing to thousands of deaths related to respiratory problems each year. 

Urrutia said the owners of some of the most polluting vehicles – trucks used for transporting goods, are also some of the most vulnerable members of society. And these individuals are often the first ones to get sick from the exhaust of their own vehicles. Most owners lack the financial resources to transition to newer vehicles. So in recognition of that fact, the city is working on financial incentives to try and make it easier for them to transition to cleaner technology. 

Although he spoke midway through yesterday’s opening session, de Leόn of the City of Los Angeles made what arguably would have been an ideal closing statement vis-à-vis the challenges and opportunities associated with climate change, when he asked “do politicians at the subnational level, at the national level, have the courage and conviction to do what’s right for humanity. For our own global community?” 

With any luck we’ll have a better idea of the answer to that question over the coming days of Daring Cities.

Read our coverage of the Opening Plenary – Session 2.

Watch highlights from the opening of Daring Cities and follow the conversation at https://daringcities.org/

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