From ICLEI World Congress to COP26: Cities like Glasgow and Bonn push for transformative change

If there was a common storyline at last week’s ICLEI World Congress, it was that local politicians are pushing hard on multiple fronts to enact positive change, often with more aggressive targets than their peers at the national level. Targets however, that require at least some degree of federal funding in order to come to fruition.

Susan Aitken, Leader of the Glasgow City Council is quick to point out that “the Scottish government has a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 75 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045.” Complimenting these goals “we in Glasgow want to get to net zero by 2030. And the reality is that Scotland isn’t going to reach its targets if they’re not delivered in Glasgow first. So we need to be the vanguard of change.”

Aitken says that for anyone who has visited before, one of the most visible things you’ll notice in Glasgow (host city of COP26 from Nov. 1-12, 2021), is “our streetscape space has changed over to the past four years with a huge turnaround in terms of the amount of space given over to cycling. So we have what we call the Avenues project, which involves significantly reducing the number of private cars, giving a lot more space to pedestrians, cyclists, people in wheelchairs and public transit.” In doing so, she says it’s essentially putting the (traditional car-dominated) hierarchy on its head.

Speaking about her own city’s accomplishments at last week’s World Congress Virtual Launch, Bonn Mayor Katja Dörner observed that “mayors do not have to be convinced of the climate emergency. We are experiencing it firsthand every day and so are our citizens.” Her administration has launched the Bonn4Future program tied to the goal of becoming climate neutral by 2035, which she says “aims to engage all communities, groups, and ages. It’s about using citizen engagement to help decision-makers at the city council and the city staff to move forward.”

Yunus Arikan, Director of Global Advocacy for ICLEI, says cities such as Glasgow, and Bonn, where ICLEI is headquartered, are spearheading what he describes as a “bottom-up demand” from local governments. He says federal leaders are more likely to get on board with aggressive NDCs if they have a sense there is widespread support at the local level. And this in turn is also what often convinces federal politicians to free up much needed funds for local initiatives. “So it’s a bit like climbing the ladder and a race to the top, with different levels of government pushing each other,” Arikan observes.  Looking towards COP26, the efforts of cities like Bonn and Glasgow are key to ensuring that this COP will be marked as the one that makes multilevel action part of the new normal.

Certainly from Aitken’s perspective, Glasgow has a large wish list of ambitious projects in need of funding. But to help get these initiatives off the ground “government, business and global finance need to literally put their money where their mouth is. They can sign all the agreements in the world, but if they’re not going to pay for it, their (carbon reduction goals) aren’t going to be met.”

Aitken says one of her city’s biggest challenges is the need to retrofit over 70,000 tenanted apartments “which are part of the fabric of our city and were high quality and a great model for high density when they were first built (between 1840 and 1920), but now have really poor thermal qualities. So we have a pilot where we are retrofitting one of our housing associations to Passivhaus standards. If we can apply that across these 70,000 buildings, which right now just leak energy, then it will make a huge difference in terms of reducing the carbon emissions of our city.”

Not unlike her counterpart in Glasgow, Dörner also highlighted the need for everything from more affordable, energy efficient housing to creating “a more eco mobile inclusive city” that includes more greenspace for the wellbeing of Bonn’s citizens. “Our goal is to reduce personal motorized transport and ban cars from entering the inner city,” she said, “but this has to be balanced with the needs of our local business and shop owners.”

Inspired by ICLEI’s Five Pathways approach, Dörner said “in Bonn we are focusing on six action areas… mobility, climate and energy, nature and environment, labor and business, social participation and gender.” She emphasized that targets within these focus areas are all linked to the UN’s sustainable development goals. And inspired by lessons learned in New York and other peer cities, there is a new focus on evaluating the outcomes of their initiatives that includes local reviews to ensure their programs are in sync with the interests and needs of Bonn residents.

Of the five pathways, equitable and people-centered development clearly resonates with Aitken, as Glasgow seeks to fast-track transformative change ranging from getting rid of gas boilers (as part of their comprehensive retrofitting program) to transitioning away from fossil fuels to hydrogen-powered buses… to creating a bus rapid transit system (BRT). As part of this process, she says, “we’re going to need a new workforce. At the moment many of the new skills aren’t there, but the old skills can easily be transitioned into new ones. That is a huge part of the work we have to do and in many ways the most important part. Because if we do all of the infrastructure investment and physical transition without having new skills and jobs investment going on at the same time, then none of this is going to work.”

To make initiatives such as creating a BRT in order to get more cars off the road a reality, Glasgow is aggressively going after Scottish government funding for public transit programs. For Aitken, the logic behind pushing for federal support for major projects versus trying to rely solely on local taxpayers comes down to an equity issue. “Residents shouldn’t be having to bear the burden of paying for the emissions reductions that will meet the targets of national governments,” she says.

She carries this sense of fairness over to the global stage as well. “The wealthier countries need to be prepared to fund the transitions of those countries which have contributed the least to emissions, but (in many cases) have suffered the most.”

No doubt this sort of discussion will be on the agenda at COP26, which Aitken is cautiously optimistic will take place as a live event, although possibly with numbers scaled back. She is also quick to point out that “because we are a city of equity… if we get to November and Glaswegians can’t do such things as go to restaurants indoors… then delegates will be subject to the same restrictions. But by the time of the conference we’re reasonably hopeful that (in light of the worldwide vaccination program now underway) the situation will be much more relaxed.”

Relaxed, and with any luck, more hopeful. Aitken says there would be a lot more pessimism if it weren’t for the recent change in the U.S. administration. But now she says, “there’s a sense that it’s game on.”

Ever a realist, Aitken acknowledged that due to global warming there’s already “a huge amount of damage we may never be able to reverse. But we can still make the decisions that need to be made and take actions in order to secure a more sustainable future.”