How are cities actually racing to zero?

One of the toughest parts of fulfilling the Paris Agreement goals is understanding the path to success. What does it take to muster the political will and support to make an ambitious commitment? How can all levels of government move capital that will result in investments that decrease carbon emissions?

Surfacing and showcasing those leaders and organizations who are on the path, who have gotten in the race, is what Daring Cities is all about.

Race to Zero is a global campaign led by the Climate Action Champions of the UN Climate Change Convention to mobilize leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero carbon recovery, which creates jobs, unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth and reduces the risk of future shocks.

Race to Zero builds on the Climate Ambition Alliance, which was announced in Madrid last year, by COP25 High-Level Champion Gonzalo Muñoz along with COP25 President Minister Carolina Schmidt. This group is 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.

And cities are coming to the table. “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. We invite all Parties to reach out to their local and regional governments. Together we can collectively raise climate ambition” says Mayor Minna Arve, of Turku, Finland – a city that has committed to being carbon neutral by 2029 and is strengthening its action through the development of Turku’s circular economy

For instance, in June, 226 South Korean local governments declared a climate emergency and called for climate neutrality by 2050. ICLEI’s Pioneers of Climate Ambition list captures the commitments of cities, towns and regions that have adopted a climate emergency declaration, committed to climate neutrality, are transitioning towards 100% renewable energy, or divesting from fossil fuels. More than 200 of these cities, towns or regions have started their own journeys on this Race to Zero emissions and are responding to civil society demands from the streets and working to mobilize alongside their national governments. 

Here are two such stories – the story of how 157 cities and prefectures in Japan – representing nearly 60 percent of the national population – have declared they will reach carbon zero by 2050 – and the city of Bonn, Germany, which will be climate neutral by 2035.

Japan deepens local commitment, to drive national ambition

Japan has long led in a practice of deep multi-level and collaborative climate action. In 1996, the Japanese government issued legislation that required cities and prefectures to account and monitor their GHG emissions. In 1997, Kyoto hosted COP3, which concluded with the adoption of the historic Kyoto Protocol.

In 2011, Japan was mobilized as the first national supplement to carbonn Cities Climate Registry that kicked-off in 2010 with the Mexico City Pact. By 2013, 133 Japanese cities and prefectures, covering eighty percent of Japanese GHG emissions, reported hundreds of GHG emissions inventories and mitigation commitments in the carbonn Climate Registry.

Japan has also heightened the level of exchange between local, regional and national government representatives. In 2016, under the Japanese Presidency of the G7, the first Environment Ministerial roundtable with Mayors was hosted in Toyama. In 2018, five sessions of Cities and Regions Talanoa Dialogues were held in Japan. In 2019, under the Japanese presidency of the G20, Nagano Prefecture presented Nagano Declaration on Collaborative Action for Sustainable Development at the G20 Environment Ministers meeting. The Governor of Tokyo also handed over the U20 Communique to the Prime Minister of Japan as G20 President.

In late 2019, 28 Japanese cities and prefectures announced their net zero commitments. These cities also became a part of the UNFCCC Climate Ambition Alliance. Immediately after COP25, Minister Koizumi wrote a special letter to Japanese cities and prefectures inviting them to commit to net zero carbon.

But this local momentum can’t substitute entirely for national ambition. So in February 2020, when Japan submitted its 2nd NDC without changing the ambition level announced at the first NDC, there was a certain degree of disappointment by all stakeholders.

In the past months however, there have been some new, exciting developments. In April 2020, at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, Minister Koizumi announced that Japan will submit its third NDC by COP26, which will be new and more ambitious than the 2nd NDC. Most of the measures to which he referred were linked to the sectors under the authorities of local and prefectural governments.

On 7 May 2020, the Ministry of Environment of Japan announced 91 Japanese cities and regions committing to net zero. Since then, that number has grown to 157 adding to Japan’s already impressive list of cities taking part in the Race to Zero. At ICLEI’s Race to Zero Dialogue, H.E. Shinjiro Koizumi, the Minister of Environment of Japan, spoke about the significance of raising ambition via net zero cities.

Throughout this process, the Japanese Ministry of Environment has recognized ICLEI Japan as their leading partner to support the process. If it proves to be successful in raising the climate ambition of the NDC, this unique Japanese model of multilevel and collaborative climate action may inspire many countries around the world regardless of their development level, size or geography.

Bonn, Germany: a holistic journey towards climate neutrality

The City of Bonn is one of the pioneering cities that started from the early 1990s to adopt voluntary GHG emissions reductions targets, thanks to its administration and leadership, collaboration with city networks, and engagement in national and European policy. This awareness and readiness enabled Bonn to become one of the first signatories of the European Covenant of Mayors.

In 2010, Bonn complemented its climate mitigation by increasing investments on climate resilience and adaptation. The City also brought this vision to a global stage by co-hosting ICLEI’s annual Resilient Cities Congress as the global forum on urban resilience and adaptation, in tandem with the annual UNFCCC Bonn Climate Conference.

In 2010 and 2011, Bonn established further strategies and structures for climate protection, including the creation of the Bonn Energy Agency offering consultation for homeowners, and adoption of the masterplan on energy transition and climate protection, which included the formation climate protection focal point within the administration and a climate council with representatives from science, economy, and civil society.

Leading up to and after the 2015 Paris Agreement, Bonn enhanced its engagement in the UNFCCC process, by participating in the Marrakech Partnership, Action for Climate Empowerment and the Talanoa Dialogues. Starting in 2016, Bonn intensified engagement in climate adaptation by actively participating in several research projects with the goal to further include adoption issues in urban planning processes.

In 2018, under the leadership of Ashok Sridharan as ICLEI President, the ICLEI network adopted the Montreal Commitment,  a strategic vision that guides the network towards climate neutrality, and the next year, Bonn developed its own sustainability strategy to align with the Sustainable Development Goals.

In mid-2019, Bonn City Council adopted a declaration of climate emergency based on an application by the initiatives Fridays For Future, Parents For Future und Klimawache Bonn. Later that year, the Council voted that Bonn become climate neutral by 2035, three years before Germany’s deadline of coal phase-out and Bonn was listed in the Climate Ambition Alliance announced by COP25 Presidency in Madrid.

In May 2020, building on the work of the City Administration, the Bonn City Council reserved an additional budget of €5 million for measures to comply with climate emergency and make their commitments a reality.

As a co-host of Daring Cities 2020, Bonn will once again bring urgent climate work to a global stage, as a means to connect post-pandemic recovery efforts with the global efforts to raise climate ambition towards COP26 and beyond.

After COVID-19, where are we racing to?

The immediate response to COVID-19 was focused on the need to fight against the virus and provide emergency short-term financial support to households and businesses. But already, the response is shifting to rebuilding the economy, including long-term stimulus packages from governments. The scale of these fresh capital injections, likely ten to twenty trillion US dollars, will determine what the economy – and our planet – will look like over the next decade.

It is vital that action on climate is an essential component of a successful economic recovery, rather than in opposition to it, and cities and regions will have to be a part of that equation.

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