Navigating our changing world: Insights on local urban climate action

In a world increasingly shaped by the climate emergency, cities are stepping into the forefront of resilience and sustainability efforts. During the ICLEI World Congress’ plenary “Our Changing World,” ICLEI Members and experts discussed how cities can leverage local initiatives to drive global impact, emphasizing the urgency of integrated approaches to mitigate environmental risks and build climate-resilient communities worldwide.

In recent weeks, the devastating consequences of climate change have hit worldwide headlines. Floods in southern Brazil and East Africa, droughts decimating crops and drying up water supplies across Southern Africa, unprecedented heat waves in India and Greece, wildfires in Canada, and widespread coral bleaching due to soaring ocean temperatures, are some of the events that have taken the lives of hundreds and leave other thousands displaced.

The harsh reality is that we can hardly escape the almost daily deluge of new and worrying reports showing the drastic global impact of our rapidly changing world. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking just weeks ago on World Environment Day, starkly stated that we are on a “highway to climate hell unless we can find the exit ramp.” UN Secretary-General explained this with an analogy: “In the case of climate, we are not the dinosaurs. We are the meteor. We are not only in danger, we are the danger. But, we are also the solution,” he stated.

With the first-ever Global Stocktake concluding at COP28, much of the discussions and aftermath outcomes that built the UAE Consensus revolved around a staggering reality: We are falling short of achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals to limit global temperatures to 1.5 °C within reach. 

How do we move from a world falling short to one that successfully follows through? And what lies ahead once we pass the threshold of no return?

“This is an existential question for us all. And is even more pressing for cities, towns, and their surrounding regions,” said Jeremy Eppel, Senior Advisor at the non-profit organization NatureFinance. With over half of the world’s population living in cities, with a predicted 70% rise by 2050, the impacts of climate change are felt more acutely, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable urban planning and climate resilience strategies. 

Mr. Eppel raised pressing questions: “How will your city deal with the need to feed all of your citizens when climate change has rendered rural soils unproductive through drought or waterlogging? Will your city scale up vertical farming systems within urban areas or continue to depend on unpredictable supplies from the rural hinterlands? How will your city cope with the growing number of climate refugees seeking shelter from a hotter world? Will your city of the future be liveable only for the wealthy, or will the needs of the urban poor also be a priority?”

Mr. Eppel emphasized the need to tackle the climate and nature crises together and align global finance with the tasks ahead. This requires a willingness to collaborate with new partnerships across both public and private sectors, thinking beyond traditional sectoral and geographic boundaries to achieve innovative solutions and inclusive policies to ensure resilience and sustainability in the face of a rapidly changing world. “Essentially, we must join the dots between different disciplines to create integrated and effective solutions,” he concluded.

Expanding on this topic, Kobie Brand, ICLEI Deputy Secretary General, warned that the conservation of natural habitats for human habitation is accelerating, with 290,000 square kilometers of natural habitat likely to be lost to urban growth between now and 2030. While acknowledging cities’ limitations, she advocated for expanding our mindsets and imaginations by proposing a three-pronged approach: “We need systems interrogators, relationship builders, and proactive and compassionate leadership.” Ms. Brand emphasized that by integrating art forms like poetry, photography, and storytelling, we can communicate universally and reimagine the relationship between humans and nature in urban settings, now and in the future.

Cities in climate emergency mode

Cities worldwide are increasingly taking proactive steps to address climate change and build resilience. In Sydney, Australia, HY William Chan, Councillor for the City of Sydney, and ICLEI Global Executive Committee Regional Seat, Oceania, highlighted the power of community-driven climate action. Reflecting on Sydney’s journey, he noted, “When you take the community, when you bring the industry along, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when you can actually produce the physically built outcomes in the community.” This approach led Sydney to set ambitious goals such as creating a regenerative society by integrating indigenous knowledge and pioneering sustainable practices like using soldier flies for food waste processing and planting diverse tree species to adapt to future climate challenges.

Smt. Naynaben Pedhadiya, Mayor of Rajkot Municipal Corporation, India, and ICLEI Global Executive Committee Regional Seat, South Asia, emphasized the intersectionality of climate action with social equity and economic development. She highlighted, “We need to foster capacity-building not only across technical teams but within the community,” emphasizing the crucial role of women and children in achieving inclusive climate policies. Mayor Rajkot focuses on enhancing productivity and efficiency and adopting new technologies to manage population growth and improve water and air quality.

In addition, Mayor Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins, United States, and ICLEI Global Executive Committee Regional Seat, North America, stressed the importance of inclusivity, stating, “Our climate future has to be inclusive, with just transition and social environmental justice at the forefront.” She emphasized the city’s commitment to sustainability through policies that leave no one behind. “I am absolutely unwilling to overlook this approach when we make everyday decisions in Fort Collins,” stated Mayor Arndt.

Jorge Alejandro Aldana Bardales, Mayor of Tegucigalpa, Central District, Honduras, and ICLEI Global Executive Committee Regional Seat, Mexico, Central America and Caribbean, highlighted the vulnerabilities faced by his city due to climate change and natural disasters. He emphasized the urgent need for future-oriented urban planning to protect vulnerable communities. “The lack of planning creates the gap between a rapidly changing world and our minimal changes. Governments must remain vigilant, ensuring that the daily demands do not erode our capacity to think ahead. Our communities have already paid too high a price for the lack of planning,” he stated.

Resilient Brazil

Daniela Muller de Lara, Coordinator of Climate Advisory at the Secretariat of Environment and Infrastructure of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, reported on the state’s response to its largest environmental catastrophe earlier this year. Heavy rains in April and May affected 477 out of 497 municipalities, with Ms. Muller de Lara highlighted, “95% of municipalities were affected by the public calamity, and 323 are in a climate emergency.” 

Ms. Muller de Lara outlined Rio Grande do Sul’s swift actions in launching the “Plano Fundo do Plano Rio Grande,” focusing on climate adaptation and resilience. This decree involves collaboration with scientists, universities, and local entities, creating a governance council and a dedicated secretariat for state reconstruction. She emphasized the state’s determination: “Courage has never been lacking in Rio Grande do Sul, given its characteristic of being a determined people, always seeking the best solutions.”

José Renato Nalini, Executive Secretary Climate Change of São Paulo Municipality, discussed the city’s resilience strategies. Under Mayor Ricardo Nunes’ leadership, São Paulo has implemented drainage projects and rain gardens over four years, transforming the city into a “sponge” to mitigate heavy rains. Secretary Nalini emphasized climate justice as a fundamental driver of the city’s resilience efforts, stating, “We must prioritize the most vulnerable in our action plans. This is not just environmental responsibility; it is social justice in its truest form.”

In addition, Axel Schmidt Grael, Mayor of Niterói, Brazil, and ICLEI Global Executive Committee, Chair of the Climate Action Support Portfolio, emphasized the importance of translating climate discussions into action. In Niterói, substantial areas have become protected, and sustainable mobility has been prioritized to enhance urban life. Mayor Grael emphasized, “We need debate mechanisms and exchange experiences to implement impactful transformations, both technically and politically.”

Governor Renato Casagrande of Espírito Santo, Brazil, and President of the Brazil Green Consortium, highlighted collaboration among states for climate action. He stressed the need for all Brazilian states and municipalities to develop climate change programs by 2025, stating, “Every level of governance must be involved, otherwise we are not going to make it.”

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