Opening Plenary, Session 2: Using nature to cope with climate change – and art to get people to care

“Urban development is recognized as an essential lever to foster sustainable development,” said Gino Van Begin, Secretary General of ICLEI matter-of-factly during the second Daring Cities opening session.  But how do local governments balance much needed development with the preservation of our ecosystem… two global priorities which often seem at odds with one another?

One approach put forth during this session, is to adopt a “know more, act better and dare to lead” approach to tackling climate change. 

City leaders should learn how to make biodiversity an essential part of any urban development plan, weighed in Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Elements such as “green space, parks, and green roofs not only promote biodiversity, but also help mitigate climate change by reducing heat island effects and (support better) air quality,” Larigauderie observed. Other worthy measures she cited included protecting watersheds around city limits, for improved quality and quantity of municipal water. Cities can also promote urban gardens which benefit biodiversity by providing habitats for pollinators,  and easier access to high-quality food for residents.

Additionally, data analysis and sharing between different levels of government can help us to better understand how to protect our natural habitats, which are often threatened by urban development offered Lisa Helps, Mayor of the City of Victoria, Canada.

“It’s all well and good to preserve biodiversity in our own cities by building more urban parks, but if we’re harvesting the global rainforest to build new homes, that needs to be accounted for as well,” she said. Helps said Victoria is using data to assess everything from the carbon footprint of buildings before and after energy retrofits (including their own city hall) to having a more precise understanding of what impact initiatives like their new bike network will have on the reduction of carbon emissions. In the case of Victoria’s bike network, it is predicted to reduce 10,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually, once complete. 

Despite their commitment to knowledge as a way to shape public perception and keep future urban growth in check, Helps said pointedly that “it’s not an easy thing in an increasingly polarized world to be a daring city leader” and that even though residents are more focussed on their day to day life, the city still needs to look ahead 50 or 100 years.  

That forward-thinking mindset was echoed later in the session by youth activist Heeta Lakhani, an environmental educator who works with YOUNGO, the official children and youth constituency affiliated with the UN. 

She said we need to be mindful of the fact that city agendas directly affect the future of youth. “So when you’re talking about making decisions for 2030, 2040, 2050… years down the line… you’re (also) talking about young people who are going to be implementing these decisions for years to come,” she said. “So we’re definitely at a turning point and there’s no going back.”

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN Habitat also focused on the importance of holistic and integrated planning at the local level. “We are working together with local governments under Local2030 and we hope to come up with a very specific action plan also through the Voluntary Local Reviews to bring up the importance of climate change and biodiversity in terms of the planning and design of the cities… and in terms of holistic planning.”

Inger Anderson, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program also conveyed a sense of urgency in overcoming the multiple crises we face. “COVID-19 is part and parcel with… the climate crisis, the nature and biodiversity crisis and the pollution and waste crisis. These crises are fuelled by unsustainable production and consumption which is eroding natural systems and threatening our very survival on this planet.”

Rather than just dwell on the world’s challenges, Anderson also referenced the leadership role some communities have embarked on that serves as a guiding example for other cities around the world. “Latin America has kicked off a biking revolution in which cities like Bogota, Lima, Quito and Santiago are expanding bike lanes. The EU has a renovation wave in the Green New Deal, recognizing the climate friendly nature of retrofitting. And Freetown in Sierra Leone is witnessing a surge in urban farming to respond to the challenge of rising demand for food and employment,”  she said, adding that she also views ICLEI’s Daring Cities program as a potential vehicle “to support the kind of changes we need to transform our unsustainable consumption and production patterns… and to build happy, prosperous and livable cities.”

Aromar Revi, Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) and lead author of the 1.5°C Special Report (SR15) and 6th Assessment Synthesis Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered an impactful presentation emphasizing how we need to move forward in the face of these many crises, and how central local and regional governments will be.

“We need rapid, deep and systemic changes to address climate risk and future pandemics, and all of these changes have to be implemented simultaneously,” he said. “And there is limited space for trade-off between them, which is exactly the reason why local and regional governments are so important in this, because they know how to deal with these questions simultaneously. Because that’s what mayors and local governments do,” Revi added.

To close, ICLEI Director of Global Advocacy, Yunus Arikan, turned the discussion over to Canadian artist, cellist and activist Rebecca Foon, as he posed the question “how do you make sure art is not just fun, but inspiration for action?”

“I love that question,” said Foon, who is also co-founder of Pathway to Paris (a non-profit organization leveraging music and the arts to promote the goals set out by the Paris Agreement). “We really are seeing a wave of arts and culture helping to build momentum around the world and create profound synergies… in particular in the climate movement.”

Foon posited that music creates a visceral and profound connection to the heart “and this is a time that we need to recognize our interconnection on planet earth more than ever before.” Pathway to Paris she said, has curated concerts and involved musicians from around the world to build greater appreciation and awareness for the need to address climate change. “I very much believe that art and music are critical for helping to shape this conversation. And that cities also play such an enormous role in helping the planet meet the targets in the Paris Agreement.”

As an audible way of reinforcing the points made by Foon, session organizers followed her presentation by playing a recording of her playing part of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony on her cello. Foon said the video and ensuing performance was a fitting way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven this year “who both loved nature and was born in Bonn (host city of Daring Cities).” For session participants, it was also an opportunity to ponder the intersection of art, nature and caring about climate change.  

Watch highlights from the opening of Daring Cities, read more coverage, and follow the conversation at