Paris: We Can’t Just Negotiate and Ignore Cities’ Changing Future

By the end of COP26, everyone in the climate movement seems to have gotten a bit tired of hearing about it. The meeting in December in Lima was an enormous and ongoing disappointment, an amalgamation of UN Special Rapporteurs and representatives from the EU. With each announcement, promising a next meeting the following year with fewer people or less excitement, the industry and government representatives put an end to the negotiations and brushed past the climate action activists. A billion dollars of climate finance only makes a meager dent in the annual sums of money the world has pledged and budgets the countries that have not yet made it into the know.

In the past, Copenhagen, Bonn, Yokohama, Cancun and Paris have all been the ones trying to push the term “COP” aside in favor of more boring regulatory agreements. This year was different, for several reasons. One of the reasons was that the organizers realized that this was not going to be the year to progress on climate action in the big cities of the world.

Alicia Barcena, Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage and Cop26 co-chair, called the meeting “a preparatory and not an action meeting.” Unfortunately, it proved to be somewhat of an operational miss for UNESCO as well as other groups, pushing for greater participation and greater focus on a more sustainable future for urban centers.

A clear consensus has emerged in climate talks that no matter how successful international negotiations are, a city’s change and transformation must go hand in hand with every major policy action. The problem is not that cities simply are not able to tackle the climate problems at the scale they require. It is that they are working hard at it. But with only a third of the world’s population living in the city limits and a further third in urban centers located far away from city halls, solving this problem will have to be more than a one-city-solution.

Several UN agency representatives have been clear on this point since the start of COP26. When asked why he was in Glasgow, Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, quipped that he was “off to a city of action to make sure you get a COP 26 next year.”

This year, Barcelona was focused on promoting sustainability and transforming a city with a population close to 1 million into one that is able to manage 30 million. The facilities they built to become more energy efficient after their city council decided to launch a Plan Articulated 10-year Investment Plan must also provide clean water and food to the poorest sections of the city. (Junketing in Barcelona is also a campaign by travel magazine Vanity Fair to show that anyone can go on vacation in Barcelona.) Rome has committed to slashing emissions by 80 percent over 20 years, whereas Buenos Aires has pledged to make its own power station air-tight and freeze new fossil fuel plant construction.

It is not that these cities don’t need to be ready to tackle these issues at the same time, as long as their challenges are not one-dimension. An early reaction from the government at COP26 is how they are working with their other cities, as well as other cities, and the countries they are participating in, to develop solutions to meeting their climate goals and growing. This is a good step.

Still, the fact that UNESCO chose to hold COP26 in the first place and then not allocate more funding to help make it run more efficiently is worrying. This comes from the Board Chair and newly appointed Director of COP25 in Buenos Aires, Horacio Mora. With his background as the former executive director of the Blue Cities Program and his close relationship with cities from all over the world, it is not surprising that COP25 will focus not only on sustainability but on the broader issue of responsible economic growth.

The record breaker of COP24 in Katowice is likely to be the commitment the EU has made to the Paris Agreement and the work it is doing to achieve it. Making sure COP25 has the same ambition will be crucial to moving forward. The biggest flaw of COP26 was also the place it was held – Kyoto, not COP26.

Based on COP26, COP25 can also be seen as a symbolic treaty for the actual policies to build sustainability into the economy, particularly in the cities that stand to benefit the most from it. Barcelona can be a model to many other cities while Rome and Cairo can highlight how cities can be effectively resolved to achieve even greater change than seen in Kyoto.

Anne Baxter is Director of Global Cities Program of Leadership Council on Sustainable Urban Development.

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