Cities and municipalities can be the most effective policy executors. Being closer to their citizens and having more cohesive populations than nation-states helps them rally residents for challenging endeavors. Cities also adapt more easily to new digital tools, utilising data to monitor public sentiment and sharpen outreach efforts. These attributes allow cities and municipalities to act swiftly in normal times and in crises.
Climate change and the city
Cities address climate change individually and as part of a governance ecosystem. They work with national governments and international institutions to affect climate goals, but above all, cities strive for ensuring livability for their residents against climate impacts. One report on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals lauds smart cities—which use data to enhance public service provision—as key drivers for achieving net-zero emissions by maximising energy efficiency, streamlining public transport, and monitoring air quality.
Areas where cities can enhance sustainability include:
Mobility: Cities may promote bicycle and scooter use by building segregated bike paths. They might also offer bike rentals, increase shuttles to transport hubs and initiate walkability programmes. Moreover, cities could electrify urban vehicle fleets by subsidizing car purchases through deals with car companies.
Energy efficiency: Cities can curtail energy consumption through smart building programmes. They may provide tax breaks and subsidies for building renovations and incentivise domestic generation sources like solar panels and geothermal pumps. Cities might also implement green building codes, exemplified by Brussel’s Passive House Standard.
Green growth: The urban green transition could bolster growth and provide payoffs at the national level. According to the OECD, green urban growth could lower the costs associated with national environmental targets through improved transportation and land-use. A World Economic Forum report suggests such initiatives can attract multinational firms committed to net-zero targets.
How cities go green
Certain conditions are required for cities to flourish within the climate governance ecosystem:
Clear objectives: Each city must consider its unique set of circumstances, factoring demographics, geography, development level, culture, and national climate objectives when setting sustainability goals. Only with clear and feasible goals will meaningful climate progress be measured.
Political will: Lacking political will, complex and costly sustainability programmes are impossible. Cities will therefore seek to make the climate agenda a recurring theme of public discourse by integrating green programmes into daily urban life, becoming part of the culture of a city.
Budgeting: Sustainability objectives require adequate funding. Cities will therefore cultivate partners at higher levels of governance to ensure the resources at their disposal match their climate ambitions.
Obstacles to urban sustainability
A report by the World Economic Forum suggests the rosy picture of urban climate mitigation is incomplete—confined to a few large, wealthy cities in North America, Europe, and China—overlooking failures particularly among the cities of South and Southeast Asia. Another study warns a lack of coordination between national authorities and other stakeholders will cause urban sustainability initiatives to fail in Malaysia, Indonesia, and India, risking that these cities “will lock in more fully to high-cost, high-carbon development paths.”
A success story
One Southeast Asian city which bucked the trend through the adroit application of the above prerequisites was Bandar Lampung in Indonesia. Bandar Lampung leveraged a cities network to inform its sustainability plans by conducting a series of learning dialogues with officials from other cities, NGOs, and universities. This process secured the political will to form a multi-stakeholder team responsible for assessing climate risks and prioritising adaptation strategies.
Being within the governance ecosystem
How cities cooperate with other governing actors will be critical to combating climate change. What cities can offer the governance ecosystem are its data capabilities, deft policy execution, and responsiveness to change. Cities rely on national governments for funding and must execute sustainability initiatives in line with national goals. But cities often have the leeway to go further than national governments, especially where national climate action is lacking.
The relationship between cities and national governments goes both ways, with cities providing governments with data on climate policy implementation. When national policy encounters difficulties, local data can uncover causes and suggest policy modifications.
International organizations furnish cities with policy guidance and facilitate information networks that disseminate models of successful policy implementation. Examples include the OECD’s Green Cities Programme, which measures green economic growth in cities; the UN Environment Programme’s Climate Neutral Network, which convenes local and national governments for discussions on climate change; and the EU’s Urban Agenda, which develops cities’ capabilities for addressing climate impacts.
International institutions also provide fora for cities to advance climate initiatives. Independent of national governments, such organisations can push cities to act unilaterally against climate change. For example, the city of Haifa joined the Paris Climate Accord in response to Israel’s slow implementation of that agreement. Working closely with the mayor of Paris, Haifa’s mayor declared “cities have the power to lead change, without waiting for it to come from the central government.”
Cities will be major players in climate action because of their ability to rapidly execute policy, craft effective public outreach, and employ data. To further advance their role in climate mitigation, they must also articulate clear objectives, account for local circumstances, and identify potential challenges.
To improve climate action, cities will seek to broaden their network of partners at the local, national and international levels, looking for data-based feedback from all governance levels as a guide.
By leveraging their place in the governance ecosystem to maximise policy options, cities could play an outsized role in achieving global sustainability objectives and turning the climate challenge into a growth opportunity. Understanding their limitations, however, will dramatically enhance those prospects.