Cities take the lead in Paris

It was heartening to see increasing recognition of the importance of sub-national action and leadership from cities around the globe at the 21st UN Climate Conference in Paris, where a landmark global agreement was reached on Saturday. Over 400 mayors from around the world attended the inaugural Local Leaders Summit for Climate Action on December 4th in Paris’ City Hall, each competing to stand out from the rest with their commitments to urban sustainability. More than 2200 commitments from cities have been registered so far in the UNFCCC’s Non-state Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA) Portal. The importance of urban action on climate has never been clearer, but achieving the rapid progress required in the developing world especially will not be easy.

The entrance to the conference venue in North East Paris.

The entrance to the conference venue in North East Paris.

Challenges lie ahead

Tikender Panwar, Mayor of Shimla in northern India, was speaking at events throughout the summit on the challenges he faces in integrating climate considerations into his city’s development. He highlighted a large capacity gap both in terms of the technical skills required to develop investable infrastructure projects, as well as the basic elements of governance that would allow the city government to undertake action on its own, such as fully exploiting its tax base. Kgosientso Ramokgopa, mayor of the South African city of Tshwane, similarly highlighted the capacity and funding deficits that limit his attempts to tackle the urban sprawl that is increasing both pollution and social inequality.

Such capacity and financing gaps are longstanding issues for cities around the world, but the explosive speed of urbanisation means they are most urgent in Africa and Asia. As Director of Cities Alliance William Cobbett stressed on a panel event last week, “in thirty years Africa’s urbanisation will be finished – the table will be set.” A recent C40 Cities report finds that one third of the world’s remaining carbon budget if we are to limit warming to two degrees could be determined by urban policy decisions taken in the next five years. The question therefore is how to facilitate real change in the ability of developing country cities to plan for and implement climate compatible urban development fast.

Momentum is building, but we must find better ways to support cities

Among other new financing commitments in Paris, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Platform announced a pledge from 22 cities to commit 10% of their existing budgets (or about $5.2 billion) to fund adaptation goals. This would allow cities such as Accra and Mexico City to access $5 million from platform partners to for resilience building efforts. The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation committed $5.3 million in Paris to help 30 cities develop robust emission inventories; a critical first step for them to develop emission reduction plans.

COP CITIES

International development partners can play an important role, but they will need to do business differently. As Thierry Deau, Chairman of the Long Term Infrastructure Investment Association, pointed out, “we shouldn’t just throw public money at the situation, the key is to develop the pipeline [of investable projects]. We develop the pipeline by investing in human capital at the city level.”

Recognising that project preparation is a major barrier to the realisation of city level investments, the C40 Cities network announced a new facility in Paris to assist member cities to secure finance for infrastructure projects. With an initial $5.7 million support from the German government and Interamerican Development Bank, the facility aims unlock $1 billion for low-carbon and climate resilient infrastructure over the next four years.

International climate funds have recognised the opportunity to engage in this field, but city leaders find them hard to access. Funds, including the new Green Climate Fund, need to find ways to solve this. They can help strengthen the capacities of city actors to raise further finance themselves, in addition to financing individual investments.

Cities will be central to delivering on the goals countries have put on the table in Paris, as well as those they agreed on Sustainable Development in New York earlier this year. Better cities are the key to realising low emission paths to development and strengthening our resilience to climate change. It is imperative that international climate funds and other development partners find the right ways to help them deliver on their aspirations.

Sam Barnard is a Research Officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London. He works to track the operations  and assess the effectiveness of international climate funds, and is particularly interested in the role they can play to support climate mitigation and resilience-building activities at the urban level.

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