Mark Watts: Cities are leading the way on climate change

Friday 11 December 2020

It’s five years since the Paris Climate Agreement. While nation states have wavered, local mayors have held firm


Tomorrow will be the five-year anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s fair to say that a lot has happened since then, including: the US withdrawal from the agreement under Donald Trump; the promise of a return under Joe Biden; and China pledging to achieve zero emissions by 2060. There is now inter-governmental momentum towards climate action, albeit in the midst of a global pandemic and its attendant, historic recession.

But the story shouldn’t just focus on the big decisions taken by big states. Over the years, cities have been quietly demonstrating their climate leadership – acting swiftly, raising ambition, and connecting the threads between the environment, social justice, and pandemic recovery. Hopes for future success rest between the real-world action of city mayors and the long-term commitments of national governments. 

The signing of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 was, it’s true, a turning point for international action on the climate crisis. Adopted by almost every nation in the world, it set out to limit the increase in global temperature to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. And that 0.5 degree difference matters. It determines whether we lose 99 per cent of coral reefs – or 70 to 90 per cent. It determines whether 37 per cent of the world’s population suffers severe heat waves every 5 years – or 14 per cent.

But, as of this year, just two countries – Morocco and The Gambia – have emissions targets compatible with 1.5 degrees of heating. 

Meanwhile, across the world, no less than 823 cities have already set dates for achieving net-zero emissions, and many of these have advanced well beyond the setting of targets. Analysis by C40, the organisation I lead, finds that 54 cities are on track to help keep global heating below 1.5 degrees.

Tomorrow will be the five-year anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s fair to say that a lot has happened since then, including: the US withdrawal from the agreement under Donald Trump; the promise of a return under Joe Biden; and China pledging to achieve zero emissions by 2060. There is now inter-governmental momentum towards climate action, albeit in the midst of a global pandemic and its attendant, historic recession.

But the story shouldn’t just focus on the big decisions taken by big states. Over the years, cities have been quietly demonstrating their climate leadership – acting swiftly, raising ambition, and connecting the threads between the environment, social justice, and pandemic recovery. Hopes for future success rest between the real-world action of city mayors and the long-term commitments of national governments. 

The signing of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 was, it’s true, a turning point for international action on the climate crisis. Adopted by almost every nation in the world, it set out to limit the increase in global temperature to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. And that 0.5 degree difference matters. It determines whether we lose 99 per cent of coral reefs – or 70 to 90 per cent. It determines whether 37 per cent of the world’s population suffers severe heat waves every 5 years – or 14 per cent.

But, as of this year, just two countries – Morocco and The Gambia – have emissions targets compatible with 1.5 degrees of heating. 

Meanwhile, across the world, no less than 823 cities have already set dates for achieving net-zero emissions, and many of these have advanced well beyond the setting of targets. Analysis by C40, the organisation I lead, finds that 54 cities are on track to help keep global heating below 1.5 degrees.

Cities are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Home to half the world’s population and most of its economic activity, they are responsible for 75 per cent of global emissions. They are also under serious threat from the effects of environmental breakdown: witness this year’s floods in Mumbai or the hazardous air in Sydney after the bushfires.

Yet the world’s cities are also well positioned to act. They have powers over two of the biggest contributors to global CO2 emissions – transport and buildings – and a tendency towards collaboration that has helped keep some degree of international cooperation alive during the Trump years. 

In many respects, 2020 has been totemic for climate action at the national level. Joe Biden won the US election with the strongest climate action platform of any presidential candidate ever. China, Japan and South Korea have joined the UK, France, Germany and Canada as countries among the top 20 polluters that have set national targets for achieving net-zero emissions. The significance of China’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060 cannot be overstated; its new targets could lower global heating projections by 0.2 to 0.3 degrees.

So what is it that cities need to see from national governments right now? Research commissioned by mayors has found that only if we invest heavily – and quickly (the next three to five years) – in cutting emissions can we make deep enough reductions to stay on track for 1.5 degrees. A big, fast, global programme of green stimulus would create 50 million jobs in the world’s biggest cities, while also cutting carbon emissions and saving 270,000 lives in the next decade from improved air quality alone. 

Mayors are working to make their cities engines for progress. This July, a task force of global mayors released their Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, outlining the actions needed to achieve a recovery that is not only green but also addresses the issues of inequality laid bare by the pandemic.

But the green recovery is already underway in cities across the world: Seoul is creating 26,000 new jobs with its Green New Deal plans; Freetown is planting one million trees; and Rotterdam is investing in social housing, green city projects and the shift to a hydrogen-based economy in its port.

Just this week, Montreal launched its climate plan, which requires officials to apply a climate test to all city decisions. Every dollar spent and policy implemented in the city will now be judged on its ability to reduce emissions or to prepare for the impacts of climate change. 

Now is a moment of huge opportunity and risk. We are the first generation to realise the scale of the challenge, and the last generation that has time to actually act to prevent the worst of the climate crisis.

COP26, held next year in Glasgow, is the meeting where the most polluting countries need to unite to halve emissions within a decade. Mayors of the world’s big cities will be urging them on – and showing what is possible.

Mark Watts is executive director of C40. @MarkWatts40