After COP17: Time for Local Climate Action

By Michael Schmitz, Interim Executive Director, ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability USA

Two things are clear in the wake of the COP17 international climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. First, time is not on our side in the fight against climate change. And second, the world needs to look beyond national governments for meaningful ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today. The leadership of local governments—on display in Durban—takes on a new level of importance.

COP17 brought some welcome progress, but also grave concerns about whether national governments are moving fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. At the 11th hour of the final day in Durban, negotiators agreed to a wide-ranging deal that renews the Kyoto Protocol and sets in place a process for all countries, including major emitters like India, China, and the United States, to move toward a legally binding climate agreement by 2015, which would take effect in 2020.

Climate Action Can’t Wait

While many herald this as a significant step forward, the flipside is that again, nations punted the difficult work of setting greenhouse gas reduction targets and working to meet them. With each passing year that greenhouse gases spew into the atmosphere at alarming rates, it becomes more difficult to rein in climate change and keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold beyond which scientists say climate change could be “catastrophic” for our way of life.  We can’t wait until 2020 to meaningfully reduce emissions.

The good news is that around the world, local governments are already taking action. It’s not a new story. For 20 years, they have been committing to greenhouse gas reductions and implementing plans to meet their goals. Their presence on the international stage is growing with the recognition that, in a world where 50 percent of the population now lives in urban areas, local climate action is a key to success. As nations delay, local action is arguably the only action the world can count on.

Mayors and other advocates of local climate action have fought for two decades to have local governments recognized, engaged, and empowered in any global climate agreement. Much work remains, yet in Durban, local governments furthered their leadership in three significant ways.

1. Committing to Climate Adaptation

At a COP17 side event, the Durban Local Government Convention, local leaders signed the Durban Adaptation Charter, a political commitment to strengthen local resilience to climate change. Local governments are facing climate impacts on the front lines—from severe storms and flooding to heat waves and drought—and must take steps to protect their citizens, assets, and natural resources. More than 114 mayors signed the Charter, as well as governors and chairs of local government associations representing 950 local governments across the world, from Vancouver to Bangkok to Johannesburg. These leaders committed to:

  • mainstream adaptation as a key factor in local government planning processes
  • ensure that adaptation strategies are aligned with mitigation strategies
  • promote adaptation strategies that recognizes the needs of vulnerable communities and ensure sustainable local economic development
  • prioritize the role of functioning ecosystems as core municipal green infrastructure
  • seek innovative funding mechanisms to support their adaptation efforts

2. Reporting Local Climate Progress

Local governments sent a message to nations at COP17: If we can commit to aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets and report our progress, then so can you. At COP17, my nonprofit, ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability, released a new report that documents the performance of 51 cities in 19 countries that have set GHG reduction targets. These cities have reported their progress via an international reporting platform, the carbonn Cities Climate Registry (cCCR). The cCCR Annual Report provides a first-ever global snapshot of what leading local governments have achieved so far, and what they can accomplish down the road, especially if their efforts are empowered by national and international agreements.

While 51 cities is a small sample, the report underscores their importance in fighting climate change. These cities alone represent 83 million inhabitants and 447 million tons of CO2e emissions per year. This is more than the individual annual GHG emissions of 167 countries.  Seventy-five percent of the cities’ commitments aim for GHG reductions of more than 1.0 % per year, which exceeds the reduction commitments of most national governments under the Kyoto Protocol, as well as scientific recommendations. ICLEI has long promoted the maxim, "you cannot manage what you cannot measure," and now we can to that, "we cannot count what we do not report."

3. Engaging in High-Level Negotiations

COP17 marked the first time that local governments were officially recognized by the UNFCCC as official "government stakeholders" with a seat at the table for negotiations. After years of advocacy, ICLEI helped local governments win this designation at the previous meeting, COP16 in Cancun.

Now that local governments have become recognized and engaged, the next goal is for them to become empowered by any international climate agreement.  Since cities have shown that they can be successful, their climate actions should be funded by national governments. This is particularly important for climate adaptation efforts. At COP17, the so-called $100 billion “Green Fund” to support adaptation efforts worldwide is a perfect example. Cities should be directly supported through this fund.

The world urgently needs climate leadership from our nations’ elected officials. Until that happens, mayors and other local leaders must continue to push the envelope.

Michael Schmitz is Interim Executive Director of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, the largest membership organization of cities and counties committed to climate action, clean energy, and sustainability.



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