Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The next four years will decide if the world can deliver on the Paris agreement, and cities are tasked with an ambitious call to jumpstart the effort.
Now that the fanfare of the Paris climate agreement has subsided, it’s time for the hard work to begin.
At this week’s annual C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico City, a coalition of 90 cities at the forefront of the fight against climate change detailed everything cities have to accomplish in order to meet the agreement’s long-term goals. Their report, written with the engineering firm Arup, lays out an action plan to deliver on the promise of limiting the rise of global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius, and critical progress must be made by 2020.
These next four years are pivotal to build the momentum needed to stem the rise of global temperatures, the coalition argues. If carbon emissions aren’t dramatically curbed by then, the authors of the “Deadline 2020” report write, “the world will have ‘locked-in’ sufficient future emissions to exceed 2 degrees.”
“We have four years to take action, four years to ensure that 1.5 degrees is doable,” says C40 head researcher Tom Bailey, referring to the temperature increase that the international community is aiming for. It’s an ambitious goal—one that many experts say is impossible—and the roadmap to get there is full of drastic measures.
Wealthy cities will have to shoulder most of the burden
The C40 plan calls for member cities to reduce the average emission per person from 5 metric tons to 2.9 by 2030. That reduction will largely come through city-wide “climate actions,” which include things like installing bike lanes and retrofitting buildings with clean energy sources. Collectively, cities have taken 11,000 actions like these so far. By 2020, they’ll need 14,000 more, and roughly three-quarters of that must come from wealthy, high carbon-emitting cities located mostly in the global north.
C40 divides cities into four groups: Those with high GDP and above-average levels of carbon emissions need to see a steep decline in emissions over the next four years, while those with below-average carbon emissions should maintain a steady decline. Similarly, developing cities with high emissions need to “peak” and begin reducing emissions earlier than those that produce lower carbon levels.
The big takeaway: Wealthier cities will have to shoulder much more of the burden than their developing neighbors, a point of contention that has often stalled international climate negotiations.
“How do you split the burden between those two?” says Bailey. But, he adds, the fact of the matter is that carbon emissions in, say, New York City are “so high now that even if we do loads of great stuff in the global south, it doesn’t matter because the rich cities have already spent the [carbon] budget.”
Transportation and buildings are key sectors to target
Cities will have to combat rising carbon emissions from every angle, focusing on issues like land use, clean energy, and landfill waste. The report lays out five key areas that need attention: urban planning, energy, waste, building, and transit. The last two are the most significant to tackle, and most challenging because of their scale.
Roughly three-quarters of transportation emissions come from fuel combustion, which calls for reforms in both public and private transportation. Short of outlining specific actions, the report identifies the top five areas to target within this sector. That includes boosting the use of bus rapid transit, which the authors write is capable of delivering a third of carbon reductions within a city. Others include attracting more people to public transit by building up the infrastructure, improving freight train systems, and switching to lower carbon fuel sources.
And with cities building more high-rises and commercial offices to accommodate growing populations and economies, the demand for electricity in lighting and air conditioning highlights the need to make buildings more energy efficient. In fact, the report lists the buildings sector as contributing to more than half of all carbon emissions in C40 cities. To address this, the authors call on local governments to prioritize retrofitting buildings with cleaner energy sources, particularly in developed cities, and collecting data to help other cities draft building and energy codes for the near future. With three-quarters of all climate actions needed by 2020 focused on this sector alone, they also stressed the importance of working quickly.
An uphill battle with a lot at stake
As CityLab previously reported, the success of the Paris agreement hinges on the involvement of cities, which will have to contribute a third of all global emission reductions. The current member cities of C40 alone represent 650 million people and make up a quarter of the world’s global domestic product. The coalition—led by the new chairwoman and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo—hopes to get more cities on board in order to meet immediate and long-term goals. Like many U.S. cities, most don’t need any more convincing about the dangers of climate change.
But limiting global temperatures will be an uphill battle, made steeper by the volatile political landscape resulting from the victory of U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump, who infamously called climate change a hoax.
Even before that, there was a lot stacked against the ambitions of C40, as well as the Paris agreement overall. One expert from the Paris-based International Energy Agency estimates that even if national and local leaders make good on their initial pledges, Earth’s temperature will still rise by an irreversible 2.7 degrees Celsius. An economist also told Forbes that the agreement’s lack of strict accountability measures may not be enough to ensure that the largest polluters stay committed to their pledges in the long run.
C40 has already acknowledged a slew of city-level barriers, namely the challenge of securing adequate funding. Over the next four years alone, it will take roughly $375 billion in investment for cities to implement all of the 14,000 actions required, according to the latest report. And by 2050, there needs to be over $1 trillion in investments.
Aside from imposing local taxes, many cities worldwide lack the means to raise funding. About 1 in 5 C40 cities, for example, can’t borrow money from their national and state governments, and 1 in 4 can’t issue municipal bonds. Not to mention, the lack of coordination between local and national actors in some countries may make it difficult for cities to access the public funding for sustainability projects.
“We’re not just talking about mitigation actions, but also about adaptation,” says Michele de Nevers, who isn’t involved in the report but specializes in climate finance at the Center of Global Development. “Some cities will face enormous expenses in terms of adapting to climate change,” which could compete with funds to finance the innovative efforts that C40 hopes to achieve. That includes coastal cities like Miami and developing cities like Bangladesh, both of which are already facing the consequences of sea level rise and extreme weather.
The good news is that C40 has a head start, with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announcing a $40 million commitment to help cities deliver on Deadline 2020. That’s in addition to the list of private companies and the foundations that have made themselves partners of the coalition, says Antha Williams, environment program lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Like Bloomberg, Williams is part of C40’s board of directors looking for not only innovative ways to attract funding from the private sectors, but also innovative partnerships between the governmental players.
De Nevers says she remains confident that the financial challenges may be overshadowed by the advantages the cities have over their national counterparts in getting the job done.
“They have a much smaller scope of responsibility and they have control over their own funding—they can impose taxes and user fees—and the actions that they commit to,” she says. “In that sense, mayors, state, and subnational governments are in a stronger position to deliver on their promises than national governments.”
She adds that the sharing of ideas should also help mitigate the financial costs, a point Bailey echoes. Most projects, he says, are likely viable, but cities on the lower-income scale don’t necessarily have the means or time to test them.
“What we want to do here is pioneer new business models and technologies and get them working in the most empowered and ambitious cities,” he tells CityLab. “Then we can pass them on to the rest of the world, like to the fast-growing cities of India that barely have time to expand on their infrastructure.”
Bailey is confident that if other cities start emulating those in the C40 coalition, mayors can deliver 40 percent of all the carbon savings needed to meet the 1.5-degree limit. And while he does acknowledge that there are plenty of obstacles and that the world could very well surpass that 2-degree mark, the stakes are too high to not even try.
“If we do nothing, [the average emission per person] is going to go up to 9.5 metric tons by 2030,” he says, “So actually it’s not just about making it to go down, it's to avoid having it go dramatically up.”