C40 Executive Director Mark Watts at the Climate Action 2016 Summit in Washington, D.C. C40 Cities

As food and inequality play a larger part in climate politics, C40 Executive Director Mark Watts feels more positive than ever that cities hold the solutions.

It was only three years ago that journalist Benjamin Barber argued in his book If Mayors Ruled the World that cities were better poised to solve global problems than national leaders. ”At the the time, it seemed like one of those catchy phrases that was interesting for discussion, but doesn’t relate greatly to reality,” recalls Mark Watts, executive director of C40, a coalition of megacities fighting climate change.

But between the conclusion of the COP21 conference in Paris, the adoption of the UN’s New Urban Agenda, and the U.S. election of climate-denier Donald Trump, 2016 played out as the year for city leaders worldwide to really flex their muscles. So much so that Barber wrote earlier this month that compacts like the Global Parliament of Mayors are now more important than ever. Individually, U.S. mayors reaffirmed their commitment to fighting climate change and serving as sanctuary cities. Collectively around the world, cities have taken the lead in setting a deadline—albeit an ambitious one—to kickstart the Paris climate accord.

With C40 leading that charge, CityLab caught up with Watts and asked him to reflect on what 2016 meant not only for climate action, but also for the influence of cities, and how that might play out in 2017. To start, Watts says that despite everything, he feels “more positive than I’ve felt in a decade that we might actually prevent catastrophic climate change.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, with events like the ratification of the Paris accord dominating climate news, but also Brexit and Trump emerging as potential roadblocks. Looking back at 2016, what makes you confident that city leaders can successfully lead the battle against global warming?

2016 was really the year that climate denial stopped being a serious argument in most part of the world. I think unfortunately the U.S. has the last bastion of it. Strangely, actually, Donald Trump's election had one really positive outcome. The reaction from the presidential and prime ministerial leaders in Marrakech [for the COP22 climate conference] was perfect. It was, “Well, OK, that's what America thinks, but we got a deal and we're going to deliver it.” And then the non-state actors, the mayors, and key business leaders all the said virtually the same, and that just never would have happened 24 months ago, or even 15 months ago.

Unfortunately, it’s a combination of the tremendous positivity from the collaboration from the mayors, but also the negative changes on the international stage that makes what mayors are doing even stronger and more visible.

What were some other major milestones that may have been buried in the news?

The new energy investment figures showed investment in renewable electricity generation is 50 percent greater than fossil fuel electricity generation—that's a definite milestone. Earlier in the year, the price of a gigawatt of electricity produced through solar and onshore wind was cheaper in most parts of the world than any fossil fuels alternative. It didn't make massive headlines anywhere, but it's the thing that's actually driving the shift toward the low-carbon economy.

Some of the stuff coming out of China this year; in the city of Shenzhen, every single one of its 15,000 buses will be fully electric by the end of this year. That's extraordinary, when in Europe, the biggest fully electric bus fleet is in London, and they're at 50 buses. Those little things kind of show you that this direction is possible.

In June, C40 and the EAT foundation launched a global food systems network to get cities thinking about urban food issues. When we think climate change, transportation and sustainable construction—as your organization’s Deadline 2020 plan highlights—are key targets, but how does food fit into the conversation of limiting global emissions?

Once you start taking into account food consumption, typically in Western cities, their carbon footprint increases by 20 to 30 percent, or some cases, as much as 50 percent. We don’t think it’s a rural problem because it may be that still the majority of the food is produced in rural areas, but the vast majority is consumed in urban areas. You might think that in wealthy, successful cities like Paris, food's not going to be very high on the agenda. But Paris is right in the center of the most fertile agricultural land in the whole of France. The vast majority of food consumed there comes from at least 70 miles away from the city, which makes no sense in carbon and resilience terms, so they're now seeking to address that.

On a really different end of the scale, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 40 or 50 percent of the food consumed is grown within the city. But that's been on a model of very low levels of development, where most of the population have a little scrap of land to grow their own vegetables and where even right in their central business district you've got livestock in people's homes or yards. As they're now rapidly developing (8 percent growth for the last 12 years) they're grappling with how to put people in much higher quality housing—it’s dense—without losing that really beneficial side of having large amounts of food produced so close to where it’s consumed.

Would you say food consumption, then, is the next big climate issue of 2017?

Right now, food consumption is a bit of a fringe issue, but we know in five years’ time it is going to be absolutely central to the climate argument, and we're preparing for it.

I think the really big issue is going to be the one that Pope Francis raised last year, which is that it's really hard to say how you can tackle climate change without also tackling the growing problem of inequality. First, we need to properly understand the issue, and at the moment there's just a real lack of analysis and data of the economic and social benefits of actions taken largely to achieve a climate outcome. So starting to understand how many dollars in health care are saved when instead of 10,000 people cycling every day in a city, it's a million people.

One of the pieces of data that is very strong is that in the countries with the greatest income inequality, there is the least support for environmental actions among businesses and individual citizens.

It makes intuitive sense that when ordinary citizens are asked to change their lifestyle for the greater good, you're less likely to do that if you see a small group of people at the top leaving their lights on in their great mansions and driving around in huge polluting cars. You're more likely to be convinced that you should make your contribution if you feel we're all in this together.

Looking ahead, eyes are now on China as the new leader of climate action, considering the uncertainty around the roles of the U.S. and the European Union. What are your thoughts on how other cities, particularly in China, can fill in that gap?

If you look at C40, over half of our members are from the global south, so it’s become a much more genuinely global organization this year. And we had two Chinese cities two-and-a-half years ago, and neither of them were active. We now have 10 Chinese members and most of them are the most active within the network, and they're winning the awards.

You have to have Chinese cities really decarbonizing fast; otherwise there’s no way you can balance failure in China with greater action in the rest of the world, because they’re too big and too important. We need to have not just action in Chinese cities, but also leadership that is going to drive markets and change in the rest of the world. That’s what we're seeing around vehicle electrification. I would expect in 2017 some really major cities saying, “We're just not buying diesel or petrol buses anymore.”

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