Activists gather in Paris on December 12, 2015, during the COP21 climate talks. AP Photo/Thibault Camus

Local leaders will guide policy change until the international agreement goes into effect in 2020.

The 21st time was the charm.

After two decades of trying, the UN’s climate change institution locked down international consensus from rich and poor nations alike to fundamentally change the ways humans power their activities. Almost 200 countries committed to voluntary greenhouse gas reduction targets and pledged to revisit them at regular intervals to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. It’s a deal that knows it isn’t perfect, and takes steps to get better with time. And just a few years ago, it was wholly unthinkable.

As the exhausted negotiators head home from Paris for some well-deserved rest, the locus of action will shift back to each country. The treaty, though, won’t go into effect until 2020. In the meantime, the real action will be taking place in cities. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti sums up why in a statement following the conclusion of the Paris climate talks:

Cities generate 80% of the world’s GDP, produce 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and house more than 50% of the world’s population. The agreement's ultimate success will depend on local leadership.  

This is a good thing for the world, because cities can move more nimbly than national governments to cut their own contributions to climate change and protect their populations from the changes already afoot. For the most part, mayors don’t need to be convinced of the threat of climate change—they see it coming and want to do something about it.

That’s why more than 400 mayors signed on to a compact in Paris, backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to measure their emissions and set reduction targets through a climate action plan. This essentially parallels the national process enshrined in the COP21 treaty, but at the local level. It also serves as a hedge against recalcitrant national governments: if they backslide, or a new party takes power and rejects the climate agreement, a decentralized network of cities will keep the process going.

These urban transformations require funding, and the Paris treaty put that front and center, in events and in the treaty itself. Bill Gates and a merry band of billionaires kicked off the Paris proceedings by announcing a major new investment for research and development for zero-carbon energy. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition will help new technologies make it through the “Valley of Death” that lies between a good idea and a market-ready product. Other sources of private finance for sustainable projects are growing too, like green bonds and catastrophe bonds.

The treaty says “developed country Parties should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels, noting the significant role of public funds” and that this “should represent a progression beyond previous efforts.” That directive isn’t as specific as it could have been. But it does mean rich countries will have to help poor ones get their economies greener and prepare for damaging climate effects.

The treaty also included a step forward in recognizing the loss and damage that climate change will inflict upon vulnerable cities and countries, in the form of sea level rise, superstorms, and desertification. The vague language stops short of saying developed countries, who have emitted the most carbon, are responsible for that loss, which means they won’t be legally required to compensate nations for the damage. Still, the inclusion of loss and damage amounts to a significant win for developing countries, says Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh and an adviser to the Least Developed Countries Group at COP21.

Of course, just having money isn’t enough. Cities need the expertise to invest that money in successful projects. That’s why the growing international collaboration among mayors is important, says Seth Schultz, director of research, measurement and planning at C40, a coalition of cities working on climate change. Unlike private companies competing with each other, or the occasionally tense relations between nation-states, mayors are already sharing what they’ve learned with each other so fellow cities can “leapfrog the successes and avoid the failures.”

As the point of origin for most of the world’s greenhouse gases, cities have a lot of work to do. Their successes so far have shown national governments what is possible, which helped pass the climate deal in Paris. But to avert catastrophic climate change, the momentum from Paris needs to carry new funding and energy back to cities, so they can drive the rapid progress needed before the next meeting of nations to update their reduction goals. As Huq writes in an email to CityLab, “Now comes the task of making it a reality and not just a symbolic goal.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar

    What a Trillion-Dollar Housing Pledge Looks Like

    Representative Ilhan Omar’s Homes for All Act would fund the construction of 12 million new homes in the U.S. over 10 years, mostly as public housing.  

  2. photo: An array of solar panels in Oakland, California.

    When Residents Support Solar—Just ‘Not in My Backyard’

    While the American public broadly favors expanding renewable energy, that support doesn’t always extend to the photovoltaic panels next door.

  3. photo: A Starship Technologies commercial delivery robot navigates a sidewalk.

    My Fight With a Sidewalk Robot

    A life-threatening encounter with AI technology convinced me that the needs of people with disabilities need to be engineered into our autonomous future.

  4. Life

    Talent May Be Shifting Away From Superstar Cities

    According to a new analysis, places away from the coasts in the Sunbelt and West are pulling ahead when it comes to attracting talented workers.

  5. photo: a digital advertising billboard on a car roof

    Car-Mounted Ads Take a New Direction: Data Collection

    A startup called Firefly puts sensor-equipped advertising screens on top of Uber and Lyft vehicles. Now they do more than marketing: They collect data.